To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Here is a thoughtful and interesting blog post. It's about what to do when people who you think should be on your side fail you - and who hasn't had that happen, on a national-politician scale, right on down to close family members - but also there is a list of ways to act when you've hurt someone's feelings through unthinking racism, sexism, whateverism. It's actually just a list of ways to act when you're having a conversation with someone whose experiences you don't share, starting with opening your ears and closing your mouth.

Frequently I read blogs written by people with whose politics I don't agree. I run across posts that have me rolling my eyes, of course, and I run across posts that cause me to think new thoughts, which is a major reason why I read those. I also run across posts that I think make excellent points, independently of any political content.

I think that in some ways white women make a bridge for privilege/non-privilege. Perhaps especially white women who were raised in the south and expected to be ladylike and not make waves. You can achieve, but you aren't supposed to make a big show or a spectacle of yourself. But in the workplace, achieving frequently isn't enough. You have to put yourself forward, even if it feels immodest or audacious or inappropriate or uncomfortable, and it's probably hard for certain segments of the population to understand that somebody could ever feel that way, let alone anticipate it, empathize, or know what to do about it.

I remember when we terminated the coworker I've written about before. He left a spot in the chemist rank, which we wanted to fill by promoting a black female technician named Libby. I'd worked with her while we were trying to save his job, and had discovered that she had chemist potential. Like most of our techs, she had a science degree, but more than that, she was very smart and curious and cared a lot about getting the job done right. But when I told Libby that the boss and I wanted her to apply for that job, she kept saying that she didn't want to do it. She didn't think she could do it, I thought, and I knew better. I kept encouraging her to put in for it, she kept not wanting to, and I finally told her - "you're doing the work, you might as well get the pay." That made sense, she applied, and we promoted her. (She turned out to be one of the most productive chemists we ever had, besides personality-wise being a pure delight to work with.)

All of the techs shared an office, sharing desks as people came and went on their shifts, but the chemists shared separate offices, two by two. The desk left by the man we terminated was in an office that he shared with another white male chemist, Randy. I told Libby to get her stuff and move into that desk, and once again, she held back. She would just stay with the techs - she would be more comfortable.

Now let me stop here and say that in a situation like this you have to be really almost a mind-reader. You can't bully people into leaving their comfort zone so far that they are stressed out and actually fail at what you're pushing them to do. On the other hand, some people have been trained to hold themselves back and if you care about them, you have to bust them out of that. One clue that I had was that Libby had told me that her mother had said she must major in education or social work - that "they" would never let her get anywhere with a degree in biology. She was surprised when we hired Libby on as a tech, and very surprised when we promoted her. "You be nice to those white folks," she told Libby, "they've been good to you." We aren't being nice, I told her, we promoted you because we thought you could do the job.

So I told her: "You have a chemist job. You get a chemist paycheck. You go to chemist meetings. You sit at a chemist desk. Get your stuff." She still didn't want to.

"Why not, for pete's sake?"

"Because Randy won't want me in there," she finally said.

"Why don't you think Randy will want you in there?" I asked.


"Is it because Randy's white? You're prejudiced against Randy because he's white?"

"I'm not prejudiced!" Libby protested.

"Then get your stuff!"

So Libby moved into that office, and of course she and Randy got on like a house afire. He's a very nice person, easy to get along with. I wouldn't have put her in an office where anyone would have been ugly to her.

Was I bullying her? Probably. I don't know what to do in situations like that except to think with my head, and feel with my heart, and act, and hope for the best. And, as the writer of the linked blog post says, educate myself as much as possible as to how other people's experiences affect them, not expecting other people to be like me. Ignore the buzzwords that tell me I've left my comfort zone of political thought that I agree with, and have an open mind about stuff. It's not easy but you have to do it to be a righteous person, I reckon.


class-factotum said...

I've read interviews with people in the military who've had similar experiences to Libby's: women and minorities forced into leadership positions by their superior officers who have discovered that they indeed can achieve more than their families told them they could. It takes someone else believing in them.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

It's one of the old-timey excuses for segregation and for keeping black people (or women) in low-level positions: that "they" like it that way, "they" are more comfortable with their own kind, etc. Well, if true, that's just one more problem, isn't it?