I’m sure that every black American can tell you about the first time they encountered real, grown-up racism. Grown-up racism is different than the run-of-the-mill n-word enthusiastically yelled from the window of a passing car, or being followed through a store by the occasional overzealous security guard determined to catch you in the act of theft. Grown-up racism is the kind of racism that you experience in the workforce, during a traffic stop, or at the desk of a loan officer when you’re seeking approval for a mortgage.
Grown-up racism is more than an inconvenience or annoyance. It can have a significant impact your life.
The first time I encountered this particular brand of racism was at my first full-time job. The job itself, delivering auto parts, was nothing to brag about, but it allowed me to buy my first car and masquerade as an adult for a few weeks out of every month, which was enough for me at the time. We were a small store, with no more than 5 other employees in the building, including my manager, an old high school friend of my father’s. In the three and a half years that I worked there, only one other black person was hired.
My first experience with racism on the job involved my appearance. I’ll be honest with you—at the time, I was 19 or 20 years old and in a very relaxed work environment, so most of the time my work uniform didn’t look exactly as it would in the company handbook. Nobody that I ever worked with during my three and a half years at this store could’ve claimed that honor. My shirt should’ve been tucked, my pants should’ve been an inch or two higher, maybe my sneakers should’ve been tied a little tighter. None of this was ever an issue, until the day that it was.
On that day, my boss was in a horrible mood. This wasn’t uncommon, and we all knew just to avoid him until he managed to blow off some steam. I wasn’t so lucky, or I wouldn’t be telling this story. At some point in the day, something about my uniform set him off. He stopped me in the middle of the store and said, “tuck your shirt in, pull up your pants, and buckle your shoes. This is a business, not the f****ing ‘hood.”
Yes, you read that right.
Now that I’m an adult, I know that there were all sorts of different ways to properly handle this situation. I could have called human resources or filed a complaint with the EEOC. I could have contacted his boss. I could have even pursued legal action. But at 19, admittedly with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, I just lashed out. I yelled and cursed until he offered what I thought was a sincere apology. At the time, I saw that as a victory. I had received an apology and half of a day off of work. What more could I ask for, right?
I’m sure you can imagine what the next year or two working there was like. He said other racist things (including calling a customer the n-word in front of me), we had other arguments, and I was “randomly” drug tested multiple times a year – which never resulted in a positive test, might I add – until I was eventually fired unfairly. There isn’t a happy ending. I was unfairly targeted by a racist boss, and in the end it cost me my job.
And before you even say it: yes, it is entirely possible that my boss could have been acting mostly in good faith and simply fired me because I was an employee who didn’t tuck my shirt in, and yelled back at him, and occasionally showed up late.
But that’s the thing about grown up racism. It is just sneaky enough that it often leaves you looking over your shoulder, thinking, “was that just…? Did he just…?” And for a lot of reasonable folks, a guy that occasionally yells the n-word or talks about me being from “the ‘hood” just doesn’t provide evidence enough that he could be racist—we don’t know what’s in his heart, am I right? (This is sarcasm. We do. We totally do.)
“Grown-up” racism isn’t about being insulted at work, it’s having someone with the power to harm you professionally choose to do so because of the color of your skin. It’s not something that goes away if you win an argument or scream louder than the other person. And it’s often masked so that the other person may not even realize—or at least admit—that their deep, buried prejudice is making them act poorly.
So what about you guys: Have you ever been a witness to, or a victim of, grown-up racism? Have you ever perpetrated it? How could I have handled things differently?
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on racism from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.