I found myself an unprepared witness to a classist/racist “joke” where and when I least expected it. Should I have intervened? Is there a way to turn such ugliness into a “teachable moment”?
One afternoon I was waiting in line at my university’s mailroom behind a rowdy group of undergraduate men. The students—mostly white and a few students of color—were clearly friends, who had assembled to help one of their crew retrieve a large number of packages that took the staff some time to round up. As I stood quietly behind them awaiting my turn, I couldn’t help but overhear their jokey chit-chat. I often find myself thinking that students appear completely oblivious to those around them, and this occasion was no different.
A diminutive reference to females floated past my ears…I looked to the couple standing behind me and rolled my eyes. A few minutes later, an exchange between two of the students in the group left me appalled and speechless. One man said to another, “a little Mexican is going to come out of that box.” The second said, “I hope so, I need my room cleaned.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Worse, I could think of nothing more to do or say than to turn to the same couple and fume, “They think no one can hear them!” To be at a loss for words at a pivotal moment is always frustrating. I am especially sensitive to “bystander guilt” after studying the Holocaust. What’s more, my training as a sociologist makes me feel obliged to speak up and to educate. After all, hadn’t this very type of ignorance motivated my career choice?
Nevertheless, I said nothing to them. I walked away outraged by the comment and disappointed in myself.
I am somewhat skeptical that butting into their conversation would have had a positive effect. Publicly chastising someone is more likely to get a defensive, not humble, response. These men seem unmoved by the messages of social justice and service to others that our Jesuit university reinforces at every turn. Why would they listen to a random stranger?
I am also twice their age. College students seem to possess a special “age-dar” that filters out anyone over the age of 25. Given the frequency with which I am addressed as “Ma’am,” I am certain that I am easily identified as belonging to the wrong side of that age divide. They might quickly dismiss me as a humorless, cranky Old Person.
But I still wish I had called the men out for their classist, racist “joke.” I thought of how I could easily have been standing there with my Mexican colleague, how mortified I would feel had he heard their remarks.
Actually, I would like to have asked them some questions, so I will do so here:
If you’ve looked around and noticed that many of the people cleaning your room, serving your food, or shoveling your sidewalk are Hispanic, did you ever contemplate why?
Do you realize that if you selected random periods in history, the faces and last names of those in service jobs would likely be very different from one another, and might even resemble your own?
Have you ever considered all of the forces at play that afford you the privilege of being a student studying at this university, instead of the worker tasked with cleaning the dorm rooms?
And last, do you realize that those of us around you can hear you chit chat, whether we want to or not?
Susan Legere is a life-long Massachusetts resident and doctoral candidate in Sociology at Boston College. Class issues have long fascinated her, and she’s explored them through academic projects. In 2007, she finished production on Immigrant Reflections, a video documentary highlighting the life stories of three immigrant service workers employed by her university. Susan also completed a study examining social class and consumption in The New York Times “Vows” columns.