On a job in an upscale Baltimore assisted-living facility that I worked at for far too long, going to work meant dealing with a running quasi-racial tension where lines were sharply drawn and people adhered to either one side or the other with little middle ground. Only lines weren’t drawn between Black and white, but between African and African-American.
It was very difficult to escape these camps; both had strong stereotypes that profoundly shaped how they interacted. The Africans, who all came from upper-middle-class if not extremely wealthy backgrounds, looked down on American Blacks as lazy, unmotivated and unable to take advantage of the opportunities America offered. The Africans ironically were both more collective and more individualistic than Black Americans. Having lived in poorer countries with strong communal ties, Africans became angry, for instance, that Americans could put aging parents in an institution instead of keeping them at home. Africans, on the other hand, also bought into Horatio Alger myths hook, line and sinker; anyone could get ahead in America if they just worked hard and if American Blacks didn’t succeed, well, they just didn’t try.
The African-Americans on their part were keenly aware that Africans looked down on them and resented it deeply. Many Black Americans thought in Africa everyone was half-starving and lived in huts, not understanding that many African countries had thriving middle classes. The Africans were also disliked because they were non-union, working for agencies that paid nearly twice as much per hour as the regular staff. I would point out that the agency workers didn’t get benefits such as sick time, vacations and health insurance so when you factored that in, wages were about the same. But I never won that argument because all people saw was the wage differential and felt they were doing the same work for half the pay.
Among African-American workers, internal lines were also drawn between those who had a “good” work ethic and those who were “ghetto.” “Ghetto” was a very elastic term that covered a wide range of behaviors in dress, mannerisms and actions; like porn, “ghetto” was hard to define but it was known when it was shown. Calling out all the time was one classic sign of being considered “ghetto.” The irony of this absenteeism was that the management loved having so-called “ghetto” workers despite their lack of productivity; when they called out, it meant more work could be squeezed out of fewer workers and the end result was that little was ever done about their absenteeism. At the other end of the continuum, Blacks that affected middle-class airs or acted “white” were called “bourgie” and “persnickety.”
I don’t want to romanticize the way people applied these labels. Once I saw them applied very unfairly to a Black American worker who was shunned because she listened to Frank Sinatra and appreciated fine art. She loved BBC films and I would smuggle some in from my Netflix subscription, hiding DVDs under a couch so she could pick them up later without being seen. I joked to her with our secret package drops we would make great drug dealers. But the larger lesson here is that depending on circumstances, small group norms can cruelly oppress non-conformists as well as liberate by promoting solidarity.
For me, being one of the only whites in a workforce of a couple hundred and a nominal supervisor meant that I had to constantly negotiate boundaries and stay on good terms with both groups. At the time I wasn’t driving so I would sometimes hitch rides from Africans and sometimes from African-Americans, balancing the two so I wasn’t seen as favoring one over the other. I learned to be a cultural shape-shifter, becoming very adept in the strategies sociologist Georg Simmel described in his well-known text “The Stranger.” Often I would find myself trying to translate and mediate by explaining to one group why the other group felt and acted the way they did. In retrospect, I think it worked out well for me; I developed friendships with people in both groups that last to this day. I went to birthdays and funerals; we socialized outside work. But in many, perhaps most, instances, both Africans and Black Americans on their own groped and managed to cobble together makeshift working relationships without benefit of my brilliant insights and despite all the mutual stereotypes and social distancing because of the demands imposed by a harsh, unstable, and stressful work environment.
Now, there’s been a long debate among labor historians on whether such inter-class divisions are created by the bosses to keep workers divided or whether such divisions were autonomously generated by workers themselves: which came first, the chicken or the egg? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to this question because it’s not an either-or answer; sometimes it’s one, sometime it’s the other. But I lean more to the second explanation because I don’t believe that people are empty, passive vessels that evil and clever capitalists fill with “false consciousness.” No person is ever a programmable automaton, a blank slate upon which anything can be inscribed; that is a capitalist fantasy sometimes parroted by those parts of the left that refer to “the sheeple.” People seek in their own way to make sense of their lives with what constructs they have at hand until other better constructs, generated from practical experience, come along. Changes in consciousness follow changes in experience and not the reverse.