Guest Post: Racism in the workplace
I bet the story I’m about to tell you isn’t what you think of when you hear the phrase “racism in the workplace.” But it absolutely was, and it has only occurred to me eight years later thinking about the harm I’ve unintentionally done as a white person in a racist society.
We try to be better than just “not racist.” We try to be “antiracist;” that is, fighting the very systems that our ancestors set up for us to benefit from. I didn’t think of my 90% white “gifted and talented” classrooms in high school as racist, but knowing that most Black students were tracked into lower-performing classes and the students of colour we did have were Black kids who’d worked twice as hard to be there and Asian kids suffering from the Model Minority stereotype, I see it now.
I see a lot of things now that I didn’t see at the time, and I could say it was because I was a kid, but it was because I was a white kid and I didn’t have to see it. I’m sure that Black and Asian kids in my school saw it. I went on to a private university to study psychology where, when I did a project on stereotypes, I could not find any stereotypes about Black students because there weren’t even enough of them for the white students to have a vague idea.
One of my first jobs working in the field of education, something I still believe can be reformed and redeemed (unlike, say, policing), was at a Montessori school in a very wealthy neighbourhood of NYC. Ironically, Montessori is a school of thought borne out of poverty and the idea that even poor children need to feel purposeful and like they contribute to society. It’s a rich buzzword now for fancy education. I was interviewed by a white lesbian couple who had just had twins, and were opening this school together after having worked in what they referred to as “rougher neighbourhoods.” Black neighbourhoods.
I remember specifically asking them how they justified educating this way, asking fees that would clearly be a barrier to even the comfortably middle-class. A year in the infant room cost almost as much as a year of my private university education. They understood, they said with a look of concern, and said that educating the children of the rich was really important because these are the kids who will grow up to write public policy and shape the future, and if we can instil empathy in them, we can make the next generation more equitable.
What can I say, I bought it. I needed a paycheque from a private school while I studied to be able to teach in public schools, which required a Master’s Degree. Teaching at the Montessori school didn’t require anything, really. You could go for a Montessori diploma if you wanted to be better paid, but I was busy with grad school, so I got $11.50 an hour to be one of two adults in a room of eight infants, making up justifications like “we’re getting them ready for Montessori principles by having specific pictures on the wall and no toys with batteries.”
One day I begged to be reassigned from the infant room because one of our little guys was really struggling when I fed him, and I knew it wasn’t a good fit for him. He’d spit the puree out and gag on his spoon, but when the other teacher tried, he’d eventually just swallow. My boss with the new twins said, “Ah, you don’t understand. You’re not a parent yet. He’s testing you, you see. You need to show him that you’re the boss. You need to keep feeding him even when he spits it out.”
I cried. I was so ashamed of how miserable this idea made me, how sensitive I was to see this as abuse. But it did feel like abuse, scooping the food back up and putting it in his mouth. Keeping the spoon in even when he gagged. I told her that I just couldn’t do that, and if she wanted someone to do that I could switch out with another teacher. So that’s what we did.
I told this story to a friend today and after reaching this part, suddenly realized: That little boy was the only Black child in our school.
It took me eight years to see that part of the story, to realize its importance, because I'm white.
“Resistance,” she called it. “You need to teach him who’s in charge,” she told me. I’m sure she’d say that she did the same feeding their babies, and that it had nothing to do with race. I’m sure they’d tell you they didn’t care whether he was green or purple, a phrase that still makes me grit my teeth. That child was Black and he needed respect.
They saw him as defiant, needing to be trained into compliance. He was six months old, and I felt guilty for not pushing him harder. For thinking of him as having feelings.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, as white people open their eyes to how racist systems are perpetuated BY US and not just as we watch with our hands tied, suddenly that story flies into sharp relief and I wonder: How many of us “well-meaning” white people have been asked to commit emotional, physical, verbal violence against people of colour as part of our jobs? How many of us saw it as violence? How many of us even bothered to notice the race of the people involved? How many of us would swear up and down that they treated everyone fairly?
Because saying it is one thing. But I didn’t see any white children in that entire school being labeled resistant or defiant. He’d be in grade three now. And I wonder how he’s doing.