by Lauren Bulfin
“We’ve had an anonymous complaint,” began my supervisor Cesar sounding oddly hesitant for a man so bounding with aggression that he often throws office supplies at our heads for no reason. “The music is too loud. And the conversations have been…raunchy. And, quite frankly…racial.” (Upon pronouncing this last word, his pale Cuban skin flushed pink.) Cesar looked at our blank faces, hoping for a sign of contrition. Nothing. Cesar continued: “The Deputy Manager wanted to come up in here and tell you guys himself, but I convinced him not to.” Cesar looked at us almost pleadingly: “when it’s just us, we can say what we want, but when there are outsiders around, we have to be careful.” Odd words coming from a man who said things like: “today, I’m wearing briefs instead of boxers. It’s like walking around all day with a wedgie when you don’t have a wedgie.”
The anonymous complainant was obviously the cancer researcher who had occupied an empty desk in our cubicle pod for several days. But it was hard to think about any specific incidents she was referring to due to the sheer volume of inappropriateness. Raunchy? Was it when an elderly coworker who liked to flirt was told that he “shouldn’t make promises the body can’t keep?” Was the researcher offended when I was told I shouldn’t drink coffee because “you know, White people don’t age well”? Or was it when a Black employee said “if that woman had been White you know they wouldn’t a’ never convicted her?”
I couldn’t even categorize whether these events had taken place before or during the researchers’ arrival. We didn’t censor ourselves for no researcher. My co-workers are largely a working-class, multiracial group of people who talk fearlessly about social issues that the students at my liberal arts college spend expensive sums to talk around, using political correctness as a shield.
During the school year, I’d gotten in trouble for the way I expressed myself about these issues, and was forcefully made to realize that I needed to tone myself down. At first I had protested: “but this is me toned down.” And in comparison to my co-workers at the hospital, where any opinion was best expressed as bluntly as possible, often for comic effect, I was toned down. But in comparison to the students in my seminar, I was toned way the fuck up. On one occasion, the White students even got mad on behalf of the minorities in our class.
While I was shaken up enough by this incident to modify my own behavior, I sincerely hoped that Cesar’s speech didn’t lead my co-workers to water themselves down too. One of the precepts of right speech is to “abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others.” But one of the ‘near enemies’ of loving-kindness, is comfort, which I interpret to mean as engaging with others in a superficial way, so as to avoid things getting awkward or ‘messy.’ Political correctness can be this near-enemy at times. Yes, I do feel ashamed when one of my White co-worker starts spouting racial slurs in a room filled with people of all different colors. But when I notice that no one else cares, I find myself caring less. Words are just words. When you allow people to express themselves outrageously, you are often clearing the way for them to work out their complex feelings towards a sensitive subject, even if they appear to be engaging only in “idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.” (A no-no for right speech.). For example, a Black man at my job would often say things such as: “Well, there are too many White people in the room, I have to leave.” Eventually, he started telling us about all the fucked up things he had experienced growing up in the Jim Crow South.
So I was glad when Cesar barked at me a few days later: “Lauren, I know you’re White and all, but do you have to be so pale? Its summer time, go out and get yourself a tan.”
Political correctness had came and went from our hospital department, much like the researcher.