In 2008, I was high off the fumes of being a young, black writer witnessing a historical turning point that may one day rewrite the legacy of this country’s race relations. Barack Obama was quickly ascending into a celebrity of rockstar proportions, and the race-baiting tea parties of the GOP campaign were evolving into an extended blooper reel. The chaos of the year provided liberal journalists with an abundance of print-ready snark bait.
Fast-forward to 2012, and I should be thanking the writing gods for an even wonkier cast of Republican players than the last go around. But a few things have changed for me since my last trip to the polls that make this election year less sweet: I now live in a semi-rural area, I have a career totally outside of writing and my social circle no longer consists entirely of free-spirited liberal college kids and black lesbians. Every day, I go to work in the boondocks with a “diverse” bag of white moderates and white conservative Republicans, whose strength of political opinions are sometimes inversely proportional to their political intelligence.
This isn’t to say that my coworkers are any less politically educated or socially aware than most other groups. I have plenty of gathering areas outside of work where many of my associates know just as little about foreign policy, the tenets of “Obamacare,” or the basic reasoning behind their chosen political affiliation. But at work, unlike during free time, I no longer enjoy the privileges of living my life in an ideological vacuum where everyone agrees with my major bullet points.
Being exposed to differing viewpoints is often a healthy thing, and as such, I’ll embrace a smartly debated back-and-forth on economic policy or national security. But this exposure to new ideas becomes problematic when the widely accepted canon outside of my vacuum includes fundamentally offensive beliefs like, “Women who need birth control covered by their insurance are probably whores,” “Sanctioned gay relationships will cheapen ‘real’ straight relationships,” or “President Osama bin Watermelon is handing out food stamps to all his black friends like Chiclets!”
No, the people at my unionized, government job are not going to look me in the eye and tell me homosexuality is an abomination. For one thing, that would be an oddly vitriolic attack on someone they have to talk to five times a week, and for another, there are policy protections from such overt discrimination (I also don’t believe many of them think this way). But someone has walked into my job’s break room, interrupting my daily carrot juicing, to offhandedly comment, “I hope Romney doesn’t get the nomination, but Santorum doesn’t seem bad.”
In that moment, there was a vast disconnect that left me wondering if this was meant to be the subtle provocation I took it to be, or if this generally harmless guy was actually that oblivious to the offensiveness of publicly championing a candidate who once remarked that homosexuality is a step below bestiality, and said he wants “blaaaa-” people to stop getting government handouts.
Yes, disputing politics is a sensitive game for both sides. But minorities, especially members of the “Big Three” (non-white, non-male, and queer) carry the distinct burden of hearing politely-phrased pejorative comments about us as a part of acceptable mainstream discourse. In contrast, no Democratic candidate could possibly campaign successfully on platforms like, “I vow to prohibit all Republican white Southerners from procreating. It’s time for the descendants of Tubman and Sacajawea to take this country back!” So when a highly opinionated, reasonably well-informed Big Three member (which I am) is placed in an environment where she is hearing craziness and still has to remain professional (jury’s still out), it is an emotionally draining task.
Realistically, there is no way I could respond to this appropriately while still representing for my people in a personally satisfying way. I’m a confrontational debater by nature. Some people like to argue; I like to win. But when two people can’t even agree that global warming is real or that Occupy Wall Street didn’t set up rape tents, there isn’t enough time in my workweek to bridge the gap on real social issues. To be fair, social ignorance is typically not on such a gross scale, but for me that only worsens the dilemma. The general theme for most innocuous conservatives is that certain prejudices, which affect me daily, just don’t bother them enough to vote against them. How do you argue with that without overly investing your emotional energy?
It is difficult to imagine myself making a dent in the larger discriminatory activities of a patriarchal, heteronormative, and inherently racist institution, when I am the sole dissenting voice drowning in a sea of status quo about smaller, more obvious issues. No matter the method of delivery, my attempts at persuasion tend to fall on deaf ears. My attempts to ignore the lunacy eat away at me. It begs the question, how will I get through this election without being tagged the “angry black dyke” and completely alienating my coworkers?
For now, I’ve embarked on a steady diet of 1) avoiding controversial subjects, 2) interrupting offensive behavior, and 3) disputing only egregious falsehoods. It’s time I accepted that I can’t change an entire industry’s culture over lunch break chats. Creating lasting change requires ascending the ranks so there are more people like me rewriting the rules of the game. As appealing an option it may be, my community actually can’t afford for me to catch a case because someone on the night shift called bell hooks a racist fascist.
But I’m braced for a long 2012. Mitt Romney will be looking for his Sarah Palin soon, and this one might lean even further to the right. I’ll prepare myself for debates on the legitimacy of interracial marriage and defense of sodomy laws, and cross my fingers there isn’t yet another Bush on the Republican ticket come November.
– Ajené “AJ” Farrar
AJ has been working as an air traffic controller since 2009, after attending Old Dominion University and George Mason University as a journalism major. She currently lives in upstate New York.