Thursday, April 14, 2005

I wish SHE was in Dixie...

For those of you who missed it, a while back, I posted a story about a co-worker of mine. I dubbed her Karma so as to protect the innocent. Or the guilty. Oh, heck. I just didn't want her to find it. At any rate, I have managed to accumulate several more in the time I have been here. Bear in mind, she is from Texas and has a slight twang. In the last story, I had ingratiated myself to the point of being her confidante. Well, thanks largely to my intolerance of stupidity, I have alienated myself out of that role. I think the turning point was when I called her ignorant and arrogant. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Read on for a story that ranges all over the map. It's a long story as this was a long argument. You will learn of the interconnectedness of:

  • Racism
  • Dictionaries
  • Sexism
  • Southern Baptists
  • Swastikas
  • Texas
  • And More!

Several nights last quarter, I had to come to work after hours to get work done. I had been coming in after hours so that I could have access to the laser. Karma's work was deemed higher priority, but I still had deadlines to meet. Solution? I worked when noone was there. Karma was wrapping up her usage of the laser while I waited patiently. After I took over, she decided to strike up a conversation instead of going home. For some reason, the topic of racism arose. In retrospect, I realize that she was probably trying to waste my time so I wouldn't complete my work, but at the time I was tired and distracted and took the bait like a shark on chum.

So, racism was the topic at hand and I made what I thought was a fairly safe statement. "Racism is more prevalent in the South than the North." This offended her greatly. Apparently, I had a lot of nerve spouting what passes for conventional wisdom these days. "How can you say that?" I thought for only a second and then said, "Because it's true?"

She refused to be swayed by my clever retort and pointed out, "The North is far more racist than the South." Ooooooh, look! A bloody chunk of fish! "And what is your basis for that statement?" Her well reasoned response? "The only times I have ever seen racism first hand were in the North. "

"And what racism did you see there?"

"Well, one time, I was in Chicago with a guy I was dating. And a friend of his came up. They saw a black guy and said 'We should go beat up that ni**er.' We were just standing on a street corner." I tried not to be amused over the fact that she whispered "black guy".

"Ok. So you dated a racist in Chicago. That's one."

"Well, I broke up with him after that!"

"Ok. Sure. Whatever. What else have you got?"

"I mean. I'm not going to date someone like that."

"Uh-huh. Fine. What other racism was there?"

"One time, I was in New Yourk with this *Indian Guy*", the racial identifier was whispered again, "And we went over and got in line in this food court in the mall. Well, there was a *black guy* there in a wheel chair and he was kind of near the line, but we didn't think he was IN the line. So, we went by him. So, then he wheels right up to me and starts cussing me out for cutting him in line."

"Was he using racial slurs?"

"Well, no. But he went up to me and ignored my friend."

"How is that racism?"

"I'm white and my friend is Indian."

"But Indian and black aren't the same thing. They are different races."

"But he's a minority. The *black guy* wouldn't have anything against him."

"Because all those minorities have to stick together."

"No, no. You know what I'm saying."

"Not really. I am having a hard time seeing the racism in that example. The guy sounds more crazy to me than anything else."

"Then why did he come right to me and ignore my friend?"

"You're short? You're a woman? You're short AND a woman? Maybe he perceived you as easier prey. Sorry. I don't see that as racism. What else you got?"

She started to get a bit angry now. "It WAS racism. I KNOW." She probably concluded this from her vast experience with racism. After all, she had seen racism twice. Counting the questionable time. She trotted out a third dubious example as well. I scoffed a little, further raising her hackles. "Well, how much racism have YOU seen?"

"Me, persoanlly? Not much. But I didn't spend much time in the South. And personal experiences are generally not as reliable as a controlled study."

"So, if you've never seen it, how do you KNOW it's prevalent in the South?"

"I've never seen gravity, but I know it makes things fall. How do I know that? I read. I study. I pay attention to events in the world around me."

"Ok. Give me one example of racism in the South?"

"You mean besides slavery?"

"I mean current stuff. I'm not interested in the past. I'm just talking about the current culture of the South."

"Ok. Fine. What about the Confedrate Flag? That's still flown proudly on government buildings down there."

"I knew you were going to bring that up. The Confederate Flag is not racist."

"Really? Then what is it?"

"It's a symbol of pride. We're proud to be from Texas."

"So, wave the Texas flag."

"Well, we do THAT as a symbol of Texas pride. But we're also proud to be part of something bigger. We're proud to be part of The South."

"I'm fuzzy on history. Was Texas part of the Confederacy?"

"It's got nothing to do with the Confederacy! It's about Southern unity and pride!"

"Yeah. Unity on the issue of owning slaves."

"That's ancient history. We're talking about the present."

"Well, at the present, the NAACP and african american community in general view the flag as a divisive symbol of hate and slavery."

"Well, they're wrong. I know people who have the Confederate Flag hanging on their wall, and they don't feel superior to other races."

"That doesn't mean it's not a symbol of racism."

"Sure it does. You can't have racism without a feeling of superiority."

"Sure you can. Racism can just be a hatred of someone for being a different color."

"No. That's prejudice. Prejudice is always a PART of racism. But you can't be a racist unless you feel superior to other races."

"Yes you can. Look at the word. Race-ism. Basically 'defined by race'."

"That's not the definition of racism."

"So, hating minorities for coming here and taking away jobs, even though they are low wage jobs is not racism? Hating someone simply because they are Hispanic, regardless of whether you feel Hispanics are inferior is not racism?!?"

"No. I told you. That's just prejudice."

"Sorry to burst your bubble, but the definition of racism is prejudice based on race."

"Based on SUPERIORITY to another race. Look it up! Go to"


A few mouse clicks and keystrokes later, we arrived at And both of our definitions for racism were there. "See," I said, "both definitions are valid."

"Well, that's just THAT dictionary."

Before she could go further I had typed in This time there were two references. One for WordNet and one for the AmericanHeritage dictionary. Once again, both definitions were there. "Satisfied?"

"Well, my definition is MORE valid," she persisited. "You have to take into account the history of the word. And the word racism was coined in response to slavery. And slavery was based on feelings of superiority."

"I thought we were dealing with the present and not history."

"Well, for a word, you need to understand where it came from. Besides, I've never heard that definition before."

"Congratulations! You learned something new today."

"The word racism originated as a result of the feeling of superiority that whites felt over blacks. That's why they didn't think it was wrong to own them as slaves. So, racism can't exist without a feeling of superiority."

"What about Nazi Germany? The Jews were targeted by Hitler not because he felt he was superior to them, but because they were so prosperous when the average German was not. He needed a scapegoat so he chose a successful minority. He and his brain trust later whipped the populace into a frenzy over the Master Race. But the basis of his racism was that there was not enough prosperity to go around and he wanted it for his race."

"Look. It's not racist, ok? My brother has the flag on his wall and he isn't a racist. He has no ill feelings toward anyone of another race."

"Look. Just because he doesn't believe it is a symbol of racism doesn't mean it isn't one. Let's take the swastika as an example. It was originally a symbol of good luck. Then the nazis coopted it. Now, it is synonymous with naziism. Sometimes, a symbol takes on a meaning so strong, that it will always be associated with that symbol. That's the case with the flag. It was a symbol of the Southern states' secession over a number of issues, including slavery. If it is viewed as a symbol of Southern unity, then it will always be viewed in the context of unity under a racist ideal. No matter what your intention, you cannot divorce the symbol from that meaning."

"That's not the same thing at all!"

"How is it not the same?"

Karma paused, and then began speaking as if to an idiot child. "Sometimes," she said in a kind of sing-song way, "a symbol EVOLVES over time."

"I can buy that, if the symbol does not have such emotionally charged meaning in the first place. And maybe in a thousand years, the meaning will be different, but not right now. Right now, it's still a symbol of slavery and racism."

"No it isn't! It can't be if the person using the symbol doesn't have racist feelings in their heart."

"Look. If a person feels hurt by something, it's their perspective that counts. If you said something that was hurtful to a person, you don't tell them it's their own fault. You try to understand the hurt and try not to say or do whatever it was again. "

"But nobody feels hurt by it."

"I beg your pardon?"

"The only people complaining about the flag are Northerners and Californians butting in on other people's business."

"What about the NAACP? The majority of South Carolina?"

"I haven't heard any *black people* complain about it. And we have friends who are *black people*."

"Why do you keep whispering whenever you mention someone's race?"

"You have to here in California. Everyone's too PC. You can get in trouble." She then related a story where she got in trouble at a previous job for referring to a fellow coworker as 'that Asian girl'. I marveled that all she got out of the rebuke was that it's not okay to mention a race at all. It couldn't be possible that she was scolded because referring to an individual in that way when there were many other descriptive terms available is offensive? And that discussing a racial group in a non-derogatory context is fine. Before I could point any of this out, she continued onward. "Anyway, that's not the point. We are very close friends with a *black family*. They are over our house and we are over theirs all the time. They've never complained about it."

"Maybe they are just being polite."

"No! Why would they invite us into their lives if it bothered them? We are like members of the family to them and vice-versa. Clearly we can't be racist."

Now, at this point. I should have cut my losses, but I was too caught up in the heat of the discussion. I could have said something like "Well. They probably know you and feel comfortable around you. They know what's in your heart." Then I could have segued nicely into a point about people who didn't know them and knew only the symbol. But I was too fired up and missed the window. The direction I took pretty much closed the window, in fact.

"Or maybe you are too close to the situation to notice. Or maybe they are just used to the insensitivity and try not to let it bother them."

"WHAT?!? You're insane."

"Why? For suggesting that you may be too close to a situation to see it clearly?"

"You think that you know more about what's going on in the south than I do when you've never spent a day in the South!"

"I've spent time in Virginia."

"That's not the South. They just think they are part of the South."

"They're below the Mason-Dixon line..."

"It takes more than that to be part of the South."

"Like Karma's approval", I thought to myself. "Look," I said, "If you want to share personal stories of racism, I do have one. It's from rural Virginia. They talk with southern accents there. They were part of the Confederacy. It's generally regarded as the South."

"You think that YOU know more about racsim in the South than I do?"

"After this conversation? Yes. Yes, I do."

"You're crazy! I've lived my whole life in the South. I've traveled all over the South. I even traveled with a *black guy*. We went to big cities and small towns. And we never once encountered racism."

"Well. If YOU never saw it, then clearly it must not be there."

"Come on. If racism was so prevalent in the South, something would have happened to us. Someone, somewhere would have commented. I mean, a *black* guy with a *white* girl? Come on."

"So, the intimidation of black voters at the polls..."

"That's blown out of proportion by you folks in the North."

"And the 80,000 minorities who were disenfranchised in Florida by being 'mistakenly' removed from the voter rolls as felons?"

"I never heard of that happening."

"That was a HUGE story in the last election. How did you miss that?"

"Whatever. You think I don't know what racism is? They drill it into us all through school in the South."

"My wife studied racism as well. She took a lot of courses on the subject in college. And she experienced racism first hand in Virginia."

"Book knowledge does not compare to actually living there and seeing the people every day."

"What about her first hand experience?"

"I told you, Virginia is not part of the South."

"Ok. So on your map, Virginia is not part of the South. Fine. That still doesn't really resolve the Confederate flag issue. Nor do your travels with a black person"



"Don't say *black person* out loud."

"I'm not worried."

"*Beverly is still here*." She pointed to the cube diagonally opposite as she whispered. Beverly is black.

"I'm not saying anything that would offend her."

"Trust me. You haven't been in California long enough."

It's more likely that she didn't want Beverly to think she was racist, as she was the one defedning the Stars and Bars. "Whatever. Anyway, I still haven't heard a satisfactory answer to the flag."

"I gave you one," she said in a condescending tone. "Symbols evolve. Remember?"

"Yes, but I refuted that by pointing out that some symbols cannot shake their inflammatory meaning. At least not over this short a time period."

"I know you did. But I don't agree with you."

"So, if an employee here wants to hang up a swastika for good luck, you're okay with that?"

"That's not the same thing!"

"Why not?"

"You can't compare what Hitler did decades ago to what is going on now in the South."

"I'm not. I'm comparing the use of a symbol that has had more than one meaning to the use of another symbol that you claim has more than one meaning."

"Hitler was a serial killer. The Confedrates weren't serial killers."

"I'm not talking about...what?!?"

"Hitler was a serial killer. You can't compare what he did to the South."

"Hitler wasn't a serial killer. He was a charismatic and manipulative megalomaniac."

"He killed millions of people. How can you say he's not a serial killer?"

"Let's go back to the dictionary, shall we? 'Someone who murders more than three victims one at a time in a relatively short interval'."



"He murdered millions a few at a time over a number of years."

"That's really not the same thing. First, he didn't actually do the killing himself. He had others do it. Secondly, serial killers tend to have an M.O. or pattern. Third, they try to avoid being caught. Hitler created a national policy and got people to go along with it because he was smart and charismatic."

"Serial killers usually are smart people."

"I know that. That doesn't mean that because he was smart and was responsible for the deaths of millions that he was a serial killer."

"He was insane."


"Everyone knows that. Serial killers are insane."

"But he wasn't a serial killer. He may have had some megalomania, but I don't think he was insane. Not in the sense you are suggesting anyway.He was a smart, calculating man. You could even argue immoral, but I don't think he was insane."

"He was nuts! All this master race stuff? And killing all those people."

"I think you want to believe he was insane because you don't want to believe that a sane person could do what he did. It's safer to think that only crazy people do that. We're getting off track again, though. My point has nothing to do with whether or not anyone was a serial killer. My point is that the swastika is seen as a symbol of racism and hatred because it was the symbol of the nazis. The Confederate flag is seen as a symbol of racism because the Confedrates were a government formed on the principle that owning slaves was okay. Both symbols are too strongly tied to those meanings to change them any time soon."

"Nobody in the South believes in slavery anymore."

"Dunno if I agree with that..."

"They don't!"


"So, the flag can't symbolize that any more."

I was beyond frustrated. I heaved a heavy sigh. "But just because nobody believes that now doesn't mean the symbol doesn't represent that! If a large percentage of the population believes a symbol represents racism and that position is well known, then displaying that symbol and saying it is not racist is one of three things. It's either racist, ignorant, or arrogant."

"YOU'RE ignorant and arrogant. And insane!"

"Give me another possibility. I'm willing to listen."

"No you aren't. You care more about being right than you do about having a real discussion."

"No. I care more about sharing and discussing ideas. And I've already explained how I arrived at my conclusion. You haven't given me any reason to change my point of view. The person is either a racist, too arrogant to care that what they are doing is hurtful, or ignorant of the fact that people see it as a symbol of racism. Racist, ignorant, or arrogant."

"Oh, THAT'S right. Because BRIAN can only see three possibilities, there can't possibly be any more."

"No. There can be. I just haven't heard them."

"You haven't listened to a word I said."

"Sure I have. I just haven't agreed with it."

"I've been telling you that it's about unity and what people feel."

"And I told you that if people are offended and you choose to ignore that, you are ignorant or arrogant. Or ignorant and arrogant. I didn't say that people do feel racist or that they weren't trying to be united. I merely pointed out that there were less hurtful ways of showing unity."

"You people in the North really need to get over yourselves. You're always stirring up trouble."

"Why? Because we agree with the people who are being hurt?"

"No. Because you fight cause for other people whether they want you to or not. The southern blacks weren't complaining about the flag. You just imported a bunch of people to get upset about it."

"Most minority oppression causes didn't get anywhere until an outside group came along to help. Civil rights didn't get too far until whites and blacks were working side by side to do something about it. Women's rights didn't take off until men start woring side by side with the women to push it through."

"Oh, don't give me women's rights. Y'all are a bunch of chauvinists up there and here in California."

"More chauvinistic than the South?"

"Please! They treat women with respect and dignity in the South. Not like the pushy rude people in the North."

"We're pushy and rude to EVERYONE in the North. It's not bias. It's equal opportunity."

"All I know is that I've experienced more chauvinism in the North than in the South."

"What about the Southern Baptists?"

"They're a religion! They are not representative of Southern culture."

"And they are called Southern Baptists because?"

"All Baptists are like them. They all have specially defined gender roles. That whole 'Man is the head of the house' is blown way out of proportion."

"So, Southern Baptists are just another branch of the World Baptists? And all Baptists think women should be subservient to men?"

"Well, they are all part of the same organization, but that's not what they believe. The press in the North blew some comments out of proportion."

"Ah. It's the North's fault again."

"I have friends who are Baptists. One of them is here in California. She says that her husband makes the final decision on matters, but with considerable input from her. So, it's not that the men control the women. They just need someone to make the final decision and decided that it was supposed to be the man."

"Which has nothing to do with Southern culture."


"And the reason that the ones who get all the bad press are the Southern Baptists is because of the Northern media trying to cause trouble."

"Which still has us off track on this whole racism, flag thing."

"You still maintain that you know what's going on better in the South than someone who has lived there?"

"Than someone who is blinded by her association and proximity to the subject, yes."

"You're insane."

"Well, you're ignorant and arrogant. At least insanity can be helped by drugs."

The conversation devolved from there. I walked away and she followed. I kept walking and told her she'd have to chase me all the way to the lab if she wanted to continue this talk because I had work to do. Thankfully, she didn't follow me.

I felt badly about this the next day as I am supposed to be working hard at getting along with her. Or rather, we are supposed to be working hard at getting along with each other. That seems to consist of me putting up with her crap and being her pla all the while. Still, I wanted to keep the work environment as positive as possible, so I called her on my cell on the way in to work to apologize.

"Hey. I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry about last night. I think the discussion got away from both of us and we got caught in the heat of the moment. I don't think you're ignorant and arrogant." I did think she was both of those things, not to mention a touch mentally unstable, but I was trying to patch things up.

"Well," she said, "I think it's just because we have different goals. I want to get you to see reason and you just want to prove you're smarter than everyone else."

Proving I had learned nothing from the night before, I took the bait. "No. That's not true. We both want to try to get the other person to see our point of view. It's just that neither of us had an approach that worked on the other."

She hemmed and hawed, neither articulating a stance or indicating that the conversation was over.

"It doesn't sound as though I'm forgiven," I said.

"Well. It's not all that easy to forgive those statements."

"You said some harsh things to me, and I've put it behind me."

"Yeah...I guess..."

"Look. I can't make you forgive me, but I am sincerely sorry." I was. Not for calling her names. I was sincerely sorry for having the whole conversation in the first place. " I just called to apologize, and I've done that. What you do with it is up to you."

Right around then, I drove under some power lines and the call got cut off. I didn't call back. When I got to work, she accused me of hanging up on her. I explained the situation and told her it didn't make sense to call back as I was almost at work. I don't think she bought it, but I no longer care.

If you read this all the way to the end, thank you. It was a cathartic thing to write. I don't think it was meant to serve any entertainment purpose. Although she WOULD make an excellent character in a play or story. And for that, I am glad to have had dealings with her.