Special Delivery: Mexican-in-a-Box

I found myself an unprepared witness to a classist/racist “joke” where and when I least expected it.  Should I have intervened?  Is there a way to turn such ugliness into a “teachable moment”?

One afternoon I was waiting in line at my university’s mailroom behind a rowdy group of undergraduate men.  The students—mostly white and a few students of color—were clearly friends, who had assembled to help one of their crew retrieve a large number of packages that took the staff some time to round up.  As I stood quietly behind them awaiting my turn, I couldn’t help but overhear their jokey chit-chat. I often find myself thinking that students appear completely oblivious to those around them, and this occasion was no different.

A diminutive reference to females floated past my ears…I looked to the couple standing behind me and rolled my eyes.  A few minutes later, an exchange between two of the students in the group left me appalled and speechless.  One man said to another, “a little Mexican is going to come out of that box.”  The second said, “I hope so, I need my room cleaned.”

I couldn’t believe my ears.  Worse, I could think of nothing more to do or say than to turn to the same couple and fume, “They think no one can hear them!”  To be at a loss for words at a pivotal moment is always frustrating. I am especially sensitive to “bystander guilt” after studying the Holocaust.  What’s more, my training as a sociologist makes me feel obliged to speak up and to educate.  After all, hadn’t this very type of ignorance motivated my career choice?

Nevertheless, I said nothing to them.  I walked away outraged by the comment and disappointed in myself.

I am somewhat skeptical that butting into their conversation would have had a positive effect.  Publicly chastising someone is more likely to get a defensive, not humble, response.  These men seem unmoved by the messages of social justice and service to others that our Jesuit university reinforces at every turn. Why would they listen to a random stranger?

I am also twice their age.  College students seem to possess a special “age-dar” that filters out anyone over the age of 25.  Given the frequency with which I am addressed as “Ma’am,” I am certain that I am easily identified as belonging to the wrong side of that age divide.  They might quickly dismiss me as a humorless, cranky Old Person.

But I still wish I had called the men out for their classist, racist “joke.”  I thought of how I could easily have been standing there with my Mexican colleague, how mortified I would feel had he heard their remarks.

Actually, I would like to have asked them some questions, so I will do so here:

If you’ve looked around and noticed that many of the people cleaning your room, serving your food, or shoveling your sidewalk are Hispanic, did you ever contemplate why?

Do you realize that if you selected random periods in history, the faces and last names of those in service jobs would likely be very different from one another, and might even resemble your own?

Have you ever considered all of the forces at play that afford you the privilege of being a student studying at this university, instead of the worker tasked with cleaning the dorm rooms?

And last, do you realize that those of us around you can hear you chit chat, whether we want to or not?


Susan Legere is a life-long Massachusetts resident and doctoral candidate in Sociology at Boston College.  Class issues have long fascinated her, and she’s explored them through academic projects.  In 2007, she finished production on Immigrant Reflections, a video documentary highlighting the life stories of three immigrant service workers employed by her university. Susan also completed a study examining social class and consumption in The New York Times “Vows” columns.

6 Responses

  1. I love this post. Thank you. I’m often mute (though less and less every day) in the face of these things, especially with strangers.

    But if I were in a grocery store in the little working class town I grew up in, and was in a grocery store line, those questions wouldn’t have gone over well.

    I’m noticing more and more and more that workshops that teach how to talk with white people about racism is actually about talking with white MIDDLE CLASS and OWNING CLASS people about racism.

    Again, back to the grocery store back in my hometown, I would have said something like:

    Hey, your grandmother was cleaning dorm rooms a while ago so you could go to the damn college. You bet she heard those same jokes about her.

    We would have gotten into an argument, but they would have thought about that later. They would have taken me seriously because they know their grandmother’s stories.

  2. CP

    I too have that experience with strangers. My ire gets all up, then I think about what to say and how given the kind of company I’m in, how I’m highly likely to be outnumbered and suffer reprisals for speaking up (we live in an area rife with Tea Partiers), I bag it. If I can think up something clever to ask or interject, it’s already too late and the conversation has moved on. I just feel like an idiot. The sad thing is, while I’m sometimes proud of my leftneck upbringing and my Borderer heritage, and that is often the reason I have a short fuse and am intolerant of classism against my own or my allies, I’ve been trained and educated not to tap that cultural heritage and use it. Unlike my cohort from high school back in the day who never left the culture-of-origin, but are now sadly all too often on the side of the oppressor, complaining about “illegal Mex’kins,” and so on.

  3. Louisa

    It’s interesting, because reading this post I both feel the poster’s anger, but I also must say I have made similar comments to friends with whom I have had long discussions about various kinds of racism and therefore was clear that my comments would be understood as bitter, sardonic humor. While I agree totally with the poster that, had someone attempted to make such a joke to her, it would be proper and good to respond with some kind of educational questioning, reproach, or other kind of anti-statement, I think it is actually dangerous and rude to interrupt other people’s conversations in order to educate them, because often the context is not known. I think the assumptions that “I know what you are talking about” and also “I know better than you” are only justified together when one is in conversation with the other party, and not when one overhears. That being said, if someone actually makes this joke to me, I will definitely keep the poster’s line of questioning in mind – it’s very well said.

  4. cory

    Thanks for this post, the comment from Jeanne, and the post by Nicole Brown. I think many of us can relate to being in a situation where we weren’t sure what to say but wanted to interrupt classism or racism. I have a few thoughts, based on my experiences.

    I think there are two types of situations: one is where you aren’t worried about connecting with the other person, you just want to interrupt the bad behavior. For me, this one usually works best with strangers or group situations. The other is where you think there is a teachable moment and want to build or keep a connect with the person whose behavior you don’t like. That’s usually friends, colleagues, or family for me.

    In the first situation, which is what this post is about, i like both your ideas, based on the class backgrounds of the people involved, and i also think it doesn’t really matter what you say, as long as you communicate some form of “that’s not okay with me.” In my opinion, we’re not effective as teachers in these kinds of moments, so our role is to provide more and more instances where classism and racism are not acceptable.

    In a situation where there is the opportunity to teach, often with someone we care about or respect, I’ve found two things are helpful. One is to talk to them alone, even if their comment is said in a group, so that they feel less embarrassed (and I will appreciate this modeling when it comes time for them to tell me about something dumb and unthinking I may have said!). And the other thing I’ve found really helpful is to say something that has this format:
    “I know you, and I know you didn’t mean it this way, but to someone who doesn’t know you, your comment about …. could have sounded like …..”
    And insert the explicit classist or racist assumption imbedded in their comment. You could even say that someone who doesn’t know them might think the comment was racist or classist, but i’ve found that those words shut people down in teachable moments because we’re really conditioned to translate them directly into “bad person” in our heads and then get defensive.

    Lastly, I think it’s important to have a support system, like Class Action, or a partner or roommate to talk over the ones that are really stumping us. None of us are raised to interrupt “-isms” so we need support to do it. And we need to be nice to ourselves. We won’t always think of the right thing to say until later. Sometimes we’ll leave without saying anything. It doesn’t mean we failed. We can learn from the situation and it may help us the next time. We’re in it for the long haul, and it’s okay if we’re not perfect every time.

    Thanks post authors and Class Action for providing this forum.

  5. Leslie Belay

    My son just recounted a similar story about his UMass Boston classroom. Change the reference to Mexican dorm cleaner to Pizza Delivery Guy and you basically have the scenario he faced. Some young man from out of state made a comment about “Well, I wouldn’t expect the Pizza Delivery Guy to understand a concept like this…” My son, who is so proud to have gotten himself a job delivering pizzas recently (earning his own money, navigating the streets of Boston on his own, etc.) put on his cap with pizza store logo and said in a low, authoritative voice, “Watch your language!” ‘nuf said; the guy stammered and turned white as a sheet. The Sociology teacher stood mute here as well…

  6. Susan Legere

    A colleague, who wished to remain anonymous, shared this personal anecdote with me:

    My older brother married an Asian woman when he was in the military. About a year after he returned home, my parents were having dinner with a number of my father’s side of the family, all of whom considered themselves religious Christians, and everyone was talking about not including my brother in future family gatherings because of his wife. Several noted that she was “colored,” and my grandmother added that they just didn’t understand why he couldn’t find “a nice white girl.” After enduring several minutes of this offensive dialog, my mother politely chimed in that she was “glad that God was white and middle class.” The conversation stopped, even though I doubt too many of them actually caught it.

    Given the paternal side of the family, my mother mastered discreet zingers that enabled her to be true to herself, calling people out in a way that they wouldn’t realize they’d been zinged until hours later as they continued to mull over her comment.

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