It might surprise you to learn that I am a wealthy white woman … not as much as it surprises me, of course, but you might be plenty surprised.
We do a tiny bit of job training in my program. We have some funding to train English language learners for entry-level positions in healthcare. It’s a good program, and we always have a crazy-long waiting list. Late last week a call came from the hospital giving us the heads up about a man who saw our most recent recruitment flyer and got bent out of shape because it says we’re looking for “non-native English speakers.” So I took the man’s number and called.
I introduced myself and he said: “I’m Peter Mahoney.* I’m a straight, white man and proud of it.”
What response can anyone really have to that? I opted for a very noncommittal, “Ok.”
He explained that his father had fought in Vietnam, explained that he was a taxpayer and a patriot, explained that he’d seen our flyer and had a bone to pick with me.
You know where this is going: he’s a good American and wants to know why his tax dollars are being spent on programs he can’t even enroll in.
I’m good on the phone with people like Peter. I am calm and reasoned and usually get our conversation to a place where we can find a sliver of common ground and maybe even a thing or two to laugh or commiserate about. I’m ok at all of that face to face, but better at it on the phone. In person, the Peters in my life tend to get distracted by the obviousness of how much I don’t look like them, a fact which makes real conversation between us harder for them to manage. On the phone, they think they know exactly who they’re talking to, think they have a good picture of me in their heads.
The fact is that Peter — as a straight white man or as any kind of native English speaker — is totally eligible to enroll in my training program. Yes, the funder wants us to serve “foreigners,” but there are no riders in our contract that say we can’t also enroll anyone else we want to enroll. Each cycle that we’ve run this program, we’ve been sure to enroll at least the base number of non-native speakers the grant requires, and then we’ve opened up the rest of the seats to all and sundry.
Not that Peter’s the only person who’s ever called to ask about that “non-native” line. I’ve had numerous conversations about it. None of those conversations have been with angry people, however. And even Peter wasn’t all that bad, mostly monotonous, coming back again and again to tell me about his straight white maleness. (As if I could have forgotten after the first four or five repetitions!)
In the end, it turned out that Peter had no interest in or need for any of the services we offer. He’s a private-school-educated college man making his own money and in no need of the hand out he imagines me to be offering. He just wanted to bitch and moan about the discrimination he and his brothers face. (I think I’m only being half snarky.) I encouraged him to take his complaint to his elected officials … which prompted him to start talking about how November would bring me and my “kind” our much-needed comeuppance. Because, you see, in November the Republicans will sweep elections across the country, showing me and “all the other white liberals” a thing or two.
Yes, that’s right. Peter assured me that he had my number.
“You’re one of those rich white liberals,” he said. “Like from Chappaqua, living next door to the Clintons. Growing up in your lily-white community, never having to deal with a minority except the help until you came [to Brooklyn].”
While that wasn’t the first time I’d been accused of being a white woman, it still surprised me. I know his foolish assumption is based on what he hears when I speak. Of course. I’m used to it, but that doesn’t mean it no longer annoys me. It annoys me that this has to be an issue at all, that there’s no room in Peter’s idea of the world for black people who talk the way I do, that Peter and all the others like him really seem to believe that the only people interested in the celebration of diversity and equal opportunity are “bleeding heart white liberals.” And, too, Peter has some crazy notion that programs like mine (which has, in actual fact, been in business for 34 years) are Obama-inspired, fly-by-night operations that have sprung up thanks to “the huge financial suck known as the stimulus.”
Yeah, Peter and I had a lot of common ground to stand on. <sigh>
My co-workers all wondered if I corrected Peter, if I told him that I am a far-from-wealthy black woman who has never lived in any place even vaguely like Chappaqua. I didn’t. What, really, would have been the point? In truth, I was much more interested in understanding why he felt the need to tell me (over and over) that he’s straight. Sexual orientation had nothing to do with his complaint or our conversation, yet he was clearly compelled to proclaim his status loudly, proudly and repeatedly. What was that about?
And, let’s be honest: there probably isn’t anything wrong with being a rich white woman from Chappaqua. It’s not someone I’d want to be every day, but surely it could be useful every now and again …
* No, not really, but it’s a good stand-in for his actual name.