Harness Tribalism to Combat Racism (Part 2)

The first time is always a bummer. That first time somebody I’ve come to appreciate or respect says something racist in front of me, always creates a sense that we had one type of relationship before this event and will have a different relationship after it. As mentioned in part one, I realized at a young age that because of being light skinned, it was the announcement of being black that would initiate tension. However, my options are limited. I can announce it and deal with the consequences or I can not announce it and suffer in silence anytime somebody says something racist. So I usually tried to announce it. The problem is, when is the right time to make the announcement? Do I shake a hand and say hey, this is my name and this is my ethnicity? Of course not. So, I consciously wait for an opportune moment when the announcement fits the situation. This admittedly forces me to stereotype people I meet and assess the chances of them saying something racist. If it’s determined they’re a higher likelihood to say something, I often then feel the need to get out ahead of the comment that will most likely come. I’m not always correct. I’ve labeled people as not likely to say anything racist who in fact have. I’ve also initially suspected people to have a high chance at saying something who in turn have never said a racist remark in my presence. However, for the most part, over a quarter century of dealing with this has given me the tools to predict correctly with a high degree of accuracy. I’ve learned that if I suspect the worst in someone, the best course of action is to get ahead of it and make the announcement. This doesn’t always prevent future racism, but it decreases the chances. It also allows for that person to be the one who makes the announcement in the future, sometimes prior to my arrival, and sometimes during. A common occurrence is when I’m around a white person who knows I’m half black, and other white people who don’t know me are present, the person who knows me will go out of their way to announce my blackness. They work in a joke, or they often figure out a way to do it in a complementary manner, but they attempt to do it subtly and in a way not to peak my suspicion but to definitely put that alert out there that this guy’s not a full member of our tribe, so watch what you say. It’s not exactly ideal, but it’s something. At a minimum this shows they’re aware of the situation. This doesn’t mean that persons not racist. It means they don’t want racist things to be said in front of me, and then have to deal with it. The truth is, sometimes it’s people who harbor the most racist feelings that are the ones to make the alert, because they’re not protecting me and my feelings, they’re protecting the white person from saying something that won’t go over well. They’re protecting the image of someone in their tribe, because for many, it’s worse to be looked at as racist than to be racist. Racist or not, at least they attempt to prevent a negative interaction, and even if subliminal, they’re admitting that racism exists. Recognition is a preliminary step towards alleviation and for many, it’s the recognition that brings the most difficulty.

From April 2017 through December 2018, for twenty months, I drove a tow truck for a local company. The owner and I got along great. Apparently, for a long time, the owner had trouble finding somebody he could trust to get things done correctly. He found that in me. After a few months, I met his wife for the first time, and she pinched my cheeks and gave me a hug and thanked me for allowing her husband to finally take nights and weekends off without concern something bad would happen. The owner would let me use a company car whenever I wanted with no questions asked. He gave me a Christmas bonus larger than the ones he gave others. He took me to a Patriots game and wouldn’t let me spend a dollar. When I was walking out the door to go on vacation, he gave me another large bonus and told me how much he appreciated me, and then on top of that he stuck another thousand dollars in my shirt pocket and told me to hold it just in case I needed it and he ensured I had my company credit card in case of emergency. Had I been a bad worker, he probably would’ve been the same asshole to me as he was to others, but I earned his respect, and he reciprocated with kindness. For many reasons, this meant a lot. These acts of kindness were also what made it more difficult than usual for me to deal with the rampant racism from him and others around him.

The first incident wasn’t exactly blatant, but it certainly raised my awareness of what the future might bring. I was in the office, and the owner walked in visibly upset. He began complaining to his niece about a customer, and he mumbled to her, “That’s because he’s ….”, and he stopped, realizing there were customers in the office. Instead of saying anything, he just shook his head and groaned. His niece responded by telling him it wasn’t fair for him to say that because all types of people can cause headaches, and he walked out of the office. When they sent me a short time later to pick up the customers vehicle, the customer was a black man.

The next instance was the one that turned the tide. I mentioned earlier the feeling of reaching a point of no return when somebody I respect says something racist for the first time. While the first case left a tiny, miniscule, smidgen of doubt, this case left none. One Saturday morning, I was returning from a tow when I witnessed a car speed onto the highway from an onramp and hastily pull along side of me in an attempt to get my attention, which they didn’t realize they already had. I lowered the window and slowed down, and a Hispanic looking male was trying to get me to pull over, saying a rock had fallen off the truck and cracked his windshield. It was a scam. Not only had he never been behind me and had I witnessed him only seconds prior even enter the highway, rocks usually fall off dump trucks carrying dirt and not tow trucks hauling cars. I also carried a broom on the back of the truck and was adamant about sweeping off the flatbed after any tow which left visible debris. Lastly, I noticed the crack the man was pointing to, and it ran clean across the entire bottom of his windshield. Rocks don’t instantly cause cracks that clean and that long. If a rock doesn’t spiderweb the windshield, it will cause a small ding which will then take time to reach across the entirety of the glass. Taking all these facts into account, I chose not to pull over. Upon returning to the garage to turn in paperwork, another driver was there and told me he just gave some “Gook” the owners number because he called the office and was saying one of our trucks cracked his windshield. I asked if he meant a Hispanic guy. “Yeah. A Gook.”, he responded. I then had to explain to this white guy that he had his derogatory insults mixed up, and that people like him use that term to refer to people with Asian ancestry, not Hispanic or South American ancestry. Two minutes after that wonderful conversation, the owner walked in and asked what the deal was with that scumbag “Spic” that just called him. I told him what happened, and he agreed it was a scam. He then turned to the other driver and asked him how he had made out the night before with “that other nigger.” Three different racist phrases, used by a coworker and the owner, in a span of about 5 minutes. In my younger years, this would have been my final minutes working at this establishment, and there’s a good chance this encounter would’ve ended with a physical altercation. Luckily, I’ve grown. I said nothing. I finished my paperwork and went home angry. Upon conveying what occurred with my partner, we concluded that the best course was to stay, continue to work hard, and as I’ve done before with others, slowly go to work on changing the owners outlook.

The first step was making sure the owner knew I was half black, which upon hearing not just what he said prior but the vitriol with which he said it meant possibly risking my job. One of the reasons I hadn’t said anything that day, was because I knew doing so at that time, while I was angry and he clearly wasn’t in an accepting mood, could’ve ended terribly. Even if I had politely asked him to not use that language in front of me, and explained why, there’s a good chance his response wouldn’t have been appropriate. This means there was a good chance that encounter wouldn’t have ended peacefully, and I understood this at the time. Instead, I selectively leaked that I’m half black and that he had said some things I wished he hadn’t, to the two biggest gossipers in the company, his niece and his daughter, knowing it wouldn’t take long for that information to reach him. It did. However, it unfortunately didn’t make it to his wife.

Shortly after putting the leak out there, my partner and I went to have dinner at a local restaurant. Upon entering, the owner and his wife were sitting at the bar, so we joined, with the owner and myself sitting on the ends and the two women sitting in the middle. At some point that night, his wife began telling us a story about a night prior in which her husband had a few drinks and was acting as so. As she got into the story, I noticed the owner acting in a way I hadn’t seen from him before, and I figured it was just an embarrassing story, particularly for your wife to be telling somebody that works for you. He wasn’t laughing at all the parts we were laughing at and he would look at me and then quickly look away to the television in the corner of the room. It was abundantly clear he didn’t want her telling the story. As the story concluded, I realized why. As she told us he was acting like a jerk that night, she leaned in, laughed, and started to say, “Yeah, I was telling everyone that…” her husband nudged her a bit and gave her a stern look, causing her to stop and scan the room to see who was around. She got the hint from him, just not completely. She leaned in closer to my partner and I and whispered, “I gotta be careful, people get offended. But as I was saying, the joke from that night is I kept telling him he was acting like an N-word.” I looked at the owner and smiled. He glanced quick but then turned right back to the TV, clearly uncomfortable. I’ve seen that look many times. That’s when I knew the leak had reached him. 

There was also the Patriots game he invited me to. Upon him first asking, I initially lied to him and told him I thought my partner had plans for us. Why did I lie? I lied because by then, I was absolutely certain I wouldn’t be able to go to a game with him and his friends and not hear something racist. I ended up going. It took less than ten minutes into our ride for me to be proven correct. Upon arriving at the stadium to tailgate, it took about thirty minutes for me to be proven correct a second time. 

There was also another coworker, separate from the owner of the company or the one that couldn’t get his racist slurs correctly assigned. I’ve never let anyone get away with spewing so many racist comments, but I felt a deep sympathy for this person because I’d learned of the hardships he had experienced. He had lost both of his parents by his twentieth birthday. The owners daughter, who was close friends with him, told me there was a history of sexual abuse in his childhood. He then went into the military and deployed to Afghanistan, where he participated in extensive combat. I had never known anyone with severe PTSD until I worked with him. There was never a minute when he wasn’t full of emotion. He was always jumpy. He always assumed the worst, and he would constantly lose control of his emotions over seemingly simple, and often innocent happenings. He was always serious, constantly looking around with his fists clenched. But most of all, you could see it in his eyes. When you looked in his eyes, you could see there was a helpless monster inside, always an instant away from coming out. Full disclosure, these circumstances not only made me sympathetic to him, they made me fascinated by him. I never fully understood what PTSD was capable of until I met someone that had it in its most severe form, which he certainly does, so I struck a friendship with him in an attempt to both learn more and to see if I could in any way help him. 

But boy, did he love using the word nigger. He often, at least seven different times, used the word to explain how he wouldn’t be taken advantage of or pushed around. If the owner asked him to perform a task he didn’t want to, he would confide to me that he was “nobody’s nigger.” If a customer spoke to him in a way he didn’t like and he was telling the story he would say that they were talking to him “like he’s a nigger.” This was his modus operandi whenever he felt disrespected. The hope was that if I built a strong relationship with him and helped him through some issues, he would value my opinions and then I could discuss his racism with him. This process has helped me with others in the past. Eventually, the frequency of that rhetoric, combined with outright hypocrisy, reached a point where I could no longer wait. Nearly weekly, he would have a blowout fight with his girlfriend, and more or less be on suicide watch at work. After one such instance, he called me and asked if I’d be coming by the garage because he needed to talk, so I told him I’d make my way there shortly. Upon arrival, we began discussing what happened. When I asked what started the argument, he told me that his girlfriend was calling him racist and said she couldn’t date somebody like that. Holding back the urge to laugh in his face and say yeah no shit asshole, I calmly asked why she was calling him racist. His answer was that he had a problem with her sisters boyfriend being black, because, “Dude, you know how these niggers treat white bitches.” The irony of him attempting to be a protector of white women while referring to them as bitches shouldn’t be lost. But the larger irony is that I was aware that he himself was a habitual domestic violence offender, including only a year earlier having had punched his previous girlfriend in the face. She was white. He had also previously beat up his ex-wife, who was also white. So I told him that I was half black, I called him out for his obvious hypocrisy, and I laid into him, touching on not only those comments but all of the previous ones. Instead of the fist-fight I somewhat expected, he had tears in his eyes as he vehemently apologized. But he wasn’t apologizing because he was truly sorry. He was apologizing because he valued our conversations and the genuine attention I gave to his problems, and he didn’t want to lose that. How do I know? He went on to say nigger in front of me a mininum of three or four more times, each time launching into full apology almost as soon as the word left his mouth. Old habits die hard. 

But wait, there’s more. I towed a vehicle to the garage that had been in a serious accident. Upon arrival, the owner and a mechanic, who had just started at the company that day, came outside to observe the damage. I had yet to meet this mechanic, but as I watched all three-hundred plus pounds of him, complete with face and neck tattoos and a roaring mouth, my initial thoughts were that I was going to strongly dislike him. Not only was I wrong, but even though neither of us still work for this company, we keep in touch from time to time. We initially connected over baseball. On his toolbox, he had a picture of a much younger version of himself. He looked at least 100 pounds lighter, no visible tattoos, and had a Red Sox uniform on. To my surprise, he had played minor league ball as a catcher in the Red Sox organization. So we slowly established a relationship over passing conversations about what was happening over the course of that baseball season. 

As time passed, and he learned I was in the process of getting a degree in political science, he would occasionally attempt to ask me my thoughts on different political issues. I tried to steer clear of these conversations, because again, I was stereotyping him, and again, I was stereotyping him incorrectly. He started to work negative comments about Donald Trump into our conversations, but I was still skeptical. I knew he was a prankster, so I suspected him of trying to bait me into a conversation just to get me worked up. Over time, as we conversed more about an assortment of issues, I came to realize there was no baiting. He hated Trump. This opened up new avenues of conversation between us and our friendship grew. At one point, upon returning from a vacation in which I had met my biological father for the first time, I showed the mechanic a picture my father and I had taken together. He was shocked at how dark skinned my biological father is. “I know you said you were half black, but I didn’t think you were really half black.”, he joked. A few weeks later, we were once again talking baseball and he proceeded to tell me about a brawl his team had with another team while he was playing in the minor leagues. In doing so, he referred to one of his teammates as a “big ass nigger.” At last, there it was. Another person I had come to respect and enjoy the company of had let me down. Similar to the other coworker, and many others throughout my life, he apologized immediately before I said a word. “You know that’s not me bub.”, he insisted. And you know what, in a way he’s correct. That was more of a societal use of the word instead of a personal use of it. His use of the word in that way and at that moment, wasn’t intended to demean. In his mind, he wasn’t using it as an insult. In fact, he brought the guy into the conversation by first calling him his good friend and saying how funny he was. I believe he was using it similar to a way one black person might use it to refer to or embrace another black person. But it doesn’t matter. That word is not his, or any other white persons word to use, in any way, shape, or form. There’s too much pain and too much history behind that word for a white person to use it casually. If you’re white, and you use it, it’s racist, and you are on the racism spectrum. It doesn’t mean you are a hate filled, relentless, unabashed racist. It means you’ve fallen victim to the same trappings of society that many others have.

So that’s that. One job, twenty months, easily over a dozen brushes with racism. Had I delved into racist remarks made by customers or by workers at the other garages I towed customers vehicles to, you could add another handful of instances to this mix. The examples used run the gamut of the racism spectrum, from somewhat unwitting, to intentionally nasty. There’s the owner who clearly harbors deep racist feelings, but suppressed them in my presence once he learned my ethnicity. There’s the coworker who even after learning my ethnicity, and even having seen value in our relationship, could never get his racism under control. There’s the owner’s wife who couldn’t take a hint and thought it was hilarious that she had used the term on her husband. There’s the friend who somewhat thought he was using it as a term of endearment. If it feels as though it never ends, that’s because it doesn’t. Welcome to my life. 

Part 3 Now Available

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