The rhetoric-charged U.S. presidential race has infiltrated discussion outlets online (e.g. your annoying friends on Facebook and Twitter) and offline, touching upon social, racial, and economic divides like never before. The workplace in particular has become a hotbed of political strife, and research has proven that blood is boiling because of the partisan politics. That “us-versus-them” mentality is on display in various ways — both explicitly and subtle, directly related to politics and indirectly tweaking racial nerves. The workplace example has been rolling around in my head the past few days, as I had an unfortunate, hostile confrontation with a fellow employee that I did not provoke.
In my job, one of my responsibilities is to collect articles for our intranet. As a writer and editor, I suggest and make changes to employee submissions and get feedback from my teammates. I then forward the marked-up copy to the original writer and ask for their feedback. This is usually a smooth process, but there’s a first time for everything.
A few weeks ago, I received a submission idea from a staff member regarding a field trip. As we’re always looking for content (that dreaded content monster always needs to be fed), I encouraged him to send his article. He promptly emailed me his work and we exchanged a few emails about image resolution. I ended the exchange with the promise that I would edit his work and email it within a few days. Two weeks later (I was a bit lazy on my end), I made my edits, realizing that the article needed quite a bit of work. I sent the edited copy to my coworkers for additional tweaks. I then emailed the double-edited article to the original writer. That’s where things went wrong.
I received an email the following day mentioning that the article read “like a police report” — with a winky-face emoticon — and asked if we could meet to have a discussion. I was a bit annoyed with the “police report” comment and emoticon, as I felt like it was condescending, but I replied that I would meet with him. I added that our intent with the edits was to clean up the article and put the most important content at the top to get readers excited. He agreed. (I also emailed my coworkers about the exchange, and the second editor offered to meet with the writer; I wish I had taken him up on that offer.)
A few hours later, the writer popped into my cubicle, holding several Xeroxed copies of the article. I recognized the guy, a middle-aged white man with slicked-back hair in a black polo golf shirt (Greg Norman’s brand, to be exact), as we had passed each other in hallways since I started at the company. We had never exchanged verbal words until his appearance in my workspace. He asked if we should grab a conference room. After thinking about this for a few seconds, I said that we could talk in my cubicle — which was smart on my part. He grabbed a chair and sat down next to me while I pulled up the edited copy I did on my computer monitor.
It was not needed, as he had his own agenda. In a stern, almost robotic tone, he stated that what I did to his article was wrong. (This theme of right and wrong would be a commonality during our discussion.) I informed him that the edits were a team effort and that I made my revisions before getting additional modifications. This did not seem to make an impression, as he continued to assign blame to me for his article reading awkwardly, that several parts were taken out of context. I reaffirmed that we made the changes for better flow, to get the most important content near the top. He said that his knowledge of “soft news” was to start with a quote (his quote was out of context for a reader coming fresh into the story), with his subtle critiques of my experience becoming more direct. I countered that our edits were to make articles readable for people with a fifth-grade education.
He then questioned what kind of education and skills I had to make the changes I did to his article. And I had to collect myself to comprehend what he just did.
His suggestion that my knowledge and proficiency were lacking rang several alarms in my head. He belittled the hard work I have put in over more than a decade, the years of schooling paid for partly by my single mother, the years of dues paid to get into the writing field and endure the slings and arrows of being a person of color in corporate environments and thrive.
And I had a choice: Do I let this slide and not ruffle feathers, or do I tear into him and remind him that I have a backbone?
I’m well aware, and constantly reminded, that I am a black man in a society where I am not wanted. I experience this every time I get extended stares while walking down the street, when I’m called “man” by non-blacks upon meeting me for the first time, and when clueless dicks poke fun at socially relevant conversation topics like “Black Lives Matter” (which actually happened at work) and “being woke.” I am tired of this, of being belittled, of being lesser-than.
So I flexed my backbone. Slowly, I looked at him and articulated to him, eyes fixed, that I had a bachelor’s degree in journalism. That I had a master’s degree in public administration with emphasis in grant writing and professional writing.
He seemed taken aback, and he said that he was sorry if he had crossed the line. The classic way people shrug off blame by saying that they may have fucked up. More alarm bells. I answered the ring.
I told him that there was no if; he crossed the line. I added that his comments were “below the belt.” He apologized for crossing the line. But he was still frustrated with the changes to his article and said that we could do whatever we wanted with the piece, as long as we took his name off of it.
I recognized that the blowback from such a move would be a blemish on my unofficial record in my role, and I did damage control. By suggesting that he work with my coworker (the other editor) to get his article closer to his original vision, I tried to mend a fence while stating that I was done with our discussion. He seemed pleased with this suggestion.
He tried to extend his own olive branch out of sake of working together in the future and asked if I accepted his apology. I said that I did, but I wasn’t done. I told him flatly that if I had a problem with his work in his role, I would not come over and attack his education or skills. I then repeated that I’d connect him with my coworker, and he said thanks and left.
After I stepped away to cool down, I came back to my cubicle. I saw a coworker in the next cube as we exchanged glances, and I realized that he likely heard the heated exchange. And he did, noting that he had never experienced such a flare-up in his time with the company and that the “nasty” guy was clearly looking for a fight. He admired my handling of the situation — adding that he got the impression that the asshole seemed to realize the error of his ways by the end of the conversation.
The guy would not have done this to a supervisor or manager. He would not have done this to a contemporary in his department. He would not have done this to anyone who looked or talked like him.
He felt that he could do that to me, a younger black man, that was a gatekeeper on his work. That sense of entitlement and frustration is ingrained in people like him. And that bothered me more than anything else.
How can we expect society to change when people are not willing to alter their problematic beliefs — let alone recognize their toxicity? When workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, cities, and local governments actively and stealthily separate people not like them for the sake of perceived safety, quality in education, and way of life? When people, the media, and politicians reinforce damaging stereotypes that continue the narrative of the subhuman minority? When war-armed police officers feel threatened by the community they’ve sworn to protect?
The rhetoric is inflammatory, and the fire is burning. And it’ll be a tough one to put out. And we’re all being burned.