Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Minefield We Walk Through

October 28, 2007

I'm the first to admit that I don't read things as accurately as I should all the time. I've been flat-out wrong about many things in my life. But all of us are guided by that "little voice" inside our head. Whether we choose to listen to it or not is another thing.

The other day I was in my company's small kitchen with three other women. We all work in cubicles throughout the day, so it feels different when you're actually grouped together with one or more people at the same time. Such times allow for a little playful interaction with each other, something to break up the monotony of the day.

It was lunchtime, and I had to leave to run some errands during my break, so I was trying to nuke my lunch, a soft burrito from WallyWorld, before I set out on my trip. Every minute counted, as I don't like to be late when clocking back in after lunch is over.

Out of the three women in the kitchenette with me, two of them were ahead of me for the sole microwave we have there. One was finishing warming up her meal, then the next one, I'll call her 'Jane', had to cook hers, then I would be next. The third woman was behind me in order.

While we were all standing there, the women started to joke with me about how they were not going to be "bumped" out of rotation for their meal, and I'd better get used to it, etc, etc. I was joking right back with them, enjoying the light banter for once. My job is such that I deal with angry, exasperated women on the phone all day, and for there to be a conversation that doesn't start with an upset tone is really a momentary blessing for me.

"Oh, I know better than to jump in line in front of you guys. I've heard you're really cutthroat about that stuff!", I jokingly replied. Two of the women were immediately laughing with me and going along with the joke, adding things like, "That's right, you better watch it", or, "Umm-hmm", and the like. But Jane's tone changed slightly when she chimed in on the lighthearted banter. "What do you mean "you guys"?"

It just so happened that out of the three women, two of them were African American. Jane was one of them.

Let me say right now that I am 40 years old, and I have been around the block a few times. I don't look for things to separate myself from others, as I've spent my life seeing the things that make us all similar to each other. As a white male, being raised in America right after the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 were passed, I think it fair to say that I've "seen the light" when it comes to race relations. We all are overwhelmingly deluged with cultural messages which seek to continually portray my white race, particularly Southern White Males, as having "a lot further to go" when it comes to treating African Americans as equals.

It doesn't matter to the race-baiters that I was raised in a family where the 'n-word' was NEVER used. It also doesn't matter to those who see a racially-bigoted component in all facets of American life that as a young adult, I've promoted and advanced African Americans in every station of life in which I've been in a managerial position to do so. To those that are prejudiced against my race, I still am in need of being "taught a lesson" about race. I get the message, and have had to quietly deal with it my entire life.

So, when "Jane" made the exclamation about, "What do you mean, "you guys"", my internal radar immediately went off, assessing her accusatory tone. I was hoping I was wrong, frankly, in hearing what I thought I might be hearing. I have had a great relationship with "Jane" up until now, but her tone and quickness with that remark were almost unmistakable to this man of many years.

I jovially replied, without missing a beat, "Well, I mean 'you guys' who work up here with me". Jane then said back to me, "You cleaned that one up really well". Her tone was slightly less joking at this point, and it seemed to say, 'You may have gotten that one by me now, but I'm watching you'. But what, indeed, did I "clean up"? When I said, "…you guys who work up here with me", how could anyone see that as being 'cleaned up', unless a person was seeing an implied insult by referring to a group of people in my immediate vicinity as 'you guys'?

Now, I hope I've misinterpreted her implications. Like I said above, I'm guilty of misreading things in life occasionally. Some of us are plagued with a sensitive antennae, and have to always be on guard for reading "too much" into signs from people. I mean, after all, Jane could have been angling for me to say, "You women" is what I had really meant, and then the little room would have erupted into a lot of anti-woman, sexist kind of accusations instead of the racist element that ended up just hanging in the air, unclear and unrefined.

I know what I meant, and it wasn't either sexist or racist. It was just a joke that I was going along with from them in the first place. But of course, as a White Southern Male in this modern world, I don't get the luxury of defining what I mean when I talk. It's all in the mind of the minority, these days.

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