New The Workplace

The Accidental Racist

Now, I don’t have a racist bone in my body (which I always found to be a weird phrase since bones are all white…) so barring a few slip ups like the argument over whether a girl was brown or black, I’ve never really had to worry about coming across as such.

But twice in quick succession, circumstances conspired against me.

I was walking into the office – there’s some gates, then three lifts and if you keep walking you go towards the canteen. Sometimes if you’re in that situation where the lift is full, or your nemesis is there, you might want to do that mouth and hand gesture of “I’ll get the next one”. When you’ve worked there as long as I had, and you work on the top floor, you see people waiting or getting in the lift and do an instant, instinctive calculation; “OK they’re both on 2, she’s going to 3, those two are on 5, and the last one works on my floor, 7, but it’s 3pm and he has a meeting on the 6th every week at this time. So that’s a stop at 2,3,5,6. Nah.”

(yes I am aware that I have just started a post about racism by reducing everyone to numbers)

If there’s another lift on its way, you make a call whether it’s worth waiting. You look behind to see if more people are going to come in the building before the next lift arrives and you do the number calculation on them too.

But you don’t have to do the awkward thing of standing there, when there is space in the lift, and saying you’ll wait. It’s sort of rude right. I’m basically saying I’d avoid them to save mere seconds. Sometimes they’ll hold the doors open and shuffle around to make space.

Look, it’s not the space or the doors closing, there’s fucking calculations behind this. It is NOT WORTH MY WHILE TO GET IN THIS LIFT WITH YOU – it’s a 2,3,4,6 scenario, life’s too short!

This is where the canteen comes in – it’s location is perfect, it’s like the architect was as socially awkward as I am. If you’re proficient enough with the calculations (see lift, count people, determine destinations, check location of other lifts, check behind you, evaluate distance of people behind vs ETA of next lift, determine destinations of behind people, compare timings to existing lift etc), to do it without stopping you can avoid the awkwardness and just keep walking, pretending you weren’t even going to the lift anyway – you’re going to the canteen! Once out of sight you just stop and await your next lift.

People might think I’m massively exaggerating all this thought that goes into it. I am not. I have done this thousands and thousands of times.

So, one day I’m coming into the building. There’s a guy in a suit just getting into lift number 3 as I’m coming through the gates. No other people around, it was an easy calculation. He was wearing a suit; this marked him as an outsider/visitor/guest. This was the only thing about him that stood out. If he was black, purely hypothetically, that would have been fairly typical of the diverse and meritocratic organisation in which I work. Also, he was black. It’s important to the story.

Visitors and lifts are dangerous. They don’t play by the same rules. They can hit the first floor and just say they don’t have a pass for the stairs, or they don’t know how stairs work at this company, they can even press the wrong buttons and pretend they forgot which floor they were visiting. For the lift-savvy these people are to be treated with caution and suspicion (but in the interests of professionalism, always outwardly welcomed with politeness).

Anyway, I barely even had to think before activating the canteen walk-past. I’m so good at this, this guy would never in a million years have even thought I had any intention of getting the lift. I stopped just outside lift 1, well out of sight, and looked over at lift 3 to watch the doors close.

But they stopped, and opened again – and out he came – doing that exaggerated “damn, fiddlesticks I forgot something, snaps fingers” (see everyone has these social awkwardnesses to an extent). He came out and headed for the meeting room opposite the lifts, then stopped and looked at me.

I was mortified. He maybe didn’t know about the lift thing, the calculations, the canteen walk-past trick. All he saw was I noticed him in the lift, and decided I wasn’t sharing a lift with him and I’d rather wait for the next one.

What do I say “Sorry mate, but I’ve had bad experiences in the past, it’s a different set of rules with you people. I MEAN EXTERNAL VISITORS USING LIFTS. I MEAN EXTERNAL VISITORS!”

Instead I just snapped my fingers “damn, fiddlesticks, I forgot something” and wandered away.

A few weeks later I was coming in with a friend and we were catching up. A colleague joined us in the lift. Also he is black. It’s important to the story.

My friend was asking about my cat Whacky. I was talking about how fussy she was and my rant lasted most of the lift journey. As we got to the top, I turned to the other colleague and said “we’re just talking about my cat, in case you were wondering!”

“Ah, it’s a cat. Oh OK that makes more sense.”

Hmmm, OK, what was he thinking?

He continued, “I guess Blackie is quite a common name for a pet.”

“Oh no her name is Whacky, not Bla…” It dawned on me. He thought I was talking about Blackie – who I live with, who’s always begging for food and won’t eat the stuff I put on the floor for her. Blackie who tries to sit on the sofa and sleep on the bed like an actual person. Blackie who I put outside when I go to work so she doesn’t shit on the carpet. Blackie who loves climbing trees and eating chicken…

It had happened again. I was left feeling like I’d come across like a massive racist.

Now, this post was supposed to end here. I had written it in advance, genuinely so I could give a pre-read to some friends to ensure my hilarious accidental racism anecdote didn’t accidentally come across as racist, at which point I would have changed the title to The Ironic Racist. In the intervening period, it has happened again.

I was in the lift at work, a familiar face got in. I think I’ve maybe spoken to him once, many many years ago. He had put out the feelers for an extremely niche item on the intranet; this is how I got to meet about 94% of the people who work in my building.

  • What’s that, a charger for a 2001 Motorola flip-phone, whatever could you need that for? Of course I have, come up.
  • What’s that, 8d in old money? I can’t begin to think why you would be looking for that or expect to find it in as narrow an audience as a single company’s intranet viewership. Of course I have, come up.
  • What’s that, a random of piece of merchandise tat from a video game so obscure that no-one else who works here has heard of it, even though we made it? Of course I have, come up.
  • What’s that, a picture of you and your friends at the 2004 company Christmas party, even though we’ve never met, and I didn’t even work here in 2004? Of course I have, come up.
  • What’s that, a rare not-produced-anymore part for the plant machinery on the roof? Of course I have, come down (I put that in for variation, I work on the top floor).

Anyway so this guy got in, he’s a friendly affable sort. We made smalltalk, and I thought I’d impress by showing off that I had remembered his name from when we met after he was looking for the missing sticker for his 1989 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stickerbook. I am good with names, and I had some help, see this guy had a really memorable name. Let’s just say it was Robert Redford. You’d remember that right? Even if you just met them once ten years ago, to give him a replacement cog from his French Revolution-era music box.

“Robert, right?” I said confidently. Hereafter I would sit along those amazing CEOs who know everybody’s name.

He looked confused. There was only one explanation. The only thing that could possibly be coming was: “Robert Wright? No, Robert Redford.” Ha ha, joker. But no, he seemed more confused than that.

“Ah no, I’m Danny.”

FUCK! He’s right, he’s Danny DeVito. Danny DeVito. I knew he had a memorable name. But I mixed him up with another guy who had an equally memorable name. Why are so many people here named after celebrities! Fuck’s sake.

It was awkward, I was prepared for “OMG you remembered, that’s amazing, you’re such an attentive person, I’m going to tell people how cool you are. I wish I could remember people’s names like that.”

Instead he said “It’s OK Alan,” fuck he remembered mine too, “You must be mixing me up with someone else who looks a bit similar.” This was the worst, did he think I’d mixed him up with another person based on the colour of his skin?

Oh by the way, he was black. I should have mentioned that. It was important to the story.

About the author

Alan McCann

2 Comments

  • Great post, enjoyed the spoken version as always. Poor Blackie…erm Whacky, don’t put her outside!

  • Don’t worry Alan, I know you’re not a racist, but I hope you have learned a lesson. From here on in, just get into the lift and haud your wheesht!

Don't just sit there, say something, the silence is freaking me out!