Brian Gongol Show | Cheerfully Intense
Please note: These show notes may be in various stages of completion -- ranging from brainstormed notes through to well-polished monologues. Please excuse anything that may seem rough around the edges, as it may only be a first draft of a thought and not be fully representative of what was said on the air.
Do I look like a manager?
On a brief trip to a Major Home Improvement Store the other day, I found myself looking for some items in the outdoor garden center. I made the run over the lunch hour, and since I've been trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy even while working from home and social distancing, I was wearing a pair of khakis and a polo shirt. I'm trying to do my part to protect others, so I was wearing a cloth mask, and it was bright out, so I was wearing sunglasses.
Got a fairly clear picture of how I looked? Good. Because then the same thing happened to me that happens probably once in every five trips I take to a store.
"Excuse me, are you a manager here?"
It's to the point where I have started documenting some of the more absurd cases. I've been asked That Question while wearing a blue shirt at Target and while wearing a red shirt at Best Buy. And, now, while wearing a shirt embroidered with the name of a pump company and pushing a cart in the garden section of a hardware store -- one where all of the employees wear vests and nametags.
Why am I sharing?
Because for my own experience, it's usually just a little bit of idle amusement. It's nothing for me to get upset about, and it's nothing I can't easily brush off with a gentle "No, I'm afraid not".
But I'll bet good money that anyone who experiences the same thing looks like me: Tall, white, and male.
Be honest: If someone said "find a manager", what fraction of Americans do you think would go looking for someone like me? Across almost every aspect of life, that works in my favor. It generally means good service, courtesy, and the benefit of doubt.
But I owe it to everyone else to invert that. Deference paid to me because of how I look -- even behind a pair of sunglasses, covered in a mask, and wearing a completely wrong outfit for the situation -- means that same treatment is being denied to others because of how they look.
I can't change who I am or how I look. Neither can anyone else.
But I can recognize what's happening. I can acknowledge it (and how it favors me in ways I haven't earned). And I can be aware of how it's not just an unfair advantage to me, but also an unfair burden on others. It's like Newton's Third Law of Motion: If I'm getting the deferential treatment for nothing, then it's being withheld from someone else who earned it.
A fish doesn't know that it's wet. But we're better than fish: Once it's brought to our attention that we're living inside a protective sphere of favorable treatment, it's our job as humans to take stock of what that means.
Most importantly, for me that means I can make choices about my own thinking, my own behavior, my own voting and charitable giving and advocacy. And I can encourage others to do the same.
That's what I'm hoping to do by sharing this here: If just one person sees himself in what I've described and for the first time starts to realize that sometimes we have the privilege of coasting by because we "look like managers" when others have to work much harder, then that's a productive start.
It's productive because the real lived experience I describe is one that can't be denied -- just like there are real lived experiences among my friends that are quite the opposite because they don't look the same as me.
Nobody follows me around a store -- except to ask me where to find the dryer sheets or the scented candles. Nobody tenses up if I walk into a gas station at a quarter past midnight. There is no place I'm denied admission or put under excess scrutiny or hassled by authorities. Dress me in a dark suit, and I can walk almost anywhere unchallenged. (There's even a movie about it: "Catch Me If You Can".)
Unless and until what I'm describing becomes a universal experience, regardless of race or gender, and not just a free pass that I get because of how I look (even under a mask and sunglasses), then we have work to do.
We Americans aren't guaranteed a perfect union, but we are challenged to make it a "more perfect" one every day. A big step toward that greater perfection will come from according everyone the individual dignity they deserve because (and only because) they are human beings -- not because they "look like a manager".
The moral of the story
Elijah McClain committed no crime, but three people with the authority of the law made choices to treat him like an object. Such disregard for the essential dignity of a human life harms us all.
A small but meaningful step to take
The implicit-association tests offered through Harvard are a worthwhile exercise. Most people of goodwill want to think of ourselves as unbiased, but there's nothing like getting an objective measurement of what's inside our heads. You don't have to tell anyone your results, but it's worthwhile knowing if you're truly approaching people with the open mind you know you should be.
Segment 4: Quote of the Week
"If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people." - Calvin Coolidge
Notes from the episode that aired on June 28, 2020
🎧 Listen to the full episode from June 28, 2020 here 🎧