Your Mileage May Vary

The experience that Richard Cohen relates in his most recent column:

My first real job was with the New York office of a national insurance company. Sexual harassment was a problem, for sure. But the term did not yet exist and the problem was not formally recognized.

We had no acknowledged diversity problem, either. In fact, we simply had no diversity. African Americans, Hispanics — you name it: None. Our office was exclusively white and not by accident. When I asked my boss why we had no black employees, he told me directly that it was his policy not to hire any. And when once, by accident, a temp agency sent over an Asian file clerk, she made the mistake of using the common ladies room. Women from the office next door demanded she be fired. She was.

is very different from mine. My first real job was with a very small company. I had multiple female colleagues—my peers. Their style was somewhat different from that of the men but no one doubted their competence. To the best of my knowledge there was zero sexual harassment.

My second real job was with a much larger company. I had female subordinates; I had female peers; there were female managers. Some of my colleagues were black or Asian. There were no Hispanics because it was before the enormous influx of mostly Mexican workers into the United States. The country only had a Hispanic population of about 5% and most of those were in California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Here in the Midwest the Hispanic population was extremely small. That was nearly 50 years ago.

I attribute the difference in our experience to his having grown up and spent most of his life in the virulently racist and sexist Northeast rather than the Midwest.

As far as bigotry goes, in my family it was just about the worst sin you could commit. I’ve been the victim of anti-Catholic bigotry for just about as long as I understood there were different religions. I suspect that Mr. Cohen is no stranger to anti-Semitism.

IMO we made substantial advancements in equality of the races and sexes from 1950 onwards, that stopped around 1990, and we’ve been going in reverse since then. Recently, I’ve been subjected to anti-white racism for the very first time in my life. It’s not as overt as people spitting on you or calling you names but it’s obviously there. And agism is a daily experience. Not tremendously surprising since I’m now the oldest person in any given meeting.

7 comments… add one
  • steve

    “virulently racist and sexist Northeast rather than the Midwest.”

    My experience in the Midwest was different in southern Indiana. Teachers openly wore Klan rings when i was young. Every teacher was white. Black people in the small towns held only low skilled, manual labor type jobs. Women were nurses or teachers or worked in retail. Oops, forgot we actually had secretaries back then, and they did keypunching and typing. When the Navy sent me out East to Philly, I saw black people hold other positions and women doing other stuff too. (Dated an assistant DA for the city while an undergrad.)

    Steve

  • Southern Indiana, like the Missouri bootheel and southern Illinois around Cairo, isn’t the Midwest. It’s the South.

    I was being a bit facetious but not entirely. IMO people in the Northeast have a cartoonish view of people in the Midwest and an altogether too elevated view of themselves. They forget the racial uproar in Boston in the 1970s, for example.

    I think that conditions vary by industry, too.

    I would add that based on my experience and observation the urban South of today is less racist, if anything, than the urban West or North. Check out Atlanta or New Orleans.

  • Andy

    My first job (Colorado, mid 1980’s) was at TJ Maxx. My boss was openly gay (the first openly gay person I knew) and we had an interesting mixture of people. I stayed there for three years until I went to college. Looking back it was a pretty diverse workplace except for age. Most were like me – in high school. The managers were in their twenties and there were a few retirement age people – but no one in between.

    Growing up I never saw the kind of overt racism described in the piece, not even with Hispanics who were the most numerous minority group. Maybe I was lucky. I didn’t see anyone use the N word until I was in the Navy and it did not go unpunished.

    Part of it was the western culture of the mountain west. Our education about state and local history focused on native Americans and Hispanics, not Blacks or Asians. The civil war was simply history for us – Colorado didn’t yet exist and thus we were not placed on a side.

    In college, I took a road trip to see some relatives in Tennessee and took the opportunity to visit Civil War sites. At Shiloh, I was walking back to my car as the park closed and a young mother struck up a conversation. She had a southern accent and asked – “so which side is your family from, north or south?” I replied, neither, I’m a westerner. The look on her face told me she didn’t really understand.

    Many years later, my Ancestry research discovered that my paternal line fought in the Civil War in a Mississippi regiment.

  • As I’ve mentioned before, three of my great-great-grandfathers fought for the Union and it’s possible that one of my great-grandfathers did as well. He sort of disappears from the official records starting in 1860 and re-emerges in 1870.

  • Gray Shambler

    Yes, our experience of racism varies as whites, depending on where and when and by who you were raised. But I think for Blacks, the only variation was in the level of violence used to hold them in their place. The threat was always certainly there.
    I’ve said before, if you were white in the 1800’s, you could shoot native Americans for fun, in the mid nineteen hundreds, fags were fair game for frisky drunks, still are. And nigger-baiting was rife in the military. IF you were White.
    This is hard stuff if you want to pick nits, but the best solution is to always be respectful and polite, even if a black person wants to dis your “White Privilege” Listen and be polite.

  • Gray Shambler

    Oh, and BTW, MY ancestors all came late, after the war, didn’t own slave or fight on either side. Many times I’ve found myself surprised, talking to black men, that their ancestors have been in these states hundreds of years longer than mine. Good thing to keep in mind.

  • roadgeek

    First adult job was as a salesman at an appliance store. All the store managers and company management was white and male, but there were blacks and women and Hispanics on the sales floor in the stores. They didn’t care what you looked like, as long as you could sell. They’d fire you just as quickly for low metrics, black or white. This was 1980. I encountered my first anti-white racism in 2000. Woman was cheerful about renting a house to me on the phone, but when she met my wife and I in person (we’re both white) suddenly it was rented. She was Hispanic. Oh, a Hispanic made it abundantly clear that he just didn’t want to cut my hair. This was about 10 years ago. Both incidents were in Austin.

    Oh, the ageism. Yes, it’s real. I’m 55, and I am often the oldest non-manager in many meetings I attend. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be promoted again at my current job, which is otherwise a pretty good place to work. It stings, but it’s so hard to prove that I don’t worry with it. Life is what it is.

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