“Man cannot tell the whole truth about himself, even if convinced that what he wrote would never be seen by others.”
That quote, and all the formatted quotes here, is from Mark Twain’s autobiography (volume one). Twain knew how hard it was to talk about oneself and resist trying to make you look better. And I cannot talk about what someone else did without first talking about what I did.
Back in my college years, I said something unwise. I aped what I saw in movies. With the desire to be funny, I walked up to my black coworker and said, “What’s up my n—“.
Not my finest moment. It falls into the category of, “things white people cannot say”.
Today I believe I understand a little bit more. As I interpret it now, I would guess that those of black heritage have taken back that phrase from those that wronged them. They take a word that white people used for hate and now use it as a term of love for each other. For what better revenge is there than taking what was once a weapon used against you and lessening its sting?
I was not thinking about any of this when I went up to my coworker back then. I was after a laugh or a clap on the back. Instead, I got a much different response.
He turned to me. His anger was clear on his face. He said with all the seriousness one could muster, “Don’t ever say that.”
He did me a favor. He directly and explicitly told me I had erred. He did not try to sugarcoat it. He made sure that I knew I had made a misstep. I apologized, we went back to work, and that was the one time that I ever used that word. It turns out college kids do not actually know everything, despite what they think.
“We suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth.”
Come back with me to the present. We have had a few weeks of discussion about race. I work in what I feel is a rather literate city. Seattle is full of many types of people. We support our libraries, theatres, and museums. There have been marches near my work. We talk about current events every day.
Imagine my surprise when I heard my manager heckling my coworker with these phrases.
“I thought you Mexicans were supposed to be good at running.”
“You know, with all that running from immigration that you do.”
“Come to think of it, your back is looking a little wet.”
My face does not often betray my emotions much. This time, I could feel my eyes fighting not to bulge out of their sockets. My eyebrows went up as I struggled with the fact that someone was actually saying these things.
This was not a senile grandpa at Thanksgiving. This manager is only ten years older than me. He had to know better. I mean, he had to. Right?
The part of me that defends his friends was ready to leap into action. Yet my coworker was laughing at our boss. He was smiling and going along with it. He is an adult. He can stand up for himself. He can speak for himself. And he was laughing along with our manager. He gave no signs that he was offended or needed help.
Was I as clueless as I had been in college? Was I letting myself butt into a conversation that I did not fully understand? Was I putting myself in the role of a hero where there was no victim?
At the same time, I do not like people belittling others. I would prefer to stay quiet, but if a friend needs an ally, I want to be available. Yet at no time did he ask for help.
So I waited. I held my breath. I let it pass. When the manager had gone about other tasks, I approached my coworker.
“Were you offended by that? Did you find it funny? It was a bit much…”
He laughed it off. He said he was not offended. He did not speak of wrongs that needed to be righted.
Later, my manager found me and he brought up the conversation.
“What I said before was crude”, he admitted. “I know better. I should not have said any of that.”
I did not have to confront him. I did not have to take sides. My conscience spoke to me, his conscience said something to him; eventually it came up and we parted amicably.
“None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.”
When I see my boss again, there is going to be a part of me that thinks of those jokes. He apologized. I do not need to harbor a grudge or seek justice. We can still respect each other. But those jokes will always be in my brain.
Maybe we are more similar than I care to admit. I still think of that callous phrase I used all those years ago. Perhaps my boss will think of those jokes whenever he sees my coworker. Shame can last a long time, even when it is self-inflicted.
If I judge my manager for being unkind, I also have to treat myself that way. If I am capable of being more cautious with my speech, is not the same true for him?
I keep hoping that we as a civilization are learning and that it has to get better. It obviously takes more time than I prefer. We are all still making mistakes. Hopefully it is getting easier for us to admit when we speak before we think.
We are still working on only hearing uncaring comments and racist jokes in Mark Twain’s books and not in real life.