Confronting racial inequality in the workplace / by sylvia kronstadt
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|Tue, 08-27-2013 - 11:58am|
The black gentlewoman in the marble dungeon
Ever since I had arrived in this crazy, beautiful city, men had been buying me things, taking me places, putting me into cabs and slipping me twenties. But getting paid to pee? Could things possibly get any better?
Before I realized what was happening, she had glided to a toilet stall, apparently made some final preparations for my arrival, flushed the toilet, spritzed the air with that "Evening in Paris," scent and then stepped outside, motioning me in with a graceful bow.
I wasn't prepared for this. I was shocked, dismayed and embarrassed. I lacked the presence of mind to come up with a satisfactory way to confront this situation, in which I had been involuntarily cast in the role of a young, privileged Scarlett O'Hara, while a noble, older African-American lady was obliged to preside over my intimate bodily functions.
I felt uneasy and ashamed in that goddamned bathroom, and I felt trapped. I had, without my knowledge or consent, been essentially tricked -- as far as I was concerned -- into an interaction that I found repugnant.
"Tighten it good, Prissy! And hurry up -- Rhett hates it when I'm late." I had been thrust into another era, an era I probably knew more about than the average powder-room patron. My parents are from the South. They grew up in the Twenties, and were witness to unspeakable racism, which had been passed down through the generations. Unlike many of their relatives, they were determined not to perpetuate it.
"I don't mean to speak out of turn, ma'am, but I didn't get paid last week." It's not an exaggeration to say that I was forcefully indoctrinated in the opposite of racism. In addition to teaching me about equality, from the time I was a toddler, and about the absolute irrelevance of skin color, my parents gave me books to read about the horrors of slavery and the indignities and mortal fear of the "Jim Crow" era. These books contained narratives and pictures that vividly portrayed the brutality of racism (a true reign of terror) -- the auctions (tearing families apart), lynchings, castrations, burnings, whippings, brandings. The stunning "Black Like Me" also left an indelible impact. Along with a Time-Life volume about the Holocaust, these volumes remained the centerpiece of my bedroom bookcase, until I left home at the age of 21.
The dynamic of the powder room incited a flood of images in my mind.
They conveyed the spirit-killing subservience that black people were expected to display, even after my parents had become adults. As a teenager, I read works by black writers, from W.E.B. du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison to the unnerving but legitimate rants of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X.
The unspeakable torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 made all of us -- including my father -- cry. It would be decades before I saw the picture of him in his open casket, and the stomach-churning shock of what those white savages did to his body has never left me.
My mother, who grew up in rural North Carolina and is now nearly 95 years old, still cries with true anguish when she recalls watching as her grandfather systematically cheated his black sharecroppers, keeping them perpetually indebted to him. It was slavery all over again, except that they had to pay room and board, buying overpriced provisions from the "family store." My mother says the workers often pleaded with her grandfather, asking him to re-weigh the cotton and tobacco they had gathered that day, certain that their labors had been underestimated.
White "boss man" weighs the day's haul of cotton. From the National Archives "He spat at them and told them to get out of the way," she recalls. In her mind, they were bona fide slaves. As a young girl, she sneaked pitchers of cold lemonade out to the sweltering barn, where the tobacco leaves were being strung up to cure.
White guilt, for some reason, seems to get a bad rap in our culture. I don't care. I feel guilty, I am guilty, and I think we are all guilty of being advantaged by an economic and social system that has continued to disadvantage black people.
"I'm so bored, Maddie....go get me some cigarettes and a sloe gin fizz."
Yes: I believe in reparations. Yes: I believe in affirmative action. All you have to do is look at the data on unemployment, wage disparities, infant mortality, life expectancy, prison sentences and pretty much every other metric of quality of life to know that the legacy of those slave ships is still with us. The physical and economic infrastructure that makes our current lives what they are was built on the backs of black people and immigrants.
I love black people. I don't care if that sounds like a stupid generalization: I love them.
I don't want anyone waiting on me. I am especially unsettled when a black person is forced to serve me, particularly when it is in a way that is so reminiscent our our nation's grotesquely racist past.
I felt as if I were in some sicko time machine.
I wanted no part of it.
I did not want to give up that five dollars, though. Isn't that despicable? At that age, I loved free stuff -- a giddy greed that I gather today's younger generation shares.
I LOVED free stuff. It was so petty. It made me feel victorious.
Of course, I left the money in her tip jar. I touched her arm lightly as I said, "Thank you," and left.
Now that I've grown up (in some ways), I insist on paying for everything. This restroom-attendant scenario would play out several more times during my New York decade. My feelings of shame and discomfort never abated.
Postscript: Some 25 years later, I learned that the gracious, long-suffering ladies who worked in the city's fanciest hotels and restaurants had been required to bid for the restroom "concession." Each had to pay "rent" to work there, and only then -- if there was any tip money left -- would she have any take-home pay. This was exploitation, and it should have been illegal.
Some of the women posted signs, pleading for patrons' to "give a little," but most just stood silently by, completely at the mercy of we who had the great good fortune to experience such luxurious establishments.
Pity the poor ladies who had to clean up after men: