By Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
The United Parcel Service driver came to the reception desk at Elise’s work with a package for a new employee named John. John, you’ll need to know to understand the point of the story, was the one black employee in the department. When the driver asked where he could find John, the receptionist pointed down the hall to a cluster of men standing by the copy machine. Within that cluster were three white men and one black. The driver, never having seen the new employee before, inquired, “Which one is John?” Elise then watched as her colleagues spent three minutes trying to describe John without mentioning he was black. After a few minutes, Elise became impatient and blurted out, “He’s the black guy down at the end of the hall.” The driver proceeded to deliver the package to John.
The positive thing about this event is that everyone – the driver, the colleagues, and Elise – were trying to do the right thing. The driver was trying to do his job (deliver the package), the colleagues were trying to help the driver, and Elise was trying to speed up the process.
In my view, the learning here rests with the possible attitude of the colleagues. I say “possible attitude” because of course we can only speculate about what is in anyone’s head.
With the understanding that we are essentially guessing about what the colleagues were thinking, it appears that there were two related issues on their minds. First, they were reluctant to mention the color of their colleague’s skin. This is a pretty safe bet because their refusal to do so prolonged the process of getting the package to its destination.
The more interesting – and revealing – issue is why mentioning John’s skin color made them uncomfortable. The answer well might lie in that well-meaning but often dishonest mantra of the Civil Rights Movement: “I never notice the color of a person’s skin.”
Somewhere along the line, Elise’s colleague got it in their heads that there is something wrong with noticing, much less commenting on, skin color. Sure, there are times when mentioning skin color is a red flag for a racist attitude, but this incident was not one of them. Notice the difference between the context of Elise’s statement, “He’s the black guy down at the end of the hall” and this one:
Joe goes out to dinner at a fancy restaurant to celebrate his birthday. The next day, his neighbor asks if he had a good time, Joe replies, “Well, the food was great, but the evening was ruined when a bunch of black guys got loud at the next table.”
What’s the difference between the two statements? In Elise’s case, the mention of skin color was pertinent to the situation – nothing disrespectful or discriminatory about it. It was necessary in order to pick John out of the crowd.
On the other hand, the color of the rowdy diners at Joe’s birthday celebration had nothing to do with the situation and, frankly, when mentioned, the neighbor wondered why Joe felt compelled to include that bit if detail in his complaint. I suspect that it is that distinction – between function and random embellishment — that Elise’s colleagues failed to understand. Sure is lucky Elise was there or that package might never have arrived at its destination.