White on White Discrimination
Soon after being released from the Army in the late 1990’s, I began working at Guyton Air-Conditioning Company in Central-Texas. As a white male, I was immediately accepted by the all white-male staff of the business. However, after they discovered that I hailed from Pennsylvania, my co-workers began treating me differently.
Frequently referred to as “the foreigner” or “Yankee”, I initially dismissed the taunting as working-class humor. However, as the taunting became more frequent and less passive, I soon dreaded coming to work.
The most damaging remark occurred when our supervisor asked one of the employees to show me how to insulate air-conditioning duct. The kid was probably only a year or two older than me but about twice my size. As I sat on the ground cutting the insulation, he loomed over, hands on his hips saying: “You don’t know how to do anything because you are a stupid fucking Yankee!”
I felt totally diminished. All of the self-esteem that I had gained from serving three years as an army-medic was stripped from me in an instant. The insults and teasing continued. I began calling in sick every other day. The only relief I had from the daily tormenting was when the boss occasionally hired Mexican day-workers. At least with having them around I was elevated to white status, like the other employees. When there were no day-workers on the payroll, my coworkers resumed viewing me as the equivalent of “Mexican”.
The other employees gleefully attacked the temps, leaving me alone. I had mixed feelings about the ridicule the other employees gave the day-workers. I knew what it felt like on the receiving end of that sarcasm and had empathy for them, yet I was elated that they were receiving it and not me.
Any time I am reminded of this incident I can see and hear that big Texas ogre barking at me while I kneeled on the cold dirty floor of the shop. Look, here comes that stupid Yankee. Mr. Guyton wants me to show him how to insulate that air conditioning duct. Jason says he was an army medic but he can’t do a simple thing like insulating duct. That was something I was taught when I was 12 years old. He really surprised me yesterday. I saw him drinking iced tea. I thought Yankees only drank hot tea while they waited in their subway station. I asked him for a sip and it was sweetened. Figures, only a Yankee would put sugar in iced tea. Everybody knows that you drink iced tea only with a little bit of lemon.
After I showed Jason how to insulate the duct, I gave him the knife and told him to do the rest of them. I stood there and watched as he screwed up the first one so bad that I ended up making him take it apart. I didn’t have all day and I wanted to go out to have a cigarette with James. So I called him a stupid Yankee or something like that, and left. At least some of the Mexicans know a little about insulation so that I don’t have to “baby-sit” them.
Why this incident has stayed with me so long is that it is perhaps the first time that I was made to feel different by someone else using an intimidating manner. I actually felt as if I didn’t belong even though I received these feelings from other white men. This wasn’t a feeling of being ostracized like you get when you may be a fifth wheel at a cocktail party and someone politely, subtly “gives you the hint” to move on away from this conversation. This feeling I got frankly forced me down to the elevation of crud, and it came from my own kind. My palms were sweating, my chest tight, and I began feeling this overwhelming desire to get up off the cold floor and just head home.
Quite possibly, it wasn’t only the “Stupid Yankee” comment, but how it was said. Being called a name is one thing, but using body language and tone of voice to drive home the idea that you are considered to be less equal is powerful and devastating. It may also be that this incident swiftly made me aware of how whites are oblivious to how they treat people of other races that they want to put down. Just as shocking to me then as it is now is that prior to that incident, I felt as though I viewed all people as equal. However, when it really counted, like when my coworkers reduced me to the status of lowly “Mexican”, I sold out, quickly denying any equivalence to my Mexican coworkers while increasingly becoming angry for being reduced in status by my fellow whites. In my assailant’s point of view however, I very well may have been inferior to him for not knowing how to do the simplest details of the job. But, the only means he knew how to express it was through prejudice and hate, calling me a “Fucking Yankee” while leering over me.
Looking back on this now I came to the conclusion that there may always be striations in work-related settings, differences between races or differences within the same race. The key is to recognize these differences and be respectful, not pointing out differences as if they were our faults.
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