Race and Gender

We Are All Complicit

None of us want to make waves, cause trouble, or draw unwanted attention to ourselves. It comes back to haunt us, sometimes.

Time for staff meeting. I sat down at the conference table next to Sam. I was the only woman on the team; Sam was a Black man. All the other members of our team were white men.

When it came time for Sam to present his reports, our manager, George, grabbed the projector cord and tossed it, just a little too hard, across the table to Sam. “Plug ‘er in,” he ordered. In the same breath, George furtively glanced at me and said, in exaggerated tone: “With apologies to the feminists in the room!” He laughed, as if he’d told a funny joke.

The rest of us looked at each other, confused. What was George blathering about? Feminists in the room? I was the only woman in the room, and I was lost. Who was he apologizing to, and for what?

I think Sam got it before anyone else did. Head down, he focused all his attention on connecting his PC to the projector.

“What are you talking about?” I finally asked.

George grinned and enunciated, “I said ‘plug her in’…”

I just looked at George like he was an idiot while half a dozen other men groaned imperceptibly and one face-palmed. All of them, with one exception, looked embarrassed to be men. Sam sat stoically at his PC, waiting to give his presentation. George looked smug.

We moved on. I should have said something to HR. But what, exactly? Is this what’s meant by a “micro-aggression”?

The first of our team to be laid off, of course, was Sam. George wasn’t comfortable with women or people of color — by that time, it was crystal clear. And George would have seen Sam — a Black man with a Masters degree — as more of a “threat” to his own authority, I imagine.

It’s not a clear and actionable violation of company policy. Little things creep up on you. You know — and you don’t know. You don’t have time to keep score. You have work to do.

Me? I toughed it out, determined to be “last man standing.” I did start looking at the job postings; for the first time in a long while, I couldn’t honestly say this was the “best place to work.” The company — the company was great, on the whole. Even so, I considered leaving. But that would be letting George win, and I’m stubborn. For a while, miserably so. But I suffered in stubborn, stoic silence.

I moved on. As they say, “Living well is the best revenge.” I moved into a different part of the organization, under a terrific manager, and soon thereafter, George was laid off. But in discussing this incident, years later, with friends and former colleagues — white, male colleagues — I realized something: We’re all complicit, when we bear witness to discrimination and stay silent — even if our reasons for staying silent are not “racist” or “sexist.” I should have said something. Not for me, but for the next woman, or the next person of color, who might have ended up working for George.

Sam should have reported George to HR, but he didn’t. I think we hang back, not wanting to be seen as “troublemakers.” And what, really, could he have said? That whole exchange was stupid; yet all of us knew what was really going on. I know that Sam has done better, professionally, since then. The real loss, when he was let go, was to the company we worked for.

I should have reported George to HR, but I didn’t. It seemed a silly, petty thing. I wasn’t going to let pissant George ruin my day, or my career. I wasn’t offended by the “plug her in” comment at all; projector connectors were referred to as “male” and “female” for reasons that don’t need explanations. What offended me was George’s awkward, passive-aggressive way of calling attention to the sexual innuendo of it, and the idea that I, a woman, was automatically the only “feminist” in the room to find his stupid little “joke” offensive.

The half-dozen white men — good men, all embarrassed, in that moment, to be white men — should have reported George to HR, but they didn’t. And they suffered for it; George brought one of them to tears, one day, several months later.

I took no pleasure in my friend’s pain. George had driven me to tears, once, too. Tears of frustration, mostly. I had once given him the satisfaction of making me cry, during a performance review — of letting him see me as the “weak” woman he thought I was. But when my male colleague confided in me, I knew that it wasn’t our weakness; George was just an awful manager who thrived on feeling power over others.

None of us were bad people. Except George. Even George wasn’t a horrible human being, in many ways; he worked hard, loved his family, was active in his church, and did volunteer work. I know, because I overheard his conversations several cubicles away. Often. How could any of us not know this? Someone should have reported him to HR.

I learned, long after I’d moved on, that someone had, once upon a time, reported him to HR. I don’t know who, or whether she was still around. I learned this from a Black woman, a colleague, a friend. She expressed remorse, to me, for not saying something, at the time — she knew that another woman, long before, had taken George to HR, and that there was something in his file saying that he should not be supervising female employees, due to previous complaints of sexual harassment. She should have said something to me. Or to HR. But she didn’t.

She even told me how she’d worried over it, for years. Talked to her husband about it. Finally, as the situation resolved itself, she felt relief. But also guilt. She apologized.

“It’s okay,” I told her. How could I be upset, or angry, or even disappointed in her — when I hadn’t said anything, either?

Writer and Kid-at-Heart, often found at https://jahangiri.us. Subscribe to my (free!) Newsletter: https://hollyjahangiri.substack.com

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