“Boss, I can’t wash dishes,” Bob said.
My husband and I, along with our three children under the age of three and a half, three congregants from the synagogue my husband and I served, and my husband’s employee, Bob, (who always addressed my husband as “boss”) were setting up the watch schedule for our sailing trip from Marina del Rey, California to Waikiki, Hawaii. Each person was being assigned to four-hour shifts for keeping watch and steering, along with a basic chore rotation.
But Bob occupied a unique role. The requirements of our Shabbat observance meant that the Jews on board could not steer or adjust sails from sunset Friday night until the stars came out on Saturday night. This left Bob in full charge of the boat for 25 hours each week. For this reason, he was not on watch on Friday or Sunday, but other than the weekends, we had assigned him as part of the regular task rotation that included galley clean up.
“What do you mean, you can’t wash dishes?” my husband asked. Bob had an incredible work ethic and we had never known him to shy away from any job.
“When you wash dishes, Boss, you’re taking a turn helping out. When I wash dishes, I’m a dishwasher.”
Bob grew up in intense poverty in Missouri and his formal education stopped early on. From a young age, he scrambled to put food on the table and a roof over his head. By the time we met him, Bob was one of the most competent people we knew. He could do all types of sophisticated trade and crafts work including carpentry, plumbing, engineering, and electrical installation. In his past, however, he had probably done his share of washing dishes for a pittance. The assignment to wash dishes carried an emotional message for him that it didn’t hold for any other crew member.
At the age of 82, singer Johnny Mathis recently told an interviewer, “At school, I can’t recall a single incident of racism.” Really? By my calculations, he must have been in school in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet he remembers no racism. How could this be?
Earlier in the interview, while speaking of a physical injury he sustained as a young boy, Mr. Mathis mentions that he tends not to recall the bad things that happened to him. Could it be that he was surrounded by mountains of racism but suppressed those memories?
I doubt it. Rather, I think that growing up in a loving and supportive home environment and attending schools that were basically fair-minded and benign, he didn’t assume racism when a disagreement arose or he received a poor grade. Even the occasional racist slur didn’t impress upon his soul.
I felt the same way with the recent #metoo crusade. I went to a coed, religious school for elementary and high school, attended a state system college, worked for a short while in the corporate world and have had decades of normal life interactions with thousands of men. Yet, my hashtag would be #notmetoo. I never felt that my teachers’ academic expectations differed for the boys and girls in my classroom, never felt intimidated by an employer or disrespected by male professionals.
Does this mean that no construction worker ever made a comment when I walked by or no man ever made me feel uncomfortable? If forced to search for examples of that, I can find them. But living in a basically fair-minded and benign society, I tend to blame ‘poor behavior’ rather than sexism and the occasional wolf whistle was forgotten seconds later.
We filter everything that happens to us through our highly personal emotions and psychology. We also tend to see exactly what our antennae seek, just as when we are introduced to a medical term or a new vocabulary word, we suddenly run across it in all sorts of venues. Once we are sensitized, the smallest contact stings us.
Is there such a thing as egregious, not-open-to-any-other-interpretation sexism and racism? Certainly. But a society that looks to interpret normal interactions and any level of boorishness as proof of overt, crushing discrimination and harassment will find it where it doesn’t exist. Those finding it will be angry, bitter and unhappy.
Of course we left Bob off the dish washing rotation. He was doing so much else and we so strongly valued our relationship that we were happy to cater to his request. Yet, he knew and we knew that washing dishes on our Hawaii voyage wasn’t innately a demeaning activity. Only past experience and emotional baggage made it seem so.