The black firefighter story that taught me subtle ways to recognize racism
Are you uncomfortable with black people in leadership?
I listened to the firefighter chief tell us which direction to walk in after we descended the hallway steps. He called a few group numbers as we walked onto an empty floor. About 10 minutes later, we returned to our work floors and I went back to editing. For me, this fire drill was fairly uneventful. I wouldn’t have thought much about it for the rest of the day if not for one co-worker.
The minute we returned to the newsroom, the 20-something white guy on the sports writing team started complaining about how “that guy was so rude and so loud” and griping about him being “angry.” I turned away from my computer monitor, ready to listen in with imaginary popcorn and find out what kind of fight broke out during the fire drill.
The co-worker went on to talk about how some people just don’t need their jobs if they’re going to act like that and how a fire drill shouldn’t be this serious. The person he was talking about apparently needed to just “calm down.” I was lost. He and I were on the same floor in different parts of the room, but I missed this monster he was referring to altogether. The other sports writers near him were surprisingly quiet, choosing not to engage. I found that odd.
I put my headphones on. No one seemed to care about this apparently angry person. I could hear him still talking about this guy, but he had gotten to the point where he was talking to himself. It wasn’t until I took a restroom break that I realized the person he was complaining about was the firefighter chief — a middle-aged black man. I raised an eyebrow and pocketed this incident in my memory bank. That day, I said nothing.
The next year, we had another fire drill. Same process. We stood up and walked down steps to the next empty floor. A firefighter chief directed us to a specific area. A few minutes later, we came right back upstairs. And the same sports writer immediately spoke up loudly to the team about how this fire drill was “way” better and “more professional” because “that other guy that was yelling at us” didn’t show up. The firefighter chief this time around was a middle-aged white guy. The assertive tone was the same. The mannerisms were the same. But this sports writer had zero issues with him.
If you ever really want to know who an ally is, observe how they respond when black people are authority figures. More often than not, they’ll tell on themselves.