One February in North Carolina, in the corporate-employee days of my early 20’s, I got an e-mail from my coworker, Tee. It was about a week before our monthly gathering to celebrate the birthdays in the department, and I had just finished printing out the transparencies for the Jeopardy! game I’d made up for the occasion. Some months we played Family Feud with answers gleaned from surveys I sent to the department, some months it was Let’s Make a Deal, but this month, like most months, it was Jeopardy!
Since it was February, Tee wrote in her e-mail, wouldn’t it be nice to have a category commemorating Black History Month?
I smote my brow with the heel of my hand and typed a reply. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that!” I could save the “Name that Flower” category (always a hit because the clues involved photos of flowering plants) until March, and put in a Black History Month category.
I had just started to work on this when my manager’s manager—my White manager’s White manager—called me into his office.
“You know, Charity,” he said in his quiet North Carolina accent. “I’m feeling nervous about this Black History Month category.”
I waited quietly and wondered how he’d heard about it so quickly.
“See, when I grew up”—which I knew was in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the South—“we didn’t learn about Black history.”
“And I’m worried that I won’t know any of the answers,” he said. “And that would look bad.”
Meaning it would look bad to the Black employees, like Tee and Cee and Kay, for one of the White managers to not be able to answer questions about Black history.
I wanted to assure him that of course he would know the answers, but it occurred to me that maybe he wouldn’t. Was he saying he didn’t know who Martin Luther King, Jr., was? Was there a way I could even ask this?
I was twenty-three years old in the office of a man who held the power of hiring and firing within our department, a man who expected understanding from me because we were both White, a man who wanted me to make this Black History Month category go away so he wouldn’t look bad.
I said something noncommittal and left his office, trembling as I shut the door behind me, not because I feared him but because I knew that the right thing to do was to keep the Black History Month category, and because I knew that I wasn’t going to do the right thing.
I knew what the right thing to do was, and I also knew that I wasn’t going to do the right thing.
Back at my desk, I e-mailed a reply to Tee. On second thought, I wrote, because Kay, the admin in our group, was out recovering from surgery and I had to cover her work, too, I wasn’t going to have time to put together the new category with just a week’s lead time.
It was true that I had to cover Kay’s work, but it was not true that answering her phones and doing her paperwork on top of my own work was going to keep me from being able to put together five answers for a new Jeopardy! category. And I think Tee knew this because a minute later my phone rang.
I don’t remember the conversation, but I remember saying that, if Tee could put together the answers and send them to me, I could print them off for the game. Why I thought this was a solution, I am not sure, but it seemed to end the conversation, which was a relief.
The next morning, I was in early like I liked, the office quiet and nearly empty. I walked across the office to drop off an expense report to Cee, who was one of the few others who also preferred the quiet office to an extra hour of sleep. I smiled and said good morning and handed her the expense report.
“I’ll take care of this,” she said, turning back to her computer monitor, “if I have time.”
I felt confused. She’d given the words an emphasis that I couldn’t figure out, but I just said thank you and left her office.
I was halfway past the large bank of windows that lined the walkway between that side of the department and the one where I had my cubicle when I finally figured out that Cee had echoed the words I’d written to Tee the day before.
“Oh, my God,” I thought. “She thinks I’m racist.”
And half a moment later came a worse thought: “Oh, my God. What if she’s right?”
My face felt hot and my hands shook and my heart raced. I held on until I reached my cubicle and then I succumbed to tears and sobs and streaming nose. I wasn’t much of a crier—so much so that I kept VHS copies of Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias at home for when I needed the catharsis of a good cry—and this reaction surprised me.
As I calmed down, I tried to think of someone to talk to. I wanted to talk to Cee again, I wanted to apologize and explain and make things better, but I knew this wouldn’t work. I knew it would sound false because the reality was, I was on the wrong side of this thing.
The reality was, I was on the wrong side of this thing. And someone else had noticed.
And someone else had noticed.
I dried my tears and took the least well-traveled route to my manager’s office. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to her, but I needed to talk to someone. I explained what had happened, and she immediately took what she thought was my side.
“That’s ridiculous. You are absolutely not racist,” said this formidable woman from Tennessee. “You need to call Kay.”
Here was my next test. She had suggested I call a woman who’d experienced a rather frightening illness at her desk the week before and was now recovering from surgery at home. I knew she had suggested I call Kay because Kay was Black.
This wasn’t right, even if Kay hadn’t been recovering from surgery. I knew this, and I did it anyway.
If I could go back in time, I would have stood up to my boss’s boss and gently but firmly said that we should have the Black History Month category even if he felt uncomfortable about it because it was the right thing to do. But as ashamed as I am that I lacked the courage to do this right thing, I am even more ashamed that I fell into the trap of asking a woman whom I considered a friend—a woman whose house I’d visited, whose children I’d hugged and laughed with—to absolve me of wrongdoing in a situation in which I had clearly done wrong simply because she was Black.
On the phone, Kay’s voice was tired, but she listened with compassion and gently reassured me that I was a good person. After we hung up the phone, I went back to my cube and back to my work.
Looking back, I empathize with my twenty-three-year-old self, but I can’t let myself off the hook. Back then I said the rights things, the things that I thought demonstrated that I wasn’t racist, but apparently I lacked the courage to do what was right in the face of my own discomfort.
Because in retrospect, I recognize that’s all that was at stake: My emotional comfort.
I have empathy for that younger self, but still I did the wrong thing. I should have sat with that discomfort, accepted it as my own doing, and owned up to it, albeit belatedly. But I never did.
It’s a small thing, in a way. I didn’t put up a Confederate flag in my cubicle. I didn’t tell racist jokes. I didn’t physically harm anyone. But I did act in a way that perpetuated a system of White supremacy when I was faced with an opportunity to stand up to it.
I acted in a way that perpetuated a system of White supremacy when I was faced with an opportunity to stand up to it.
How many other times have I done this without recognizing it? Would I have recognized it had Cee not spoken up that morning when I dropped off that expense report?
Today I see it as an example of how easy it is for me to hide behind my race when it’s more comfortable for me to do so. I was shielded by the race I shared with my manager and with her manager, and I allowed that to comfort me at the expense of our Black coworkers.
I try to use this memory as a reminder of my racial privilege and how easily I can let myself accept that privilege.
And I try to see it as a chance for awareness. In that situation, I didn’t do the clear right thing when the only thing at stake was my emotional discomfort.
Will I have the courage to do the right thing when there’s more at stake?