Workplace organizing against oppressive language and behavior
By Colt Thundercat
This article was originally published on Twin Cities Organizer.
I knew it would be hard going into it. Friends who already worked in the distribution center I was about to start work at had warned me about the specific difficulties I would have as a queer person in an environment where the work culture was dominated by a hypermasculine, sexist and homophobic atmosphere. I listened intently, and did my best to prepare myself. “It’s ok,” I thought, “this will certainly not be the first time I’ve dealt with this. I have a thick skin. I know how to stand up for myself. I’m can deal with this. I’m prepared.”
Quite frankly, I was wrong. To say that it was a hostile environment for me would be a massive understatement. The workplace, like many, is almost completely gender-segregated, with my work area and all those like it being entirely staffed by men. Homophobic comments, slurs, and “jokes” were traded between my coworkers on the regular. I struggled daily to try and deal with the anger, frustration, and depression that I felt clocking out after having heard “faggot,” “fag,” “pansy,” “no homo,” and other shit like it thrown around more often than I had experienced since middle school. Like then, I found myself acting quiet and withdrawn in those first few weeks as I struggled not to let my anger get the best of me.
If it had been less all-encompassing, less of the status quo of the job, I probably would’ve known how to handle it. Instead, I felt lost, trying to figure out how to address something that seemed so deeply rooted it was unmovable.
I quickly found that this environment was fairly deliberately set up and encouraged by our bosses. Unlike FW de Bord, who details their experience with a homophobic supervisor (we work at the same distribution center), my experience was that the supervisors and managers in my section were careful to never say anything overtly homophobic or sexist–likely something that they are trained in to avoid lawsuits–but worked hard to cultivate an atmosphere of hypermasculine competition in order to leech more profit out of their workers. If you were going too slow, you were told to “man up.” If you called in sick or worried about getting injured, you were accused of being a “pussy” or a “whiny bitch.” Meanwhile, the same supervisors encouraged the kind of sexist and homophobic atmosphere that prevailed, laughing at jokes, backing up the worst offenders if anyone “took it wrong,” and of course, never doing anything to curtail or stop it.
Unlearning Bad Habits
Like most of us who experience oppression in our day-to-day lives, I do what I can to surround myself with good people. People who I can trust to support me, who understand this shit, who I know will be respectful towards me. But, of course, our bosses, not workers themselves, select who they work with, our only option is to either accept this or try our luck somewhere else. Many would say that the best course of action for any self-respecting person in such a situation would be to leave and try and get another job where the atmosphere was less oppressive. As an organizer, though, I found it unacceptable to believe that certain jobs can, or should, only be organized by straight cisgendered men. On the contrary, I’ve found that being forced to struggle in order to create an accepting atmosphere has made me a better organizer and helped form the kind of bonds between myself and my coworkers that make it possible for us to take action against speedups, harassment, and any number of other management abuses.
In order to do this, though, I had to unlearn an entire system of dealing with oppressive behavior that I, like many of us on the left, had learned from academic writers and texts. This framework that I had learned told me to be uncompromising in shutting down oppressive language in as swift and direct a way as possible. It said that I should have zero tolerance for people who acted in oppressive ways. If people didn’t understand, or didn’t get it, it wasn’t my problem; it was not my job to educate them on the ways they oppressed me and others. I don’t mean to imply that this framework is totally useless, just that its usefulness does not extend to my, or many, workplaces, as it is set up in a way that encourages the same isolationist attitude described above. Of course, there are people and situations who are not able to engage with their coworkers because of their gender identity and other factors in the same way that I am able to, a fact that I would be careless to ignore. With that said, comparing an attitude that builds trust and solidarity to the more confrontational and adversarial attitude I had learned, I’ve found the former to be far more effective than I could ever imagine the latter being.
I don’t want to imply that this is the only acceptable way to engage with your coworkers, or that it is something that organizers are, or need to be, universally capable of doing. Many of us, myself included, have incredibly visceral reactions to the kind of oppressive behavior we experience that are incredibly difficult to suppress in order to approach our coworkers in a more calm and comradely manner. While suppressing this kind of reaction is never easy, and certainly hasn’t been for me, there are plenty of folks who have a much harder time with this, whose lived experiences place them closer than I am to the kinds of violence that accompany such oppression. I am in no way diminishing the validity of those for whom oppressive behavior sparks a perfectly understandable and reasonable anger and defensiveness–a defense of ourselves and our ability to survive. What I am advocating is for people to figure out ways that we can connect with our coworkers and others who are uncritical in the way they think and act about oppressed groups and build a culture of solidarity rather than simply accepting that they will always be adversaries and not allies to us in our struggles. For anyone who has experienced oppression and violence, this is by definition a struggle with our own emotions; my feeling, however, is that it is a struggle that is worthwhile to undertake and that helps us become better organizers and revolutionaries, wherever the starting point for this internal struggle is, and wherever it leads us.
Building a Culture of Solidarity
After a few miserable weeks, I felt it was time to put a simpler approach into action. After a period of waiting for the right moment–excruciating in itself–I found myself clocking out when I overheard S., the worst offender, laughingly yell over at another worker: “Mike, you’re such a fucking faggot!” Truth be told, I actually got along pretty well with S.; he was a nice guy, good sense of humor other than the fucked up stuff like that, we joked frequently about how unrealistic the expectations were of us and how obnoxious some of our bosses were. I walked up to him, and asked, “Hey S., can you do me a favor?” “Yeah, man, what’s up?” “Can you cut it out with the gay jokes? I really don’t like hearing that shit.”
There was a pause. “What, like about you? Because I don’t think I said anything about you–” “Nah, not about me, just in general. I just don’t like hearing that, so I’d really appreciate it if you could knock it off. I gotta run to catch my bus, but if you wanna talk about it more some time, I’d be happy to.” S.’s look of concern and confusion turned to a nod, “OK, man, not a problem. Sorry if I pissed you off or anything.” And that was that.
The results were quick and effective. With S. removed from the picture, the homophobic banter went from something that happened multiple times per day to a few isolated incidents. When those comments did crop up, I took the exact same attitude, with the same results. One day at break, S. was talking about shopping at a health-food store where his girlfriend works: “I mean, it’s good food, but whenever I’m checking out, I’m like, oh man, I feel like such a… a…” He stopped and looked at me with a sort of deer-in-headlights look on his face. I piped in, “like a fuckin’ hippy?” He cracked up, “Yeah man, like a fucking hippy. Shit, I’m turning into a hippy.” The rest of the day was a series of jokes about what kind of incense we should get him for his birthday.
As time went on, I gained more confidence at the same time that I became more of a presence on the shop floor. My attitude was based in a simple premise: that if you show that you’ve got people’s back, they’ll do the same for you, including being willing to reexamine their attitudes and the way they talk if you ask them in the same spirit. Whenever I talked to my coworkers and they said something offensive, I calmly told them that I didn’t appreciate it, and offered to have a more in-depth discussion whenever they felt like it. I did my best not to make it feel like I was shaming them or “calling them out,” which has the tendency to shut down discussions. With coworkers who didn’t use such language, I found off-hand ways to out myself as queer and offer the same opportunity for further discussion.
The results were overwhelmingly positive, and often surprising. Usually it opened the door for us to talk more in-depth about the issue and other things that allowed us to know each other better: one coworker stopped in his tracks, in the middle of loading a truck, to say, “Fuck, you’re right. My brother’s gay, he always tells me the same thing. I really gotta work on that.” Another chastised me after I outed myself by joking that I would lose my gay card if I didn’t like Beyonce, for confining myself, saying, “listen, like what you like, but we both know that there are plenty of gay folks who don’t like Beyonce. I mean, I grew up in a really religious christian family, and I feel people make a lot of assumptions about what that means I’m like, or I’m into, which aren’t true. It’s like that, I think.” Several others have responded by simply saying things like, “so I really don’t know a lot about that stuff. I wanna know more, though.” Each time it gave us the opportunity to build the kind of bonds of solidarity that are invaluable in any organizing effort.
Amazingly, over the course of the past year, the culture has changed in a way that the same raunchy humor that was once a staple of the homophobic atmosphere has transformed into self-effacing jokes that my coworkers use to mock their own masculinity. More importantly, it is often used in a self-policing manner, as a sort of rebuffing of homophobic or otherwise fucked up comments. Perhaps the best example of this came at the end of a difficult night some months ago–5 of us were stuck loading the last truck in the building, when Al, a new employee who had already made a few homophobic comments, made a joke that G., a (straight) coworker who I’m fairly close with, looked like the kind of guy who liked to get fucked, to which G. immediately responded with, “you say it like that’s a bad thing.” Al, not knowing how to respond, simply muttered, “hey man, I don’t wanna hear about that kinda shit.” G. loudly announced, “Well, that’s too bad, because Imma tell you ALL ABOUT IT!” What followed was a fifteen minute long description, in minute detail, of just how great getting fucked is, the nuances of penis shape and size, positions, and so on, in terms graphic enough to make John Waters blush. Meanwhile, the rest of us were cracking up at both how uncomfortable this made Al as well as G.’s preferred method of addressing the issue. Afterwards, G. came up to me and said, “yeah, I don’t let that shit fly. I got your back.”
Building Beyond Oppressive Language
Some time ago, during the short break we get during our shift, I was outside with a number of coworkers, mostly from work areas other than my own, when T., a young Latino worker, started telling us a story from his other job as a caterer at a convention center in town. I didn’t know T. well, although we had previously talked briefly about our (vastly different forms of) alienation from the lily-white dominant culture of the midwest, him as Latino and myself as a Jew. T. was complaining about how, when serving at an event sponsored by Disney for GLBT executives, he had been yelled at several times for misgendering trans patrons. I quickly piped in about the issue, noting that this is something that trans folk have to deal with far too often, and that it’s perfectly understandable that someone would be frustrated in such a situation. He and the other workers outside agreed, and agreed when I noted that if it weren’t in a situation where T. was a servant, but was simply a friend, the interaction would have likely been a lot different. Our break ended, but I was still unsatisfied with the way things had gone down.
The next day, I wound up getting to work about fifteen minutes before our shift started and saw T. again. I asked him if he had to serve the same event that day, to which he said yes, and that he had wound up misgendering someone and gotten yelled at about it by his boss. Not sure what to say, I finally blurted out, “you know, the whole thing is fucked up. I’ll be real, I’m gay, and all these events are so frustrating to me. I mean, all these companies hold up this type of shit just to advertise to the GLBT community and say, hey look, we’re so accepting, but in reality, they’re the opposite. I mean, our company had a float and a booth at the Pride parade, maybe they have some gay executive they parade around, it’s all about just getting money from rich motherfuckers in the community, but the last thing I’d ever say about this place is that it’s gay-friendly.”
T. thought about it for a second, then said, “yeah, man, I can’t imagine. I mean, this place is shitty about that stuff. And it’s super rough for the women who work here too. I mean, you gotta have really thick skin to work here if you’re either. Hell, I can’t imagine how tough it would be for like, what is the word, transgender? Yeah, it’d be crazy hard to deal with that shit.”
I was, in all honesty, shocked at how quickly T. connected the dots. We kept talking about how absurd it was for our company to be at the Pride parade, about how the Disney event he had catered had nothing to do with what it might actually be like to work there, and our various experiences of offensive behavior and language at work. As the buzzer announcing our shift was about to start went off, I said, “Yeah, that’s the fucking thing–this company cares about as little about it’s gay workers as it does its straight ones, which is to say, they don’t give two shits about us. I’m sure Disney is the exact same fucking way.”
T. nodded as I got up to head over to my section. “Yeah, I’m sure Disney is just as happy to fuck over anyone who works for them, I guess,” he said. Then, with a wry smile, he added, “just so long as they aren’t Jewish.”
One of the main ideas motivating me to write all of this, and to address these issues the way I have is a firm belief in something that those of us who are revolutionaries and who believe in liberation often forget: that our ideas are incredibly popular, and not just among those who already agree with us on most things. That the concept that we should have a respect for the dignity of everyone, the idea that we would all have each others’ backs against not only harassment from our bosses, but also from other workers clinging to fucked-up attitudes is something most workers can easily get behind. These ideas, liberation and solidarity, are not difficult things for people to understand, although they are often expressed in academic jargon that can be incredibly difficult to relate to for those who haven’t experienced it before.
Of course, being in agreement about these ideas doesn’t mean that someone won’t act in ways that are oppressive; people’s consciousnesses in regards to these issues are complicated. One day, I can hear a group of coworkers making sexist comments while the next, hear the same group discussing the harassment and sexism the mother of one of them has experienced working for our company for twenty years and how fucked up it is that women working in our building have to put up with it. Both ideas can coexist: I think that our job as revolutionaries should be to encourage the latter, to push our coworkers to look critically at the ways they get in the way of the universal respect and dignity that they do actually believe in, and further push them towards ways that they can help make those ideas more of a reality.
Finally, the purpose of this piece, and my intention in putting down all these stories, is not to give the impression that by addressing these issues in the way I have that my workplace is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The work is still difficult, the pay low, the harassment from management constant. I do still hear homophobic and sexist language from coworkers from time to time, although almost never from anyone who works in my area. What has changed, however, is that I no longer go to work guarded, worried about what bullshit I’ll have to deal with from my coworkers. The bosses still try and get us to outdo each other by questioning the masculinity of anyone who doesn’t meet their unrealistic standards. The difference is that most of my coworkers don’t really buy it anymore–the buddy-buddy relationship between them and the bosses broke down somewhere along the line when they stopped viewing the homophobic and sexist atmosphere as acceptable. The toxic environment of hypermasculine competition has been largely replaced with one where, at a basic level, people care about each other and make it clear that we have each others’ backs. Since that happened, we’ve been able to fight back against all the various bullshit from management that we deal with on the regular in ways that I don’t think would have been possible otherwise.