I don’t always understand how the world can be as cruel as it is. Not only cruel in the horrific ways, such as a twisted murder or other vile crime, but also in the small, ordinary, everyday ways. In indifference, in petty revenge, in prejudice.
I don’t understand it because I can’t imagine ever wanting to hurt someone. I’m sure I could be moved by my temper to want to hurt someone in an extreme case, in self defense or if I was witness to some unimaginable thing, but I still can’t imagine wanting to do that, to go beyond to reactionary to premeditated. That includes the every day cruelties.
I may dislike people, clash with them, etc. but I wouldn’t want to purposely exact some kind of comeuppance on them just because I want to see them fail or think they deserve it. I want to hustle and advance in life, but I can’t imagine being a take no names kind of person. I couldn’t purposely take advantage of somebody or use somebody. And I could never purposely go out of my way to treat somebody else unfairly because of my own double-standards, presuppositions and/or bigotry*.
*Although I acknowledge that due to privilege sometimes these actions still happen without even realizing it which is why I said purposely, and I strive to be someone who looks for unchecked privilege in myself even if it takes a minute and makes me uncomfortable to confront and hard work not to default back onto again in the future. I call it the middle-class snob effect, for my own personal flaws.
That kind of behavior just isn’t me and that kind of behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Perhaps it’s my high levels of empathy, or my striving to be a decent human being, but I’m fully aware that real people get hurt every single day by very small cruelties just as much as real people find hope every single day by small acts of kindness. We like to talk about the latter, but the former makes our skin prickle. It requires examination of the ugly parts of our world, of our family, of our friends, of our coworkers, of ourselves. And sometimes it can leave us feeling helpless.
This past week I’ve been in that very place. Highly empathetic, hyper aware, and at times very helpless.
A coworker of mine was terminated early last week. The only warning I had was a feeling of foreboding upon waking up the morning it happened. I was sick to my stomach and ill-at-ease the entire way to work and it got worse when she came in. The only warning she had was that when I mentioned it in passing, she apparently felt the same.
This coworker was one of my only friends in my office. She was a wonderful, vibrant, aware woman. If she weren’t those things, the treatment done to her would have been deplorable nonetheless. She was terminated for many reasons, but for none of the reasons she was told. She was told it was for having been written up unfairly a week prior, that the superiors had decided that upon further review they would need to take more serious action and let her go.
Translation: Upon further review, they found out she was applying for another position following the unfair write up. Upon further review, work has been very very slow lately and this was a nice scapegoat for the director that promised it would not lead to any layoffs. Upon further review, she is a black woman and the man who orchestrated the event that led to her unfair write up had been consistently antagonistic towards her and anyone friends with her – to the point of racial harassment charges (which he was barely slapped on the hand for) – and he practically danced around the office the rest of the day of her firing.
But that’s not where the cruelty ends, no. As big as an injustice that was, and certainly the most detrimental toward her at this present time, it’s been in the days since that I’ve had to witness other cruelties. The petty kind that she may not know about, but still show the character of many of the other people I still work with. I’ve had to sit by and listen as a supervisor was all, “woe is me” for having to fire someone only to turn around and complain about how much work she’s had to do in handling the tasks the other woman used to do. Then, if that isn’t enough, she daily lambasts how horrible a worker she really was, blaming her for things which – as I’m in a position to be privy to – 1. were her own mistakes after taking over the tasks and 2. are similar to mistakes that all of the others (all white and richer) make on a regular basis (many of which make my job more difficult, unlike the woman who was fired who I rarely had issues with). This has led to the others making unnecessary comments about her work. And, lastly, Mr. Man who orchestrated this entire thing has taken to thinking he can be buddy-buddy (in the predatory sense, I assure you) with me again now that I’m not talking to her on a daily basis.
None of these things happen in a vacuum even though they probably think they do. They probably think that because she’s gone they’re free to behave this way and it hurts no one. But they’re wrong. It hurts me. And while what I’m going through is nothing compared to the woman who lost her job, thus the insurance/benefits she was using to care for her very young child with special needs, and I recognize that, I still feel helpless and confused and guilty and angry and sad and lonely.
I feel sad and angry for what happened. I feel helpless because I wasn’t able to do anything about it and because I’m in the position of having to endure these further snubs against the woman. I feel guilty because I still have a job and I know that my white skin alone privileges me with more respect than she ever got and that associating with her and her brown skin was seen, preposterously, as a mark against me, the race traitor, until she was removed from the picture. Likewise I feel guilty because I didn’t know if I had any place pointing out to the superiors the racism that was happening because they didn’t care to do anything about the most extreme – and verified – case in the first place…so I didn’t when I probably could and should have. I feel confused because I know I have to show up, do my job, get paid; I have bills to pay and my own needs to consider, but this feels like a blemish on my own integrity on the one hand and on the other there’s nothing my emotions can do to change what happened.
And I feel lonely. It’s only been a little over a week and I feel lonely for her presence in the office. I feel lonely for our conversations. I feel lonely for the stories about her sweet child. I feel lonely for her knowledge and the way I’ve grown as a person a little just by having known her. And, selfishly, I feel lonely because she paid attention to me. She got to know me. She treated me like an equal. I haven’t gotten that often in my life so that makes the loss of her near-daily presence in my life a little bit rawer. I’m now left with silence for most of the day and people I no longer trust, no longer respect, no longer wish to engage with more than what is required.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, the thing she was originally written up for? I heard her supervisor saying just this morning that they’re going to have to give a pass to everyone else for the very same thing.
Because it was never about what she failed to do. It was that she failed to do it first and was already a target. It was because a hateful man already had a vendetta against her and saw his chance to strike. He has no reason to strike at any of the others.
I just don’t understand.
I don’t understand how they can sleep easy, knowing that they went after a woman because of the color of her skin, knowing that they went after a woman who had a precious child to care for on top of it. I don’t understand how they can go on talking bad about her, although I suspect if her supervisor really did feel bad about the firing maybe she’s now trying to justify it by looking for flaws thus soothing her conscience in the process (not that this excuses her behavior, rather just makes it sadder).
I don’t understand the everyday cruelties that effect people everywhere. But maybe it’s not something that can be understood. If understanding means that I would have to be just like them, then I never want to.