Friday, January 05, 2007

A Noose in the Workplace

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Workers at a cable installing company receive a symbol of oppression as their holiday bonus:

When [employee James Jackson] walked to the fenced-off area to pick up equipment for the day's jobs he looked up and was shocked to see a vicious, racist symbol in his workplace. A noose was hanging in the fenced-off equipment area, visible to the dozens of installers, the majority of whom are black, but accessible only to his boss and an equipment manager, both of whom are white.

Given the title of the CNN article, "Employees find noose hanging at work", one would conclude that the incident simply ends there, with a noose being found, and a quick removal of the item carried out with feigned anger and disgust to show respect to the company's targeted work force. Even THAT would be awful enough, but if this were the case, maybe one could ignore the case for, y'know, rampant internalized racism in today's society and how it bars equal opportunity for all, and blame it simply on a few bad kids, as the argument is constantly made by the illogical many. That'd still be wrong, but at least it's common, and we're used to it.

Well guess what? The story doesn't end there.

When employees confronted their managers, their complaints were first ignored, then met with jokes about what the noose would be used for, and finally acted upon one whole week later.

Installer Shomari Houston, according to the complaint, says he asked his white boss, Gary Murdock, why a hangman's noose was in his workplace. He says the response was: To hang two black employees.

"He said, 'Yo, I like that, it's cool, I am gonna hang Russell up there. Think we can get James up there?'"

That's quite the precarious method of staff appreciation.

Regardless of how "tongue in cheek" the bosses think they were being, stooping to such base levels for the sake of a joke casts an undeniably foul stench on the entire organization.

Needless to say, this is not how a supervisor ought to treat an employee, if it is the supervisor’s intent to encourage a strong work ethic in the group. Jokes of this derogatory nature are debilitating to workers, because they viscerally target emotions and fears that are representative of a larger picture of oppression in our society. Workers cannot work at full potential if the environment in which they are to spend a majority of their waking life harbors those who play on these intrinsic fears in seemingly good faith, such as with a noose that invokes notions of racial supremacy.

Subsequently, working at lower output in comparison to other non-Black coworkers gives the managers reason to consider replacing workers, reject raises or employment advances, and may also compound other stereotypes they may have regarding the work ethic of a certain racial group, i.e. “Black folks do less work than White folks”. These “tongue in cheek” phrases can ruin lives.

But they were totally joking, so it’s A-OK.

This type of language is also representative of just how little awareness some of us have about the conditions that certain groups of people face. Do the managers understand that their jokes were debilitating and why this is so? Does the company perchance need to have a little training seminar on what White privilege and dominant and subordinated groups are? Surely this misunderstanding, at least, could be rectified with better diversity training for all employees, managers definitely included.

Finally, the initial incident and the company’s response to criticism are truly disgusting as we see a perpetuation in the media of the idea that words are just words, and can only mean what one’s intentions are. However, the differences between one’s intent versus one’s impact can be incredible; everyone looks at life through different lenses. Wouldn’t all these differing perspectives guarantee a discrepancy in what we each observe in a given situation? If my intent were to grab a book from a friend but my impact was elbowing said friend in the eye, what should I do next? Ignore his pain and justify it by saying my intent was honest?

But they were saying these horrible things with the intent of coming off as humorous, so it’s A-OK.

The defense attorney also uses a common generalization at further attempts to rectify the charges against the management:

Willie, Gertler stresses, is no racist. "My client's first marriage for 17 years was to an African-American woman. So I don't think he's racist."

One person cannot logically represent an entire community. I am a man yet I can’t speak on what all men like. If I were to date a woman that liked to knit, that wouldn’t implicate me with having a strong desire for women who can knit. Instead, there could be any number of reasons for why I was dating that woman. Willie could have had 10 successful marriages with 10 different women, all of different ethnicities, but none of those women will ever represent their racial groups. Willie could still think of Black folks as inferior while loving his Black wife, just as having a Black friend doesn’t preclude racist underpinnings. Generalizations are never logical.

But “if you’ve seen one Black person, you’ve seen them all!” so they’re A-OK.

Typical racist banter.

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