I have often wondered what it is about me that makes white people comfortable in displaying their bigotry in my presence. Why is it they say things around me that they wouldn't dare say around other Blacks, especially Black men.
Let me tell you what happened. I was standing in a group of people in a public location talking with four or five other people that I've known for awhile, all of them white, all of them male. It was your basic bullshit session, nothing heavy going on. It was the end of a shared night, everyone beginning to relax back into our individual existences before actually exiting the building.
We were joined near the end by a young man, white, 21 years old. This young man proceeded to insert himself into the conversation during the course of which he used a phrase that sent chills of anger down my spine. He used the phrase in a manner which told me he'd said it hundreds of times in his young existence. It was a common phrase for him and I would discern, of those around him. It was not something he gave any thought to using in my presence.
It took everything I could to control myself. I wanted to plant my size 9 up his ass and beat the living daylights out of him.
All the other guys in the group tensed as well, but I think it was more to wait and see how I would react to what was said. They were waiting to take their cues from me on how they should react, or not react. It certainly wasn't because they themselves had never before heard the phrase. It wasnâ€™t because they''d never used it before. They just knew when to use it and when not to.
Despite my anger, my reaction was to ignore him. I gave him a pass on what he said. I was pissed and mute. He stood there shining in his ignorance totally unaware of how close he stood to the abyss.
" You hired that colored guy?"
That was the last time I'd heard that phrase. It was a question from my boss. He owned the company. I was his operations manager in charge of 150 workers, and I'd made a new hire for the production floor. I'd hired a temporary worker on after nine months of showing up and doing an excellent job. I felt he should have been rewarded. It was my call. After all, staffing was part of my job description.
I]d hired others, several in fact and never once been questioned, with one slight difference. Every other hire I'd made was of an Hispanic male or female. I was the only Black American in the company and I knew the boss thought I was Hispanic when he hired me.
You see I speak Spanish. He needed someone to speak Spanish to his preferred workforce and I got the job. I'm a fair skinned black, high yellow in ghetto terminology, and outside of my home state of Ohio have always been routinely mistaken for Cuban or Puerto Rican.
My boss made the same mistake when we met. He didn't ask, I didn't tell. During the course of our working relationship, I came to know his prejudices against Blacks. He came to know that I am Black, but he didn't change or soften toward my race. He just somehow drew a cocoon around me in his mind, removing me from my heritage. I'm okay, but the others are still colored or something worse. It stayed unspoken between us until that day.
"You hired that colored guy?"
I answered his question in the affirmative and then went back to my desk packed my stuff, returned to his office and quit. I haven't looked back. He has written me glowing recommendations in every job Iâ€™ve had since then. I guess that is his way of apologizing to me. But he still doesn't hire Blacks into his company, no matter how well they perform.
15 years removed from that incident, I hear it again, "that colored guy." I hear it from a young man, a boy far removed from the civil rights struggles of the past. A boy who has no power other than the power of words over me. Someone who is not my equal intellectually or in public standing. Someone who has doors open simply because of his gender, his color and who he knows.
He is someone for whom the racial troubles of this country are a thing of the past. For me, however, it's like it was yesterday.
It was and it still hurts.