When we make a unit with extra components, the assembly line can get hairy. So Monday night, when Ray and I had to work about twelve inches apart, we knew minor setbacks would turn major in a hurry. Neither of us were surprised when a simple error sent us scrambling backward to make up for lost time, and, joking though my frustration, I growled: “What the hell are you trying to do to me, boy?”
Only several minutes later did I realize I’d said this to the only black worker on the line.
I’d certainly meant nothing racial. I was thinking more of a middle school gym teacher who’d called all of us “boy,” black or white. And my intent was entirely in fun. But considering the casual cruelty many African Americans continue to suffer—from diminished economic opportunity and disproportionate incarceration to bigots who use racial terms in daily conversation—my words’ intent matters less than their effect.
The “joke” inherent in my words meant race less than authority: my words conveyed that the recipient of my words stood lower on the hierarchy than me. This is of course not true, since Ray and I are both worker bees. But that’s the joke: I’m pretending to authority I don’t really have. I’m putting myself above Ray by pretending to steal his limited power and adding it to mine.
Real thigh-slapper, huh?
I can’t help but remember my dad in these moments. Though he disavowed racism, and taught me not to divide people by something as insignificant as skin color, he also, when not guarding his words, acted about as enlightened as Archie Bunker. He would defend himself by saying he didn’t really mean it, and besides, he’d never say it outside the family. But whether he meant it or not, those concepts certainly percolated in his mind.
Which means they percolate in my mind, too. They were part of the milieu I grew up in. And they were part of the milieu you grew up in, too, because our slaveholding and segregated past is, like it or not, part of America’s cultural heritage. This is why, despite some white liberals’ professed desires, America can never be a truly colorblind society. The past, even a shameful past, never truly goes away.
Building a respectful, productive present does not mean shutting off the past like a switch. It means coming to grips with the past, facing our own demons, and remaining conscious of the effects our words and actions have on others. We must recognize that we owe it to coming generations to redefine how black and white, women and men, poor and rich, rural and urban—in short, powerless and powerful—relate to one another.
Therefore I must make amends for my thoughtless words. Even in jest, my words’ effects do not reflect my Christian values. I believe good solid ethics mean bridging the gaps between people, trying to heal wounds, and looking out for one another. We really are in this together. And even pretending to superiority over another person widens gulfs. That’s completely unacceptable.
Ray is a good guy and a diligent worker. I’m proud to work next to him on the line because, quite apart from anything racial, he’s a dedicated colleague. And while I don’t make friends easily, he and I josh friendly, and I can imagine he and I getting to be pals. Come to that, even if we despised each other, I owed it to him to make peace when I’ve said something hurtful.
But I found myself in that awkward situation where I don’t know if he heard the wrong thing I said. Even if he did, not everybody is equally sensitive to implications. Apologizing may draw attention to what he considered a minor issue, but not apologizing could mean letting a serious problem fester. After vacillating for a few minutes, I finally spoke up.
“When we were horsing around back there a few minutes ago, I didn’t think before I spoke, and I let slip with a racial term. I just wanted to say I’m sorry for that.”
“Oh? I didn’t even hear it.”
“Well, maybe not, but I still need to say it. Because I can’t let something like that stand.”
Ray turned from his work station long enough to take me in, then smiled slightly and nodded. I don’t know if that means I’m forgiven, but I hope it means at least that this won’t fester forever.