#MeToo With Privilege

CW: discussion of verbal and physical sexual harassment in the workplace

The summer I was twenty, between college semesters, I worked in the office at Bee’s Cleaning Supply. Coming in the front door, you were greeted by Ben, a graying African American man, who worked for Mr. Bee from the beginning, manning the front desk and supervising the loading dock at the rear.

I spent most of my time at the four-drawer file cabinets in the hall. Just past the files, a door led to the narrow sales room. A counter ran along its length, with phones and chairs. Roger, the lead salesman, often stopped by to joke around.

To the left, Joy, the bookkeeper, had been hired for her skill with the antiquated machine for printing checks. Joy was about twice my age, with dark curly hair, elaborate makeup and jewelry. Straight ahead was Mary, the secretary, who had lived across the alley and had fond childhood memories of Ben and Mr. Bee. She was in her late twenties, with no-nonsense hair and a professional manner.

With little makeup, I was often mistaken for younger than my years. When Mr. Bee came by, he often gave me a one-armed hug around my ribs. Around seventy, with sparkling blue eyes, he seemed grandfatherly, making me feel even younger.

One day when I had my hands sunk into a file drawer, Roger came through behind me, reaching out to tickle my ribs as he passed. I jumped and turned, but, laughing, he ducked into the salesroom before I could say anything. I shook my head and went back to filing.

When rib-tickling became his daily greeting, I’d had enough. I followed him into the sales room, saying, “Roger, quit-“

He held up a chair, legs toward me like a lion tamer, as though he were the one being attacked. “Whoa! Back! Back!”

“Leave me-“ I tried again.

“Look out! She’s mad!” He brandished the chair again.

Embarassed, I went back to my desk and told Mary and Joy what he’d been doing. Joy gave me a knowing smile, and regaled me with stories of other jobs and other jerks she had encountered, including one who had unzipped the top of the one-piece pants suit she was wearing.

Mary called, “Roger!”

When he came out, she said, “Roger, you need to leave this girl alone.” Her tone suggested she was correcting a naughty boy.

“What did I do?”

It was Joy who knew what to say. “Cut it out or she’ll call your wife.” His wife was the boss’s daughter.

The next month passed uneventfully. The job was easy and I enjoyed my days with Mary and Joy, gradually being trusted to do more than file, including deal with customers.

On my last day, close to quitting time, a customer called to check on an order. I went back to the loading dock to check with Ben, who guaranteed it would go out today. I picked up the phone back there to assure the customer that the order was on its way, when Roger came up behind me and smacked my butt. Phone to my ear, I turned without thinking and felt the sting as I slapped his grinning face.

Behind me, I heard Ben, weary resignation in his voice. “Roger, why’d you have to go and do that.”

Every time sexual harassment comes back in the news, I’ve thought of this. Roger didn’t change my life, affect my relationships, or hurt my chances of getting a job. With recent reports, I’ve been thinking about why. I believe with just some minor alterations, he could have.

The strength to fight back comes with privilege. When someone suggests, “Why did she put up with it?” the question assumes power. I had the power of being white, educated and on my way to other goals than an office temp job.

If I hadn’t been leaving and had been desperate for that job, perhaps a single mom, would I have dared to slap back? If I had been there longer, if he had cornered me somewhere with no one else around, what else would he have tried?  If I were a woman of color, my chances of receiving unwanted attention would have multiplied. If I were intellectually impaired, chances would increase exponentially that sometime I would be raped.

The following Christmas they invited me back for the party. Roger put his arm around my shoulders. I stiffened.

“They bet me that you wouldn’t give me a kiss. You’ll kiss me, won’t you?”

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25 thoughts on “#MeToo With Privilege

  1. The Rogers of the world can jump up their own asses and suffocate. I mean, I know I should not be surprised as I have been on the receiving end of a misogynistic asshole’s behavior but still every time I read a #metoo story it saddens me in a whole new way. This was an excellent examination of what privilege is. I love your writing, Margaret and I’m also so happy to see you on the grid. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh man I hope you slapped him when he asked for a kiss. I’m 54. I’m sitting back and my jaw is dropping at how normalized all of this was when I was younger. It’s so not ok. I only have sons but I hope my granddaughters (because certainly even if I had daughters, they’ve already experienced this) never hesitate to put the dudes in their place.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Roger was an arse. I’m sorry you had to put up with that.

    I really loved the way you reflected on your own power and privilege in the situation. That feels especially powerful and important in light of recent discussions over why women don’t leave, don’t fight back, don’t do whatever mandated act is du jour.

    Writing about #metoo is one of the most difficult things to do, I’ve found. Partly because of its ubiquitousness, and partly because attaining enough objectivity to not spontaneously combust with rage is often very hard. I like the way you detailed Roger’s actions (the lion taming analogy was especially vivid), but the story really began for me only once you’d introduced him. The preamble about Ben, while interesting, didn’t really add anything vital to the rest of the narrative. Similarly, the details about how Mr. Bee greeted you, though they provided a contrast of sorts to Roger’s behaviour, didn’t really add enough for me to form a reason for his inclusion.

    Joy and Mary, though were wonderful. They were such important actors, so influential — holders of knowledge, and protectors. I really liked learning more about their backstories and where their confidence came from. Including Ben’s words after you slapped Roger worked so well to show how there was a weary, resigned acceptance of Roger’s behaviour, how this was not unexpected, but was unacceptable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks as always for your thoughtful feedback. All good thoughts. I wasn’t sure how to get Ben’s line in at the end without introducing him at the beginning.
      In my mind, there was a reason for including Mr. Bee. While I didn’t initially feel any conflict about Mr. Bee’s touch, after Roger started it made me question Mr. Bee’s motivation as well, as well as at first making me question myself whether I was making a big deal out of nothing. I didn’t have the word count to explain any of that, so probably should have left that out.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, that context makes so much sense. I can see why you needed to include Mr Bee now, but yes you definitely didn’t have the word limit to explore that. I’d love to see you expand on this and perhaps submit to somewhere that allows longer pieces though.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The transition from you personal story into a broader context was very smooth. It felt like a natural progression. The clear contrast between Mr Bee’s hugs and Roger’s unwanted attention worked well for me. It was a nice way of acknowledging questions about appropriate versus not.

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    1. Thanks, Michelle. I’m glad it worked for you. The Mr. Bee/Roger contrast was troublesome for me. While I didn’t initially feel any conflict about Mr. Bee’s touch, after Roger started, it made me question Mr. Bee’s motivation as well, as well as at first making me question myself whether I was making a big deal out of nothing. I didn’t have the word count to explain any of that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t need an explanation personally. I’ve had that person, male and female, that was a different generation, higher up than me, and had that familiarity. It felt nurturing. I’ve wondered if we will all begin to question those interactions as well.

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  5. Very important message. The ending was well done.

    I would like to have you start closer to the action. There is quite a bit of exposition to wade through to get to the conflict.

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  6. I love the way you balanced personal and persuasive technique in this one. Like most folks, I think you probably could have trimmed a little bit from your early descriptions – I do want to point out one thing about those descriptions that you might not have noticed: did you know Ben is the only person you describe by race, and the others are described by personality and grooming, with no mention of skin or sometimes even hair color? This “default-white” description style is something that we as white writers need to watch out for, because it automatically “others” people of color in our writing and asks our readers to assume (as scriptwriters sometimes do) that any actor not explicitly described as “not-white” should be cast as white. Ducking back into personal narrative after your exposition break worked really well here to bring the story back together and remind the reader that the personal is political and vice versa.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Rowan. I appreciate your detailed comments. Actually, one of my betas brought up that very thing and we finally settled on leaving it in. I was trying to address it slightly within word count by giving Mr. Bee his sparkling blue eyes. The reason I wanted to leave it in was because there was a power structure within this small family business. I think Asha’s right that I need to make this into a longer piece to get at everything I’d like to point out. It’s hard, because I usually weed out all the extra stuff and write short pieces. Maybe that’s too much extra for this “so what” but it feels relevant to the culture.
      If you wouldn’t mind an extra comment, what’s the best way to address this? Naming everyone’s race seems awkward.

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      1. You don’t have to name everyone’s race, but if you’re going to describe a POC by the color of their skin you should try to describe at least one white person that way. Otherwise it sounds like that is the only thing that stood out to you about that person. I think including him is fine; my concern is that the essay right now is like “here are some personal interesting details about habits and interests which the descriptions tell you about all these people, and also there is a black guy and that is the thing that makes him interesting: he’s black.” So including details like “he may not have always worn a blue tie, but I cannot remember him in anything else” or “his nails were always short and neat, and he ticked them off the hangers as he walked down the row” or something like that – try to describe everyone with an equal level of humanity. I see what you were trying to do with Mr. Bee’s eyes but the fact is that there are quite a lot of black people who have blue eyes and even naturally blond hair, although that’s less common. So “the backs of his hands were as smooth and pale as the paper wrapper that covered each dry cleaning hanger” or something like that.

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