Ginger and the Job: How Prejudice Ruined a Budding Friendship
When I was in high school, I worked after school and weekends a lot. Babysitting, department stores, fast food… if it existed in a legally acceptable realm, I have likely done it or something similar. Early on during my high school career, a classmate, whom I will call "Ginger", enthusiastically suggested that I apply at the bagel shop where she worked. Ginger was, in fact, a ginger. She reminded me of a cousin of mine: reddish hair, freckles, very Irish features. And she was quite unaware of what would transpire after I decided to fill out an application.
I got the job. A woman manager who had reviewed my application had told me to come down on a given day to get my schedule. I was happy. I went to the store, and when I told the male manager on duty why I was there, he did something I later learned is weirdly familiar to some: he was nice to me. Nice, not kind. He sat me down in front of the store's front window, got me a drink, and calmly advised me that the position had been filled.
I said, " Yes, by me!" He said, "No, it was already filled before you were told to come in." "So why is the Help Wanted sign still in the window?" He insisted that it was a mistake, and that they would have to take the sign down. He was only a few feet away; he could have easily done so then and there. But he did not. That sign remained in the window for at least several months.
All of the people in this scenario would have been identified as White by the US Census Bureau, except for me. Only one of them actually treated me poorly, even with a soda and a smile. But that day changed the trajectory of my friendship with Ginger.
From that moment on, I could not look at Ginger. I never believed that she had somehow been so cruel as to suggest her workplace knowing what would transpire. She had genuinely wanted us to work together. But I didn't want to ever have to look her in the eyes and see that I was somehow wrong about her. I didn't want to find that she learned what had happened and possibly held pity or shame. I didn't want her to ask why I never came in for work after she vouched for me. I didn't see how I could explain.
So, even with my belief that she had meant no malice, I still separated myself from Ginger. I don't think I ever said two words to her after the incident. But I can say that whatever I might have said would have been full of sadness, anger and confusion.
So many people with complexions in shades of brown have stories similar to mine. I can only imagine how many good or potentially good friendships have been cut off due to the biases of fully separate individuals: parents, peers, employers, and so forth, who have driven wedges into relationships because of their own beliefs.
If I could go back and do it again, I would tell Ginger the whole story and let her decide how to respond. Perhaps she wouldn't believe me, or her face or words would betray some foreknowledge, and that would stop what I had thought was a budding friendship. Perhaps she would be horrified and quit her job. Perhaps she would be horrified and NOT quit, but instead tell the person who had hired me what the other had done. Perhaps we would have strengthened our bond as a result of that conversation. Or maybe something more ambiguous would happen, and we would drift apart just because that happens in life. I never gave it a chance. At fourteen, I didn't have it in me to do so. And I never should have had to.
Today, I have no idea what the lives of the people in this story look like. I know that the bagel shop eventually closed, but that was years later. The owners could have sold the shop, retired, and moved to Boca. They could have chosen a different location or a new business venture. Ginger may have gotten married or not, chosen to have some children or not, become more reserved in beginning friendships or not. The female manager might have heard the male manager's side of the story, and might have believed that I had flaked or said something inappropriate. She might have become more reserved in her hiring practices as a result. Or maybe she had a suspicion about the man, and would have been more inclined to believe he had some hand in my presumed flakiness.
I'm guessing that the male manager continued right on treating people as he had me. I would presume that, even if he ever got a reprimand for it, he found a way to blame someone else for the consequences he faced. I would like to think he was put in a situation at some point in which he had no option except to learn that the way he treated people was wrong, and that he found out how to do better. I would like to, but I certainly would not hold my breath.
Prejudice is a nasty thing. And it does not always come with guns and pitchforks. Sometimes it comes with a coke and a smile.