Friday, May 20, 2011

Don't Judge a Book by Its Color

I was participating in a charity walk with a group of people from my office. The idea to participate was originally sold to me under the premise that the cause was to raise money and awareness to combat Lupus. Oddly enough, the walk was titled “The Walk for Lupus.” I had to check with the organizers to make sure I was not unknowingly raising money to further the prevalence of this autoimmune disorder. I asked, “is this a walk FOR Lupus, or against it?” The skinny lady in the jean shorts fired a look of contempt at me, and I quickly realized my question was inappropriate. I decided to keep my mouth shut, and just fade into the crowd to await the start of the three mile walk.

Now that I knew I had volunteered to help a worthy cause and not a devilish conspiracy, my legs churned with a purpose. We were all walking together on the first of our 1.5 mile laps; when I overheard a couple of other anti-Lupus supporters talking. They were apparently not very close friends or even coworkers, because they spoke unfamiliar and asked questions of one another like they had just met. Before I had a chance to join them in their strange discourse, their conversation became far too intriguing for me to interrupt with benign questions or disruptive observations.

One woman said to the other, “They call me 'Black Girl' at the office. At first I was angry, but I've gotten used to it.”

The other woman replied, “Why do they call you that, and not by your real name?”

Black Girl said, “Because I'm the only black girl there, and they give everyone nicknames like that at work.”

White woman replied, “That doesn't make it better. You should tell them to stop.”

Black Girl came back with, “I tried to tell Bow-Legged Mail Room Lady at the Christmas party that it bothered me, but she told me to get over it. So I did. I doesn't even bother me anymore. For brevity's sake, I took to calling her Bow-Legs after that night. We are good friends now”

I literally had to stop walking for a few minutes after that. My legs could not walk while my mind was running. I caught up to my coworkers after a short breather, and I continued to listen in to the rest of Black Girl and White Woman's conversation, but by this time they had moved on to a far less interesting subject. They were now talking about the adverse effects of dehydration on someone who was inflicted with Lupus. I didn't care to hear about her arthritis, fatigue or Pleural effusions. I wanted to hear more of the literal nicknames that are dealt out at her place of business. I wanted to know where she worked, who she worked with, if they had an in-house HR representative, and what his or her nickname was.

I thought back to the place where this all came to a head, and what was essentially the turning point in her story. The company Christmas party where she faced off with Bow-Legged Mail Room Lady. The time and place where she found herself feeling satisfied with the explanation and eventually even content with the moniker she was given. Black Girl had confronted Bow-Legs at that party by just sharing her feelings of offense and contempt. Bow-Legs responded by simply telling her to get over it. I'm not sure that argument would work for me if someone dubbed me “Cracker Boy” or referred to any of my non-flattering features on a regular basis. But apparently what was good for the black girl, is good for the gander.

I'm not sure the Christmas party at Literal Inc could have been a classy affair based on what I do know about their employees, but I am quite sure it would have been interesting. Black Girl and Bow-Legs would have mingled among the likes of Coffee Breath, Cankles and Butterface. They would talk about how their boss Senor Comb-Over should really focus more on product marketing and less about research and development. Lipstick Teeth and Chicken Neck would have been embarrassed when they showed up wearing the same red dress, and Weasel Face would be drunk before the clock struck 10:00 pm.

Usually, an office party is an affair where you try not to be the main character of a Monday morning story session. At this party, I'm pretty sure you would have to do something rather sordid to accomplish such a feat. Generally, if you introduce your wife to your coworkers by saying, “Jessica, this is Black Girl. Black Girl, Jessica”, you would find yourself with a fat lip and a Monday morning invitation to your boss's office. At this party, you can make a joke about Freckle Tits one minute, and tell your boss that you only refer to him as “Boss” because it stands for “Body Odor, Stained Suit” the next, and nobody would think twice about it.

The punch bowl would be spiked by the young intern everyone calls Pimple Face, while Liver Spots, his grandfather who got him the job, would be his lookout. In the corner, Short Skirt would be trying to garner attention by repeatedly dropping (and subsequently picking up) her cocktail napkin. All the while, Beer Gut and Whiskey Face would be making their way outside to smoke on the veranda (for the fifteenth time that evening).

Nobody would seem to mind the reality that every single person there had been stripped of their Mom-given names in lieu of a crude generality in reference to one of their literal traits. At least not at first. The night would still be young, and the inhibitions would have yet to be curbed by the “Pimple Face punch.” There was still time for someone to go too far, and at that time, a few pivotal patrons had yet to arrive to the party.

The satellite office was where all these generalizations and crude nicknames were created and shot like Nerf-tipped arrows at their suspecting targets. However, the Information Technology team from corporate was in town to join them at the party. They had been to the office a few times, but only on occasion for quick presentations or simple system upgrades. They were a busy couple of professionals, so they rarely had time to socialize with the other office workers. Unfortunately, they were prevalent enough to have received nicknames of their own. And unbeknownst to them, they were just as socially unacceptable as any other. Panty Lines and Gap Tooth were responsible for the names that were created for the IT team. Carlton, was a young black man who had recently graduated from Howard University and was known around the office for being a wine aficionado. They had dubbed him “Kunta Chianti.” The other person there to represent IT was Mohammed Abdel Fattah. He was a middle-aged man from Dearborn, MI who spoke with a distinct speech impediment. They had taken to calling him “Terrorlisp.”

Most people in the office had unseemly nicknames, but they lacked the color and creativity of those two sobriquets. At first, I would have assumed the people of Literal Inc were racist against black people, but then, why was Black Girl just called “Black Girl” and not something more imaginative than that? Next, I wondered if they were just close-minded against Muslims, but if that were true than they never would have hired a man named Mohammed Abdel Fattah in the first place. No, it was something far more sinister than that.

These other ignorant aliases were thrown around as if their office was a schoolyard, and they didn't know any better. But these two epithets were based on deep thought and were linked to hurtful chapters in the respective cultures of their targets. I believe they were actually sugar-coating their racism, hatred and misogyny with all the other names that were given out. But in the cases of Carlton and Mohammed, they took advantage of the fact that these two gentlemen were never there to defend themselves. They didn't have to mask their true ignorance, because the marks would never hear the hateful tags that had been pinned to them in their absence and obliviousness. You see, until that night, Carlton and Mohammed had no idea that this is how the people at this office spoke to one another. It didn't seem to bother them, because it didn't seem to bother those who were being referred to in such crass ways.

Well, the alcohol consumption had reached an ample point, and both Carlton and Mohammed would soon hear with their own four ears what everyone in the office had been calling them for months. It took only one slip of the tongue from Coffee Breath's disgusting mouth. He was talking to Cankles and Liver Spots about the issues they had been having with their print servers, when he called the two IT men over. Unfortunately, he did not call them by their actual names, nor did he do so at a volume that could be described as a whisper.

He said, “Hey Kunta Chianti, Terrorlisp, come over here.”

They turned and looked him dead in the eye. They somehow knew that he was calling them. Either that, or wanted to see why someone would be yelling those bigoted words at such a high volume at a professional office party. Their initial assumptions that they were indeed the targets of his comments were quickly verified by Coffee Breath waving for them to come over and join him in his conversation.

Carlton asked, “I'm sorry, did you just call me Kunta Kinte?”

Coffee Breath exhaled, “No, I called you Kunta Chianti, you're the brother who likes wine, right?”

Before Carlton could pounce on him and grind him into small morsels of a man, Mohammed spoke up. He said, “Did you just call me a terrorist?”

Coffee Breath had still not caught on that these two men were not part of their clique and did not get the jokes. At a close and uncomfortable proximity to Mohammed's face (and nose), he said, “Yeah man, you're the Muslim fella who talks funny, what else would we call you?”

Carlton and Mohammed stoically calculated their next move. A physical altercation was not the best choice, and not because they were worried about losing their jobs. No, they were skinny nerds just like every other IT professional. But they were observant enough to deduct that in that very instant, each person at the party had realized that these nicknames should not have been shared (or even applied in the first place). The entire room seemed to sober up instantaneously. That was when Carlton and Mohammed took action.

The microphone and amp were set up in a corner for the upcoming midnight toast from Flop Sweat (Literal Inc's CEO). Carlton swiped the microphone from its perch and began explaining to the room why his nickname, although quite witty and rather accurate to his race and taste for spirits, was boorish and inappropriate. Mohammed chimed in occasionally over Carlton's shoulder to give a lisp-laden sidekick-style affirmation of “yesssss” or “that'ssss right.” It was obvious that Carlton would and should be the spokesperson for IT that evening.

He told them that the nicknames the others had given one another were just as uncouth, but lacked that extra note of racism or cultural bias that they had bestowed on he and Mohammed. He announced to the party that as a member of the IT team, if wanted to, he had the ability to read their emails. They quickly realized that he indeed wanted to and had on many occasions. Carlton immediately began renaming the party-goers one by one with unrelenting accuracy and fervor.

Panty Lines was already aptly named for the tight dresses she wore that made it clear she was a fan of full-backed underwear. However, Carlton skipped past that fact and went on to point out that he knew about her numerous sexual escapades with many of the men in the office. Her red hair and pale complexion made it obvious that she was of Irish descent, so Carlton took to calling her Erin O'Shay McWideVagina. Panty Lines teared up while the room fought back spurts of muffled laughter.

Almost instinctively, he turned his ire toward Gap Tooth (the other person who'd renamed him). Gap Tooth had a southern accent, and was known for being a fan of NASCAR. Carlton had once read a confessional message from Gap Tooth to a close friend. In it, he confided that he saw his cousin at a reunion, and although he was fully aware that she was his 2nd cousin, he had a strange attraction to her nonetheless. Gap Tooth was therefore deemed Curt Cousin-Fucker. Carlton even went as far as to ask Curt if his “mom-aunt and sister-niece were proud of what he had become.” Gap Tooth didn't answer, he just hung his head in shame as he slithered toward the exit.

Carlton was on a roll, and went through half the room before Mohammed was able to subdue him. Unfortunately, Cankles had already become Jenny Jesus Freak, Butterface was called Martha Mobile Home, Liver Spots was changed to Denny the Divorcee, and finally Chicken Neck turned into Betty Bankruptcy.

Out of breath, and emotionally spent, Carlton and Mohammed took their leave. Behind them, they left a room of dumbfounded coworkers. Including the likes of Black Girl and Bow-Legs. Luckily for them, they were able to escape the wrath of Carlton that fateful evening. Maybe it is because Black Girl and Bow-Legs were a cut above the rest of them. Maybe it was because they were just lucky. Then again, it could have simply been that their emails weren't interesting enough to read. I'm sure the people at Literal Inc. are a little more cautious of how they judge people now, or at least they are more apt to shy away from using company email for personal business.  Either way, I'm glad I didn't stay at home to watch a House M.D. marathon on Netflix that day. Sometimes there is a reason to shut off the TV and go for a three mile walk, and once in a while, that reason is Lupus.

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