When I Spoke up Instead of Laughing it off

When I Spoke Up

When I spoke up instead of laughing it off.

I’m a light-hearted girl, but let me tell you about a time when I spoke up instead of laughing it off. I’m a work in process and in no way perfect, but this is my story that I want to share and it is history now.

Several years ago, I wore business suits. I sat behind a computer much like now, but then I met with clients and moved legal documents and money around. We chatted at the water cooler and I brought in a tray of brownies for the office birthday party.

I was good at what I did, I enjoyed the interaction of my team, and thrived in the challenge of learning a pretty demanding job. One thing, I never really ironed out was office politics. I never figured out how to play that game. That’s fine. It’s history now.

I was living in another state, a red one, at the time. The demographics of the mid-size company I worked in included approximately 1.5% of people of races other than white.

I grew up in a more diverse area of the country.

The start of a typical day

When I spoke up, it was summer – the start of a typical day. The water cooler was directly outside my office door and four of us had gathered to fill our water bottles before the day launched into full activity.

One woman, my boss, began to recount her weekend.

She told a story of taking her small son to a football clinic at the local university with the students leading groups. For the young boy, it felt like a brush with fame to be coached by a collegiate athlete. He attended games in the stadium often as the parents were avid sports fans.

The storyteller, my co-worker, my boss, explained how the children were divided into small groups and assigned to a specific student-athlete to coach them during the clinic. The athletes wore their team jerseys with their name and number on the back.

The football player assigned to this storyteller’s son’s group happened to have the same last name as their family – they shared a last name with him.

The boy saw this man as a star. In his eyes, he was a famous athlete – a hero. He was so excited that he shared a name with him. He was in little-boy-sports heaven working with his new hero – his hero that shared a name. This hero took the time out of his Saturday morning to coach a peewee football clinic.

As the storyteller recounted that on the way home, the child marveled about the connection that he shared a name with his group’s coach that day. He went on and on about it.

He was starstruck.

At that moment, the parents decided to bring this young athlete hero back down to size in the eyes of their child by telling him, “You know, he probably got the same name as us because our family owned his family when they were slaves. We’re not related or anything. It’s history now.”

When I spoke up

Punch to the gut

As the storyteller laughed at her hilarious story, I felt like I got punched in the stomach.

Shocked.

I will be honest with you, I did not know what to do. This was my boss. Devastated by this story and how it ended, all I could do was walk away immediately. I left and went to the bathroom. I was reeling and could not catch my breath.

Several minutes later, I silently got back to my desk as the day was starting, but still in shock. I could not think. I could not believe what just happened.

Again, more honesty, I don’t think I have ever heard anything that disgusting spoken to me, in my presence, that I can recall, in my life. What a terrible thing to tell a child, a hateful thing to do to that young man that just gave up his Saturday morning to coach your son. What a distasteful thing to say to your employees on a Monday morning at the water cooler.

I was shaken.

I could not let this go.

But what do I do? This is my boss. I am not a person of color. What is it to me? It wasn’t about me. No, but I was offended. Deeply.

I cannot and will not stand by,” I decided.

I determined to go talk to this storyteller directly and in private to explain how I felt about this and call her on it.

So I did. This is when I spoke up instead of laughing it off.

She appeared shocked, but also cordially apologetic.

I explained that I do not want to hear things like this in my work place.

“Yup, no problem. It’s history now.”

It’s History Now

Later that day, another co-worker was in the storyteller’s office. I approached from around the corner and overheard this woman mocking me for confronting her about this racist, hate-filled story she chose to tell.

I stopped in my tracks; I could not believe my ears. This person was smearing me for standing up to her. When I spoke up instead of laughing it off, I willingly assumed this risk. It was a small price to pay – my temporary, minor discomfort.

And do you know what is worse? She said, “It was just a joke” and laughed again. This storyteller’s apology, just moments ago, was in fact just another story to tell.

I turned on my heels and went to the Human Resources office. Explaining my grievance and how this defies several specific lines in the employee handbook as well as possibly some state or federal stuff, it also personally offended me.

I do not know what happened after that, if anything. I don’t work there anymore.

I did what I could. I did what I had to do…when I spoke up instead of laughing it off.

It is history now.

Post Script

This personal story is in no way retold to bring attention to myself or to say that I did the best thing I could or that I even did the right thing. I am not patting myself on the back for this. I’ve probably made many other mistakes in this arena.

This story is to tell you about one time when instead of ignoring a detestable thing, I tried to speak up and instead of just letting it go.

So in that case, why do I tell you this?

I’m vulnerable here. I stand to face a lot of criticism here, because I know next to nothing.

But I know that there is so much more to do. I know at least that much.

But I want you to know that getting into the arena, into the fight against racism can be as simple as not laughing off a “joke” even if it is a little bit socially risky to do so.

That is a start.

If I am not helping to put a stop to racism, I am fostering an environment where it can live on. If we do not actively fight against racism we are willfully supporting racism.

Above all, it is not enough to say “I am not a racist”. If you do not actively resist, denounce, work against, and activate for change, every chance you get, you are part of the problem.

I’ve learned that much. I KNOW I have so much work to do, but this was the story of when I spoke up instead of laughing it off.

Link to resources to start the process to educate ourselves on racism and help in the anti-racism fight:
Amplify Black Voices (link)
Understanding Privilege (link)
Anti-Racism Resources (link)
Blaming Trump is Too Easy (link)
Tools for Anti-Racism (link)
Latasha Morrison on Instagram (link)

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