In August I worked full time at a start up in San Francisco, a gaming company in the financial District. For reasons I outline at the end of this recollection, I cannot name the company or use the real names of anyone in the office I discuss. I can say that ironically, months before working there, I took a picture of one of their (MANY) ads plastered all over the downtown BART stations, as well as in the trains themselves:
Yeah, I worked for that misleading eyesore. I was offered the job while I was at a coffee shop a few blocks from my new spot in Oakland, maybe not even a week after returning to The Bay from New Orleans. I was approached by a person who runs a contracting “company,” hiring video game testers to work at various game companies. Literally, he walked up to me as I was drinking coffee and doing computery things and asked “Excuse, do you play video games?”
He gave me his contact info and walked away. I turned to Li like “was that for real or was he being an uber creep and hitting on me?” At this point I wish it was the latter and nothing more came of it.
Flash forward to a week later, I’m working at this company. Right out the gate I was depressed. I found myself working in San Francisco after having finally moved to Oakland. I didn’t want to see SF anymore, so working there Monday to Friday began to hurt very deeply very quickly.
And then there’s the company itself…
The company occupies three floors of a swank office building on Bush St. All three floors are filled with white men: straight, young, and tech savvy. In start up fashion, there is much overindulgence, much money thrown to the wind to keep workers docile and loyal to the company. Coffees, teas, snacks everywhere. And not snacks from the corner store: luna bars, lara bars, cliff bars, other organic “healthy” snack bars, organic chips, PIRATE BOOTY, vitamin water, organic coconut water, every kind of soda, expensive flavored fizzy water, cereals, nuts, yogurt, string cheese, red bulls, peanut butter filled pretzels, those starbucks frap drinks, bananas, apples, peaches, and to top it off catered lunch twice a week for the entire office of 200+ employees. The last day I worked there the entire office ate fried chicken and waffles, grits, macaroni & cheese, two kinds of soup, and salad.
Despite the material incentives, I couldn’t get past how ethically abject this company is. I would peer out the window from the 18th floor at the reflections of these neoliberal colonizers (read: gentrifiers) buzzing around me. They laugh and make bad jokes about dicks and tits. They say the word “bro” every other sentence. They poke at the young Mexican boy Jose a few seats down, and he laughs. He takes it all, smiling. I would wonder whether or not he goes home everyday with a head full of jagged frustration. I didn’t know what thought was more unsettling: him going home everyday with muscles forever tense and a memory that can never totally clear its cache of verbal stabbings by older, taller, arrogant white men, or the thought of him going home feeling that all is well and normal in his workplace. Later, Jose jokes about beating his wife in a group chat on Skype. He is 22 and he is actually married. My expression is blank, but my head is filled with horror as he receives several lol’s in reply.
There is another co-worker, Mike, who was also hired through the same contractor and is black also. One day this large, lumbering white guy walks by our work station and Mike says “watch out for that guy, he’s trouble, he talks a lot of shit” in a half affectionate half sarcastic tone, like you would about a friend. However, when I see the white guy’s sneering red face looking back at us I knew there was more than ring of truth to that statement…
The next day Steve, that same white guy, hears that Jose needs to learn to tell better jokes.
“Better jokes like what? Like ‘you’re a mexican whore’ or like ‘your mother’s a Mexican whore?”
Steve says he’s going to get office supplies. He comes back a half hour later and throws a dictionary at Mike.
“I got this for you cause I know you speak ebonics.”
! ! ! !
Steve looks over at Jose
“I would have gotten you one too but they didn’t have wetback to english.”
¡ ! ¡ !
Steve points at me
“Hey he’s dressed like Run DMC, does he know how to rap?”
I try to pretend I don’t hear him, but then everyone around me is looking at me…
“Hey he’s talking to you man”
I look him in his eyes that are blue steel, cold and violent, and inform him that “no, I don’t rap.”
He grunts a laugh to himself, says a few more things to the white male project leads, and walks away. There is a ring of fire around my heart and it tightens. It is burning and suffocating simultaneously. I want take this lasso from around my organ and tie it around his neck, but I also want to pay the rent for the new room I have just moved into, so I swallow that bitter taste of powerlessness.
And btw this is what I was wearing that day:
And this is Run DMC:
Yes, what the fuck is indeed the correct response. Run DMC wear sweatpants and adidas, not skinny jeans and wingtips.
From there on I go home everyday emotionally exhausted, like totally wiped. I thought I escaped the racism of San Fran, but now I’m being subjected to it for 8 hours everyday to pay my rent. I would come home, pack a bowl, turn on Netflix, and go brain dead. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t laugh, I could’t relax; I could only sit in anger, and grief, and despair. Some nights I would have panic attacks when I looked at the time. ”Fuck, only 2 more hours before I have to go to sleep, then wake up and ready to descend into hell once more.” August was a sad and frustrating month.
And I thought it couldn’t get any worse from there, something you should never believe, something you should never call in.
The next week I come into work and find a message from Mike on Skype:
“I have to talk to you later, its not a really big deal but they brought it up to me.”
We step into a conference room during lunch.
“Steve wanted me to let you know that we’re dressing too thuggish in the office and we need to dress in a way that reflects the company better.”
I ask if that’s the word he used verbatim, and Mike says yes. I say if he wants to say that to me I’ll take that comment and all the rest to HR because I’ve been documenting everything racist he’s said, and Mike nods and says “yeah” and “ok” like he understands or like he cares.
A half hour later Steve walks up to me and asks me to step aside into a conference room with him.
Mike ratted me out and now I have to face Steve, alone…
“Mike said you have a problem with my language in the office and you wanted to tell me something.”
He says he heard from another manager Mike and I are “too thuggish” and he doesn’t mind what we wear, as long as it isn’t baggy jeans. He says he “thinks that shit is stupid,” or maybe the word he used was “retarded,” and that he would punch his kids in the face in they wore baggy jeans. I’m squeezing the arms of the chair I’m sitting in, bracing myself for the impending impact of hailing stupidity.
“Now what did you have to say to me?”
I take a very deep breath through my nose. I tell him, rather I clarify for him that many things said by him and other people in the office has been racist, sexist, homophobic, transpho-
“Whoa whoa whoa, those comments you’re hearing aren’t racist; they’re jokes!”
“The problem is that you’re too sensitive. You need to check all that at the door before you come here to work.”
“We don’t even tolerate people brining up concerns of racism here.”
I had to look around and check for cameras to make sure I wasn’t being Punk’d.
I try to push back, pointing out the realities of the world, that there are policies and laws that maintain racial inequality so it’s not feasible to check the impact of reality “at the door.”
“No, you’re too sensitive, that’s the problem. I acknowledge that racism happens out there in the world at times, but racism doesn’t happen in this office.”
“Besides, there are transvestites on the team that I hired.”
Oh my lord, so hiring “transvestites” somehow absolves you racist? Prior, I had noticed that indeed there were a few transwomen working in the office. All of them white, and all the while homophic and transphobic comments still riddle the office like bullet holes despite their presence.
Also, at some point after this conversation took place, one of the women looked at my prized necklace and said “Hey, that looks like a calculator, is that a calculator?”
I said “um no, it’s a necklace, it’s African, from Nairobi.”
And she replies “Oh, huh…..well, it looks like a calculator.”
Going back to the matter at hand, Steve then proceeds to do what white men always can’t help but do: “educate.”
“Let me tell you, it’s ok to make jokes about slavery because that’s over.”
Yeah, receiving that felt like a bolt of energy striking the center of my head and slicing my body in two.
“Are you a slave? Is anyone you know a slave? No, so jokes are fine because that’s in the past.”
I almost begin to cite the multitude of ways slavery still exists, from the lingering effects of institutional racism to the real life plantations we commonly know today as prisons, but I reel myself in quickly. This is in essence the trauma SF has given me, that ran me out: white men always telling which way is up because they feel they are the “authority” when it comes to any and everything, most often when they don’t know shit about shit except how to protect their privilege by telling me my life experience is false.
“Also, you should be grateful that your ancestors went through slavery.”
“Because that’s a lot worse than anything that’s happening now.”
“So you should be grateful that your ancestor went through that to get you here where you are today at this company.”
Goddess, please restrain me from jumping out this chair and kicking him in his giant red neck.
I go back to the image of my split body and imagine a swarm of tiny demons flocking from the halved flesh and descending upon him; flaming eyes and five rows of shark teeth parting open to reveal mouths filled with the trauma of millions of black memories of rapes, lynchings, torture, experiments, castrations, disfigurements, poisonings, false charges, divestment, profiling, appropriation, theft, murders: memories of genocide.
“And I’m from the south, so believe me, I know what racism is like.”
Well of course, thanks for brining it all the way here into this conversation.
“And, well, I know people say you don’t know about something until you walk a mile in their shoes, but I can tell you again there’s no racism here.”
Aha! A brief moment of clarity only to be again submerged in the sea of white privilege and supremacy. After years of arguments with white men (and white women), watching white men (and white women) move away from me when I start to talk about oppression (i.e. what life as a poor black queer is like), I know when to pick and chose my battles. I know when white people start to speak down to me from their pedatsol which is white privilege, they aren’t listening, nor will they. And they always (attempt to) make the same point: “you’re crazy, what you think is happening isn’t actually happening.” And it’s not a matter of generalizing white people, rather it’s being real about the culture San Francisco creates. Other people of color, including some black people are in on it too, but the thing to remember is that there have always been people of color down with white supremacy. Matters of colonization run deep throughout the years and beneath our flesh, behind our eyes.
So I could have seriously channelled those inner demons of historical trauma and bitten his neck clean off, but the part of picking and choosing battles is knowing “yes, this is slavery right here right now because if I go against this white man’s oppressive, insulting authority I’ll be out of a job and won’t be able to pay rent anymore, but I will indeed ‘be grateful’ for my ancestors work and sue your ass cause this workplace is beyond the legal definition of “hostile.”
I run these thoughts through my head to console myself and he says “So do you get everything I’m saying now?”
I nod and say “oh yea, thank you for explaining.”
He’s so arrogant, I’m clearly being facetious and it goes way over his head.
We exit the conference room and he walks back to my work station with me to announce everyone in the area “don’t worry, I fixed him now…and I didn’t even have to use my knife.”
No. You. Didn’t….wait, he’s a white man with power, of course he did.
A few days after this happened, I listen to one of my project leads tell another his process of interviewing a potential new hire:
“I asked him if he had a sister. He said yeah. I asked if his sister was hot. He said yeah, but she’s 12. I asked if she had any kids. He said yeah, she has 4 lol. It’s good to ask people questions like this during the interview to make people fit in because we want to maintain an office that’s beyond culture“ (emphasis mine)
Beyond culture = hipster racism = neoliberal white supremacy
Not being able to handle this anymore, I decided to register for classes at City College last minute and bump myself down to part-time. Many people work there part time, including Mike, so if I could have educational enrichment and only 3 days of racism a week, maybe I can get by. Since I requested that change I’ve been told I’m not needed to come in for 3 weeks now. My contract manager claims it’s not because of the conversation with Steve, but regardless, I’m going to do what I can to make sure this culture, or lack-thereof, doesn’t continue to thrive.
This story is to be continued. After being encouraged by many friends, even my barber, I’m in the process of taking legal action. I had a whole month of potential creative and community building energy stripped from me for the sake of this company’s profits. That shit ain’t cool. I cannot afford to take white people’s shit anymore. That’s been my mantra this year, and I’m still on it, even if that means getting the law involved. If the revolutions is to be funding, I want it to be funding from the pockets of racist venture capitalists like these folks!