Wednesday, July 8, 2009

treat working people of color like they're less than human

This is a guest post by Angry Black-White Girl. She's based in Oakland, California and runs an eponymous blog (where this post also appears). About herself, Angry Black-White Girl writes that she's "Clean and articulate. Young, hip and belligerent. I am Black, Lebanese, Hungarian and queer as a three dollar bill." She started blogging "primarily to call out racism and to center the experiences of women and queer people color with a focus on the personal, the political and the absurd."

An episode in white privilege

Lately, few events in my life have merited an internet ranting sesh. However, today provided an exception.

I was waiting for a commuter rail to take me from Boston back to suburbs, with a number of drunken Red Sox fans. My people. One girl, who I read as white and about my age, had taken a broom from the janitor's closet and was using it to sweep the platform. Her friends and family appeared to be egging her on as she got up in waiting passengers' space to sweep by our feet. Eventually the janitor came to collect his broom, but she refused to give it back. In a turn of events that struck me as bizarre, two separate groups of people, one which appeared to be related to her and one that didn't, came to her defense, claiming that the broom was hers, when they knew otherwise. "She's doing a good job," they said," why don't you just let her sweep?"

That's where things started to get ugly. "I work for my money," she said, still sweeping. Then, loud enough for him to hear, "I take care of my kids", thus implying that he, a working class man of color, did not take care of his kids. In front of a platform of spectators she had stolen his supplies, refused to give them back and humiliated him. I can't explain how I know that this situation would not have been allowed to carry on for so long if she had not been white and he had not been a man of color, but I know that is why he could not simply take the broom back from her, but stood outside her circle of friends of family and patiently gestured that he needed his broom back. When his polite attempts failed, he went upstairs to get his boss, a white man, who came down and said little more than, "Jose needs his broom back," and then gently took it out of her hands, meeting little resistance from her or the crowd that had come to her defense.

On the train home, she started ranting about how that job should belong to an "American" anyway (as if she could have known whether he was a citizen or not,) and that the janitor should be deported. At this point, I moved to another car in the interest of her safety.


  1. *blank* that's so weird and RUDE... didn't anyone teach her MANNERS???

  2. smh....this is my wonder we get called "massholes"....

  3. Of course she thought nothing of demeaning the man everything in her existence encourages this kind of behaviour. What I found interesting is the fact that so many complain that bodies of color are a drain upon the system and yet when they are employed and are clearly productive members of their society, the white supremacist culture makes it difficult to sustain their efforts. How is it possible for a person of color to ever come out ahead when no matter what our efforts we are demeaned.

    I think I would have had to get off the train as well...Her entitlement and racism would have have made it hard to breathe.

  4. Wow. This is the kind of ignorance I can't stand. Can't wait till 2040.

  5. Not much to debate, analyze or say except ??????? ...That's pretty sad...

  6. Just curious: Why did you not do anything? Were you alone? (I can understand a woman alone not intervening in a shaky situation such as the one you described.) Were there not other people around whom you could have rallied around to help you to defend him? Was there no cop (it is their job to handle drunks) around whom you could have told what was going on to, so that he (or she) could stop the man being harassed by that woman?

    At this point, I moved to another car in the interest of her safety.

    Really, what would you have done to her if you had not moved? Or are you just joking here?

  7. Borderwatcher
    You should have told that girl that the beiring strait was in full efffect thousands of years ago that her potato eating ancestors were lucky enough to come to a country before 9/11

  8. I grew up in Boston and this incident is so typical of the pervasive racial tension there. Thanks for writing this.

  9. Yeah, this is infuriating....

    That's it. This is really damn infuriating.

  10. These are the double standards that infuriate me:
    If a Hispanic person is unemployed, we're a drain on American (i.e. white) taxpayer money...
    When a Hispanic is working, he's taking jobs away from Americans

    Hispanics working in low-skill manual labor, they're not making an effort to educate themselves, and/or they're a "low IQ" group...
    Hispanic employed in skilled, professional work, they most likely got the job via affirmative action

    (Slightly on a tangent)
    If they speak Spanish regularly and are soccer fans, they're not assimilating enough...
    If they speak in flawless American English and follow mainstream trends, they're told to stop trying to "pose as white"

    There's really no way to please some people.

  11. Interesting story. I think, people see what they want to see. What if the janitor let her sweep, what if the the spectators ignored her... Without any attention she might have got bored and given the broom back to the man who then would have continued on his work.

    Sometimes people just want attention, and the wrong attention can perpetuate a situation which could have be averted.

  12. 2nds Ramiro on his comment about how hard it is to please some people.

    While I see the point Macon is making about the roll of racism in this incident, I'd also like to point out that the way we're reading this is based at least a little on class.

    Based on her comments it is likely that the woman does some sort of cleaning oriented or janitorial work. The framework that ramiro laid out for the response white people have to Hispanics doing manual labor can just as easily be flipped and applied to women (both white women and women of color) who work in "low skill" jobs.

    These women get no respect, both because of the work they do, and because of their gender. They are up against assumptions about the kind of work women should be doing, assumptions that correlate femininity with class standing, and assumptions about the types of women who work in low-skill jobs (she must not be smart, she must not be educated, she probably had kids too young etc).

    There is a cult of nostalgia built up around white dudes who do manual labor (see the entire bruce springsteen houvre), and there is an awareness of the discrimination faced by men of color who do this kind of work, while women fall into the cracks.

    I saw this as a story of some woman who was clearly having some sort of emotional disturbance, who feels like she gets no respect for the hard work she puts into feeding her family and doing her job well, and who does hold some pretty embarrassing and bigoted views of hispanics, views crafted by a media and a certain segment of the polity that prey on her resentment and her disenfranchisement in the culture at large. She seized upon a need to clean up that deck, for whatever reason, she humiliated that man in public because she felt ashamed, for herself, and she didn't let go until someone in a position of power told her to.

    I know this probably sounds dumb of over thought, or like a cop out. But I like adding in that extra level of complexity, and looking into the sources of white populist anger among the working poor and examining how to address them in a non-condescending way is going to be important as the economy continues to slide into the crapper, and the Ron Paul's and Sarah Palin's of the world begin to try and form a movement based on it.

  13. I don't think there's any way her behavior is excusable -- what an ignorant woman. I honestly don't know what I would've said or done because I never come across people saying such blatantly racist shit here, unless they're literally crazy, or extremely inebriated or something. It's beyond rude.

  14. wow. i thought i was completely desensitized and then i read this. i am not shocked that there are people who have thoughts like hers--not one bit, but what does surprise me is that she feels it's OK to publicly display them. i mean...really? she could at least pretend to not be a horribly racist person. and i am also saddened by the people who egged her on.

    and while i completely understand you not saying anything if you were the only poc amidst everyone else, i kind of wish you and the (few?) other sane folks around could've been like "come again?" but, if i'm going to be completely honest, i probably would've done the same as you in that sitation.


  15. Nah, somebody who knew better should have said something.

    Moving to another car was lame, sorry.

    She's a racist and she's using her racism to hurt others. I would have had to say something, eff it.

  16. By no one saying anything to challenge her, her behavior was encouraged.

    @ramiro I think the situation you are describing is not really a catch-22. At least in my experience, people of color who "assimilate" are not accused of being too white by _white_ people, they're accused of being too white by their fellow people of color. This is as just as much of a problem as the stupid ish that white people sometimes say, but doesn't get discussed as much--because nobody wants to look bad.

    I do also agree with Jules that this could have something to do with class, because (from the way I'm reading it,) she took the broom out without even knowing the race of the person it belonged to. I doubt she would have done something similar with a doctor's stethoscope.

    Finally, I took the "I take care of my kids" comment as a direct reference to the famous "2 kinds of black people" Chris Rock standup routine. I'm guessing she watched it and laughed (along with millions of people of all colors) and is now bringing it back in an unfortunate and demeaning way. Which begs the question: Was it presented in some other way by Mr. Rock the first time around?

  17. First, I had to read this post twice, as it was unclear to me if the woman in question was actually another employee. However, I now understand.

    Second, why is it that people, especially White people, always try to reduce situation with clear racial overtones into a conversation re: class? Yes,
    This is *not* about a woman, or about White lower middle class people. This is about a White female (yes, White women exercise White privilege, whether they like to acknowledge this fact or not) who blatantly exercised her White privilege against a man of color, not only in the ways already described, but also implied via her actions that he wasn't doing his job, because, of course, people of color are incompetent.

    So, Jules, I don't appreciate your attempt to alter the tenor of the post. It is about race. As a White person, she said and did all the things which expressed how she thought she was "better".

  18. Ah Red sox Fans, the bane of my existence. We used to live in Somerville, my wife had taken me out for dinner for my birthday, and the sox had won the World series. So the square was full of people not from Somerville (Somerville is pretty chill)Walking down the stree, I got a couple of Red Sox townies who took exception to the fact that I'm black and my wife is white. They hurled the N word at me and challenged me to a fight (which I declined, as getting pummeled by the 2 assholes and their friends didn't sound like a great way to end my birthday).

    In Boston, if you are black, avoid gangs of white drunk people, especially if they're Red Sox fans.

    So that's my memory of the night the Red Sox finally won the World Series.

  19. I am not sure it is racism as much as outright bitchiness. Add to that an demure to authority (the boss). We don't really know that it is actual racism here.

    If it was, it should naturally be abhorred. But assuming something is racist is just as bad as assuming something isn't.

  20. @missincognegro:

    But did she think she was better because of race or did she think she was better because of class? When she took the broom, she did not know the race of the man it belonged to. By the time it was discovered, there could be any number of reasons she didn't give it back. Yes, one is racism but one is also classism. I am positive classism is at least as big a problem in this country as racism. To dismiss it in this situation is just as bad as dismissing racism.

    Her final comments do really scream racist. Claiming he should be "deported" and assuming he is illegal is very racist. But her initial actions are unclear on motive.

  21. Disturbing and unfortunate. Appropriate and amazing that a broom is the symbolic centerpoint of this exchange. Frustrating.

  22. Hmmmm....this sounds kind of typical to me, the overt racism is always better than the covert racism, the kind that you have to put up with from a racist manager who will stop at nothing to sack you, looking for excuses when you can do the job with your eyes closed.

    Overt racism can be proven. this girl presented to be a racist with her final parting comments.

    Now, when is the janitor going to sue? I take it there was CCTV recording all this? To me, this is most definitely 1) stealing and 2) harassment.

    That girl was very rude and uncouth and she really needed to be told off.

    I am sure she wouldn't have behaved in the same manner without the friends to egg her on. Funny how people tend to misbehave and show-off when they have an audience and the back-up from friends and family who are too dumb to know any better.

    I remember once upon a time being on a bus when a group started out making trouble and passing rude comments in a slightly similar way (they had been drinking)....Of course, with my temperament I told them off immediately and they shut their mouths after that.

    Sometimes bullies need to be told!

  23. Speedolini5
    I admire your writing and willingness to share this sick situation. I am not sure how you had the self control to not go balistic. I would have. My class and I are reading_privilege, Power,and Difference_ and I am going to share your relevant experience with them. Thanks again. And come back to Oakland ASAP. we need your brilliance.


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