Crystal, the black woman who has been my aide, has embarrassed me in public several times. On one occasion, we were going through the university and there were a bunch of kids spread across the sidewalk ahead of my wheelchair. Ten feet away and Crystal yells at them to clear off. I try to gently speak to her, let her know that wasn’t necessary. This is my university. I have a lot of experience with it, and know the kids’ behavior. When I am about two feet away, I say a loud “Excuse me!” and they turn, look apologetic, and scatter. No need to attack. Except, I’m thinking, in Crystal’s world. Maybe on the Southside, a group of kids is a gang, and they do not respond to cheerful vocal requests.
On another occasion, Crystal and I were grocery shopping in my old neighborhood, which is a blue-collar area consisting of very kind people. People who help each other and look out for each other. An elderly man pushing a small cart cut between Crystal and me, and Crystal—speaking loudly so he would hear her—told me to watch out for this nasty, selfish man. I couldn’t believe it. Crystal and I had words. I said, “Crystal, he didn’t hurt you.”
“Well, he disrespected you,” she snapped.
“I can take care of myself,” I said. “If I feel disrespected, I’ll deal with it. These are kind people in a nice neighborhood. He was an old man—probably a widower who doesn’t really know how to grocery shop.”
But Crystal wouldn’t let it go. She insisted she was right to verbally attack him. He was disrespectful; he deserved it.
Our working relationship began months ago with careful politeness, then moved into respectful conversations about interracial relationships, sharing our experiences, points of view and expectations. Then we got on to talking about the things that mattered: clothes, recipes, and boyfriends.
I’m not sure where things began to break down, but it may have been these incidents where Crystal and I were out in public and she went into attack mode in situations where I knew it was not necessary and tried to redirect her. I am her supervisor. When she appears in public with me then I am responsible, and her actions are a reflection on me. She accompanies me to places she would not go on her own.
The last couple weeks, I’ve been feeling badly about Crystal. She always seems aggressively angry; she doesn’t laugh anymore. So many times when I ask her to do something, or try to teach her to do something in a different way, she becomes argumentative. It’s my home. I’m her supervisor. She’s getting paid to do what I need to have done.
And that’s the sole difference between an employee and a slave: the paycheck. And that’s what I think Crystal—and so many other young black women I’ve met in recent years—don’t understand. The difference between an employee and a slave is not one of work assignments: it’s about the paycheck. Getting paid to do a job doesn’t mean you get to decide what you’ll do and how you’ll do it. You’ve got a boss and your boss is going to tell you. That is not slavery; that is employment—and it applies to white people, too.
In recent years I’ve been deeply troubled by the arrogant hostility I find among many young working black women. Their mothers didn’t behave this way. What’s wrong with them? In one case, I filed a complaint with a doctor against one of these young women who was employed in his office. He told me, first, that he couldn’t do anything about it because he wasn’t a managing partner. Then he told me that the girl’s mother had been in the week before and she confessed that she didn’t like or understand her daughter’s behavior either. When your own mom doesn’t support you, then there’s something seriously wrong. When I tried to talk to a liberal white fellow about it, he accused me of racism. (This afternoon, when I recounted to a friend the conversation with Crystal in which she called me a racist, he said with bewilderment, “You?”)
Blacks used to have black-only jobs. They worked the Fry-o-later in back but didn’t wait on the customers in front. One day Crystal told me flatly that if “they” had ever fired her or tried to tell her what to do, she’d have given them what-for.
“No, my dear,” I thought. “You wouldn’t have.” But how do I tell her this? How does an older white woman explain to a younger black woman how it used to be, and that you didn’t talk back? How do I show her the oppressive silence that colored people lived in long before the Black Panthers, and the Olympic athlete with his head bowed and his fist raised?
The Freedom rides, voter registration, James Meredith at Ole Miss, Governor Wallace, Birmingham, Medgar Evers’ assassination, Selma, the march on Washington, the church bombing, Kennedy’s assassination, the end to poll taxes, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act all took place when I was an older teenager. Crystal was still in diapers. She’s heard the stories of how it used to be, but she doesn’t have the feel of it. She doesn’t have the memories.
The Chad Mitchell Trio did a bitingly satirical song about how equality for the black man meant that he could now step up and take his place kissing the boss’s ass just like white men. Freedom doesn’t mean that you are free to make decisions in the work place. All it means is that you’ll get paid the same amount as a white person for doing what you’re told, and you’re free to leave.
These young people don’t understand that just because the boss is white and giving orders doesn’t mean the boss is racist. It just means he’s the boss. And the young people have learned to swing the word “racist” like Thor’s hammer. Most white people have such a depth of insecurity, guilt, confusion or fear that they immediately back down when accused of racism. The black kid has the high hand and knows it. What does a white person do when a white boss gives a directive that the employee doesn’t like? Lord, don’t we wish we had a racist-equivalent word that we could use to make the boss run!
When Crystal feels someone has disrespected her, she requires respect with a baseball bat—literal or verbal. When I feel someone has disrespected me, I distance myself from that person. That’s a considerable difference.