I almost entitled this piece “I Suspect that I Have Benefitted from Racism in the Workplace.” But upon further reflection, I gotta say I’m sure.
I have two stories that I’ve filed under the “suspicious” category for decades. They are from early on in my career and life, and although it’s difficult to say how or if they correlated to any success I may have had since, I can certainly say that being on converse side of the experience — if, for example, I had been a black woman to whom these things did not happen, rather than a white woman to whom they did — would have been an astoundingly unjust and disgusting experience.
So here is my part in those stories.
When I was a senior in high school, I got a job at a fast food restaurant. I saw the help wanted sign out front, went inside, and asked the manager about it.
He seemed oddly grateful to see me, and he hired me immediately.
I worked there for several months, and made a lot of friends — not the least of which was the young, white, recently college-graduated manager who hired me. He, his wife, and I became friends, weekend troublemakers who would travel from college town to college town crashing fraternity and sorority parties.
We had fun. It was completely inappropriate for a working relationship, but it was a lot of fun.
It’s also a fact that he and I were the only white people working there.
One of the great joys of working in the food service industry is what’s called “closing” a shift. It basically just means you get to stay the longest and do all the worst jobs once the closed sign is lit. For late-night fast-food chains, this often means into the wee morning hours.
One of the most joyous closing duties is the “sweepandmop.” Since I was raised by a single mom who worked full-time and finished up her nursing degree while I was in middle/high school, there were many a domestic chore that I had to learn outside my own home. Cooking was one — I learned that at another restaurant I worked in just after college — and sweeping and mopping were another. I had never actually done either until I worked in that fast-food restaurant.
Whenever I tried sweeping, it seemed to me that the broom worked differently than it did for other people. I would watch them closely, eager to know how they bent the broom’s bristles to their will, getting into the floor seams and crevices that easily conquered and confounded me. How they took the shortest, quickest, strongest strokes possible all the way from one side of the long narrow kitchen to the other, leaving not a speck of dirt in their wake. Whereas when I made the same attempt, I would turn around and see a trail of bread crumbs leading directly to my incompetencies, as if I had only stirred up and angered the dust and dirt that lay hidden and well behaved until I got there.
It might sound silly to hear someone lament a lack of a domestic chore. But although I’m not exactly grandmother age, I did grow up in the south in another generation. These types of skills, those that girls usually learn at their mother’s or grandmother’s knee, with or without threat of violence to our person if we didn’t do a damn good job, still carried — for women, at least — a certain amount of cachet along with them. It’s dumb, in hindsight, that I envied someone’s ability with a broom. But there it was; and, at the time, envy it I did.
One night as we were “closing,” the manager — now friend — who had hired me asked me if I minded doing the sweepandmop. I cringed; of course I minded, I wasn’t nearly as good at it as every single other person who worked there. But I also wasn’t raised to be a complainer — in fact, I was raised to be downright agreeable — so I agreed. But then Tom went on, “I just can’t stand the way it looks after the other girls get done with the sweepandmop. It always looks like shit. Every time. Lazy bitches.”
I remember feeling so confused. Was I wrong, just not feeling confident in my abilities? Was he seeing something I wasn’t? Was I being too hard on myself? After all, here was my manager, my peer — my friend — telling me I was better than a coworker at something. That had credibility…didn’t it?
I was confused why he thought something that was so glaringly false.
The absolute only reason I can come up with is that his previously unspoken biases — whether they were conscious or unconscious — were making themselves known. With 20+ years of hindsight, that seems to be the absolute only explanation I can muster.
When I was about 20, I was home for the summer between years of college. I had worked for a temp agency before, slogging through backlogged accounting books in business offices or answering phones in reception areas. But this summer, the only work the temp agency had for me was on an assembly line, screwing the teeny tiny caps onto the teeny tiny Bath & Bodyworks antibacterial soap bottles.
For 10 hours a day, five days a week.
The place did smell nice, but that was its one upside. It was a cavernous warehouse space in an area of town that we had always been told to avoid growing up. The assembly line itself looked pretty much like what you’re thinking: stools with no back support at all (forget about the oft-neglected lumbar region; these scrawny things left your legs hanging so that your thighs quickly fell asleep and there was nothing to rest your back on in any way at all — ergonomically nightmarish), conveyor belts underneath massive exposed industrial machinery; and grease-stained concrete floors.
The conveyor belt ran endlessly underneath a separate whole mechanical arm system that aligned its tubes above to the plastic bottle holders on the conveyor below. The overhead mechanism consisted of tubes suspended from a massively complex machine that lowered and raised, squeezing a pre-programmed about of hand sanitizer from the tube and then raised itself again while the conveyor ticked over the exact distance for the next group of bottles to be filled. On and on, day in and day out, ad infinitum.
At least I had a stool; some jobs required standing on those concrete floors for 10, 12, or more hours per day. The pay, for me, was minimum wage through the temp agency. It was the late nineties, and I want to say that minimum wage was around $5.00 per hour. I heard rumors that others who had more permanent positions beside me on the assembly lines made as much as $7.50, plus medical and a pension.
To say it was miserable is decidedly an understatement. It deadened the insides. It softened the mind. It crushed the soul.
And there were people there who had done it for decades.
I petitioned that temp agency for new placement about every other day. “Any other openings?” They finally told me to not get my hopes up, that their client listing had dropped off in recent months. And then they awarded me “Employee of the Month” for putting up with the torture.
Another factor of this particular job you probably already guessed: there were very few other white people working there. In fact, I remember two: both of them male, one married and one not. (Neither of whom I had anything at all in common with, and both of whom hit on me relentlessly — but that’s an entirely different story.)
Not only was the job itself miserable, I personally was a disaster at it. Ever see that episode of I Love Lucy, where she and Ethel worked at the chocolate factory? Yep. Pretty much. I would get behind and mess up the whole line of workers ahead of me, who had to screw the caps on that I’d placed, and the one after that who removed the cap-screwed bottles from the end of the line, and the next who placed them in cardboard boxes, carefully positioned for maximum capacity. The supervisor would come down the aisle yelling. “Heather!! How many times I gotta tell you to pick up the pace, girl? This whole damn line is waiting on YOU.”
One day, I started getting behind and freaked out — and I happened to be sitting right next to the emergency shutoff switch.
So I used it.
The conveyor belt slammed to a halt, knocking over the 50 or so plastic bottles waiting to be filled, and the 50 or so already filled all glopped out onto the floor. Everyone on the line jumped, yelled, and dropped their handfuls of plastic caps or their newly filled bottles to the floor, where they scattered and rolled across the slick, uneven concrete to hell and breakfast.
Another time, there was a bottle sitting crooked or something. I reached into the massive machinery to straighten it, and nanoseconds after removing my hand the overhead arm slammed down with all its force. It missed my hand by fractions of a centimeter. If I had been a half-second slower to remove my hand, the machine would have done it for me.
These were only some of the foibles of my unending summer working the Bath & Bodyworks factory, and there were many times I made a complete ass of myself. (And they awarded me “Employee of the Month” for my ridiculous behavior.)
It was also tough to fit in with the other coworkers. I would attempt to make small talk, chit chat, asking mindless questions and making off-the-cuff comments. I got a lot of side-eye. I got shifty responses, “What do you mean you like my outfit? What are you trying to say? You’re up to something.” So I eventually gave up, and started counting the number of Steve Martin movies in my head. The titles of Stephen King books. The number of times someone yelled at me for fucking up. I tried to remember and memorize the names of my upcoming professors, my schedule, my course load. Anything to keep my mind off the increasing twinge in my wrists from bottle-cap twisting.
Finally, the day came when I handed in my two weeks’ notice. Joy! Jubilation! The angels serenaded and the cosmos wept — I was heading back to school.
Stephanie, one of the many supervisors I had pissed off with my incompetence all summer long, called me up on the phone one day.
“Heather, I gotta say it’s been a real pleasure working with you this summer. You’re a good worker, and we hate to lose you.”
“Um, thanks, Stephanie.” Not only was I utterly confused, I also couldn’t bring myself to return the sentiment.
“That’s why we wanna offer you a supervisor position. Full-time, $9 an hour, over-time guaranteed every week, medical and a pension. What do you say?”
I was honestly floored. What do I say? I couldn’t very well say “Fuck, no” that was my instinctive reaction. Stephanie was being so nice, and her compliments felt completely sincere. Should I point out that “guaranteed overtime every week” was not exactly a perk…? No, that didn’t seem right either. How about the fact that I sucked at this job and made life hell for a lot of other people?
What the hell was going on??
I turned her down, as politely and gratefully as I could. It really is very flattering to be offered a promotion — your ego can’t help but feel the pride of that. But, beyond the obvious lack of interest…what was she thinking?
This incident, flattering though it was, has baffled me for years. YEARS! And I finally have let myself wonder, and suspect, and eventually admit that… well, I was probably being offered something I didn’t deserve just because I’m white.
The other two white people at the job were supervisors.
The other people on the line with me had done their jobs competently year after year. Why weren’t they being made supervisors?
At the end of the day, this is all conjecture. I don’t know that others weren’t offered promotions. And I don’t know that Stephanie thought I was more competent than I was because I was white.
But, I do know that I was completely and totally in-fucking-competent. And that I’m white.
I don’t know how these two instances early in my job experience have played out for me or added to any success I might have had since then. But I do know that being told you’re good at something (even if you’re NOT) has a very specific, very positive effect on your mind, your confidence, and, from that perspective, ultimately on your abilities.
And if I were being disadvantaged because of my color, I also know that would have a detrimental, deleterious, negative — torturous, soul-crushing — effect on my abilities, too.