Wednesday, June 15, 2011
This regular, who is Asian, went on to tell me about two African-American women on the show who, in the process of trying to correctly answer these trivia questions and save their car, mistakenly identified Africa as a country. He then paused and gave me an expectant look. I didn't engage until he started saying, "Come on! How do they not know . . . " and at that point I decided I was beyond silence. 98% of the time I am silent at my job when people say blatantly racist and classist shit. People come in to drink beer and eat sandwiches, not to hear my take on everything. It is sadly a part of my job to just shut the hell up and let them be happy, even if that means they get to be offensive. (I struggle with this and internalize it and am constantly trying to figure out how to be and what to say and what to do when this kind of thing happens. But that's a whole other post.)
This time, I had to say something. This regular is a nice guy. He comes in often, is friendly and polite, is friends with other customers, and tips well. I appreciate him overall. So I couldn't let him just say what he was saying, or more specifically, believe what he was believing.
I grabbed his hand over the bar. "Look at me. My fellow person of color. My brother. Do NOT do this to other people of color. Do not." I went on to briefly state some points about access to education, systems that set up people of color and low-income people for "failure." Of course, these points are not easy to summarize in a few minutes, particularly when in the meantime one must pour pints of beer and make cappuccinos.
He seemed to be digesting some of what I was saying, but was still determined to hold on to his "rightness." He told me he grew up in South Central, implying that he knew what was what. I said, "So you know what I'm talking about." He went on to tell me another story about someone he knew when he was in the military, who grew up poor and black in the hood, and through hard work and perseverance got to be some high-level military official. (I decided to leave out my position on the military industrial complex at this point.) He wanted to use this person as an example of success through sheer will and determination.
I said, "I'm happy for that guy. I'm glad, when I hear stories like that, for the people in the stories. But I know for a fact that for every person who worked their ass off to get 'somewhere,' there are a ton more people who work their ass off to get 'nowhere.' They work their asses off just to barely survive. Capitalism, by design, makes it so that not everyone can have the same kind of success your friend did." It started to get busier. I suggested we continue the conversation over a beer sometime.
We know this to be true. The systems almost all of us live within make it so that a large percentage of people are doomed to be wage slaves, doomed to receive inferior education, doomed to be pushed out of our neighborhoods or countries, doomed to have easier access to Lay's potato chips and cheap booze than to organic food and health care. Of course, we have our beautiful acts of resistance and community building and resource sharing and caring for one another, and we know we must laugh and make art and music and dance in the meantime. But we can't let one another continue on thinking that, under these systems, if we just TRY hard enough, we'll make it to the top. That's just not the way the guys in charge have set this up.
I might've gotten a doom-n-gloomy there for a minute, but allow me to tell you where my mind wandered later that evening: to every day heroes. Not the military guy with the stripes on his epaulets and the important-sounding title. I was thinking of people who may be on the relatively low rungs of the economic ladder but are on the higher rungs of the awesomeness ladder. People who share their wisdom and love and support freely, who inspire others around them to act with kindness and to love themselves. I was really happy, then, a couple of days later, to see this blog post by Brandon Lacy Campos, as part of a series celebrating Everyday Heroes. The person he chose to write about is someone I know and love. He's not one of my best friends or someone I've known for very long, but he's a glowing example of the kind of person who inspires to me live a beautiful life and be kind to others (regardless of how much stuff I have or how much I make.)
I'm sure I'm going to keep having these difficult conversations, every once in a blue moon, when I think it won't fall on deaf ears. It'll be my one little way of letting the real me shine through at my job. Will you be having conversations like this, too?