So, for the past few weeks, I've been biting my tongue.
There have been a lot of opinions flying everywhere about Michael Brown's shooting and the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. I certainly have my fair share of opinions. They've all been tumbling around inside of me, struggling to get out, but I have kept a firm lid on them.
I believe that, in matters that are truly important, the only opinions that should matter are those from people with relevant knowledge. I have never been to Ferguson, or even to the state of Missouri. I do not have a law degree or policing experience. I have never been arrested, nor have I ever been part of a protest. I have never been teargassed, I've never been threatened by a man in fatigues, I've never been shot.
Hell, I'm not even black. Not even a little.
So no, I'm not going to go on record about how I think the residents of Ferguson should proceed, I'm not going to go on record about how I think law enforcement for that city should be reorganized, I'm not going to go on record talking about violence or free speech or Race in America. I have no significant experience in any of those fields, so the best thing I can do to facilitate that dialogue is to keep my honky piehole shut.
But then it occurred to me that I do have experience about one thing that is relevant - I'm going to tell a story about the time I, myself, was racist.
And I'm not talking about the little prejudices everyone has to get through the day - I'm talking about a time when I was a full-on hate-filled bigot.
For about half a second.
A few years ago, I was working in a call center, in a department that handles escalations. For those of you who have had the good fortune never to work in a call center, an "escalation" is what happens when a customer asks to speak to a supervisor. In those cases, the customer rarely actually wants to talk to the person that supervises the agent they were just talking to - what they mean by "let me speak to your supervisor" is "send me to someone with more power/experience/intelligence, I do not think that you are doing a good enough job". Virtually every call I took, I was speaking with an angry, frustrated American who was under the impression that the agent they were previously speaking with was, in some way, incompetent.
This was, frequently, correct.
Because, you see, the company for whom we were doing tech support liked to outsource. Most of the tech support agents we worked with were overseas - specifically, in the Philippines. And yes, just as you imagine, this is because those agents could be paid very little, and labour laws were a lot less restrictive, and there was a large pool of people who wanted a job working for an American company. As a result, that call center had a very high turnover rate and a rather... shall we say... accelerated training process... so yes, quite a few of the Filipino agents to whom I would speak would actually be quite incompetent.
My work day would go as follows: sit in cubicle, wait. Hear loud beep. Hear thick Filipino accent apologizing to me and explaining the mistake they had just made. Receive transfer of American customer who is angry or stupid or who has a particularly difficult technical problem (frequently all three). Deal with customer. Repeat for ten hours a day, four days a week.
This was my job - this was my life - for a year.
One day I came home from a long shift at work, and, unbeknownst to me, my wife had been watching Project Runway. And Project Runway, like many reality shows, has international equivalents - Project Runway Canada, Project Runway Australia, Project Runway Korea... and yes, Project Runway Philippines. My wife had downloaded an episode of Project Runway Philippines and was watching it in our living room.
So I unlocked the door, walked into my home, and heard, as if from nowhere, a Filipino accent talking about clothes. And in that moment, in that half-second, my immediate, instinctual, gut reaction was "Oh Christ, what have those idiots done now?".
I had been conditioned, by hours and hours and months and months of Pavlovian training, to associate the Filipino accent with mistakes, idiocy, and unpleasant work being dumped into my lap. I knew, intellectually, that there was nothing negative or stupid inherent to the Filipino race or culture, but I still had that basic, visceral, twitch-reaction to that particular stimulus.
Now, as I said, I've never been a cop. I can't speak about what sort of person chooses to go into law enforcement or what sort of person they become after having been in law enforcement for a while. I do know, however, that a person's job, usually, is one of the main sources of stress and pressure in their life. I do know that, in much the same way that I almost never got calls from customers because everything was working properly and they were happy with their Internet connection, police almost never interact with the public because everything is pleasant and safe. I can only imagine what my work experience would have been like if the angry customers on my phone were actually in front of me, if their problems were matters of life and death, if I had to worry, every day, that they might be hiding a pistol in their waistband.
And I'm not saying the Ferguson cops are all racists. I can't see into their hearts or their minds, that's not my call to make.
All I'm saying is - the police force is 97% white, commuting to Ferguson from their white communities out of town. For their job, they have to break up assaults, watch for thefts, hunt down narcotics, hand out parking and speeding tickets - all of these, profoundly stressful, negative, dangerous interactions - in a community that's 67% black. And they do this, presumably, at least forty hours a week, for years. So no, I'm not saying they're all racists - but, short of strapping them to a chair and electrocuting them while they watch Soul Plane, I can think of no better machine for turning someone into a racist.