Antiquated Thought

I began my working career, aged 18, in the lowly position of File Clerk. Since desktop computers were not yet a glimmer in the eye of Bill Gates and every record was typed on an electric typewriter or laboriously entered by hand in a thick ledger before being arranged into orderly files, the mortgage company for which I worked had a spacious room entirely devoted to the files it kept on its customers.  It was there I toiled, clambering up ladders or squatting and kneeling to pull out requested files or placing them back into their slots when completed.

The attitudes of the company were more antique than their filing system now sounds. In 1973, at the height of the feminist movement, this company required that its female employees—only the women, not the men–wear uniforms.  Women, it was patiently explained, could not be trusted to dress professionally.  And so we were coerced into uniforms made of nubby, heavy woven polyester, ugly as sin and hot as Hades.  Horrifically uncomfortable, too, as the fabric scratched and scraped at one’s skin like an army of straight pins.  Rendered in colors selected by the Executive Secretary to flatter her olive skin and (dyed) coal black hair, the uniforms were hideously unbecoming to most of the female employees.  Accessorizing with so much as a scarf was forbidden; even the style and color of footwear we were permitted to wear was specified.

Providing our clothing, though, was also the excuse used by this company to pay its women employees less than the men. After all, they reasoned, we had no work-related clothing expenses; why, then, would we need as much compensation as the male employees?

It’s difficult for me now, as a 21st century woman, to remember that I once lived under such strictures.  Yes, I chafed at them—but there was virtually nothing I could do about it, not if I wanted to keep my job.  So I put up and shut up, until I found another job.

It would be more than a decade after my sojourn at the mortgage company before the organization was sued over their uniform policy (and lost, primarily due to the pay discrimination factor). As an 18-year-old, though, supporting myself on a meager income and living in a semi-slum, I dared not buck the system, no matter how wrong I felt—knew–it to be.

But I was recently forced to recall my feelings of bitterness and injustice—recall them vividly and painfully–when an acquaintance complained of the “attitudes” of African Americans fighting against police brutality and racial inequity. “It’s not like when I was a kid; they can be anything these days—doctors, lawyers,” my acquaintance grumbled.  “They need to stop bitching.  They should be grateful.”

Grateful….  I was forcefully reminded of my 18-year-old self in similar circumstances.  Remembered being told, recalled even telling myself,  “You have a job.  Your generation can work outside the home. Your clothing is provided. So what if you’ll never make as much money as the male employees?  So what if the only promotion you can expect is to another clerical position?  So what if a male employee can put his hand up your skirt, and there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it?  Quit your whining and bitching. You don’t know how good you’ve got it.  Show some gratitude.”

But like typewriters to keyboards, paper files to a cloud drive, attitudes evolve—must evolve—and change. And they do so only when forced: by pressure, by recognition, by lawsuits, by revelation, by coming out of the darkness into the piercing daylight of truth.

For until all of us are free, none of us will ever truly be free.

A Cultural Heritage

Decades ago, in the Lifestyle section of a local Sunday paper, I read an interesting series of articles about African Americans who were rediscovering the cultures of their heritage: the clothing, music, foods, even the religious beliefs of the tribes from which they had been stolen before being sold into slavery across the ocean.

The article described and pictured the magnificent, colorful woven cloths used in making African clothing, and the intricate music and dances which celebrated festivals and religious feasts. It discussed the complex oral historical traditions of various African tribes, and those which used written or pictorial histories. It explained cosmetics and herbal medicines and child-rearing philosophies and recipes for cooked foods. It pictured beautiful works of sculpted wood. I found the entire series fascinating and instructive until very nearly the end, when one young woman was quoted. She had committed to fully rediscovering her lost heritage, but finished by saying (and I don’t precisely remember the quote, but this is it’s essence) “I don’t think white people even have a cultural heritage.”

I put the newspaper down in dismay. Did it, I wondered, increase this young woman’s sense of self-worth to denigrate the cultures of another race; to blithely dismiss them, and to even deny their existence?

All these decades later, having taken DNA testing, I can confirm unequivocally my own cultural heritage. I know that the wild blends of color and fine weaving in the tartans of Scotland are part of that heritage (as is, god help me, haggis, surely the most ill-conceived dish ever to grace—and I use the verb flippantly—a table.) I know that the astounding skirl of the bagpipes—agony to some ears, heart-stirring to others—are mine to claim. The sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of Titian are tucked into another corner of that heritage, as are the marvels of many delicious pasta dishes. I know that Marco Polo is not a swimming pool game, but possibly the reason that I have forever been an armchair explorer. And I know that, sadly, the British genes I carry were quite likely those of people enslaved to the Roman conquerors who overran their land. Slavery was once the cultural heritage of all people, everywhere; it was the norm.

In short, although I have not a single strand of DNA extracted from any black ancestor, I have just as rich, just as wildly beautiful and complex a cultural heritage as any of that stolen from enslaved Africans, dragged from their homes to the cruelty of western countries.

But my initial reaction to that long-ago quote in a newspaper article remains: Why was it necessary for the young woman to denigrate an entire group of people in order to bolster her own sense of self-worth and belonging? Why could she not rightfully reclaim her heritage without belittling that of others?

I still occasionally wonder if that young woman perhaps went on to explore the cultures of other countries, places outside those of Africa–especially those of people who, like her own, had been degraded and murdered and enslaved. Did she discover the photographs, some even carefully hand-tinted, documenting the lost, rich cultures of the Native American tribes? Did she learn about the horrors of Angel Island and how the Asian peoples emigrating to America were mistreated and vilified, right up to the shame of internment camps? Did that young woman ever, in fact, realize that every race, every people, has a story, a past, a history of slavery, and a rich and fascinating cultural heritage?

If learning about her own stolen legacy did not, in fact, enrich and enlarge her mind, then everything she learned about her African heritage was, in the long view, an exercise in futility. For no form of learning is of value unless we can find a way to apply it to the world at large.