Being passive aggressive often gets a bum rap. I’m not talking about the personality disorder you’ll find in Appendix B of your trusty old DSM-IV; I’m talking about the ordinary non-pathological variety. The vanilla-flavored silence, the clenched jaw at another night out with the guys that leads you to a long night out with the girls and a “malfunctioning” cell phone that keeps you from getting any of his calls or texts. “Accidentally” washing the reds with the whites. Mentioning a forgotten anniversary in passing, not because it bothers you anymore, but because you just “happened to be thinking about it.” You know, communicating indirectly.
Indirect communication is useful in all sorts of situations, such as brokering a peace treaty with the Russians at the end of WWII, or letting the Israelis know that a few extra fighter planes “might” be coming their way if they come back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. In fact, though we tend not to think about it in these terms, diplomacy’s art of letting someone else have your way–as the saying goes–is often accomplished through passive aggression. Other varieties of aggression are useful too, of course, but they are often tied to body counts and casualties–both physical and emotional. These are obvious examples, though. Everyone can get behind remembering your spouse’s anniversary and avoiding nuclear war. What about a more difficult example?
In another life, I worked as a behavioral specialist for one of the major providers of mental-health services in Orange County. It was a difficult job emotionally: you learned up close how debilitating broken families can be. Selling your nine-year-old son’s talents for table dancing and blowjobs, so you can score some meth, is a pretty good way to amputate one more able body from the polity. But hey, it’s a good thing we’re cutting social services, because that little bugger needs to learn to pull himself up by his boot-straps. I mean, he’s already learned the value of a dollar, right?
Anyway, where was I? Right, behavioral specialist, major provider… Well, as it happens, for most of my time at this very large agency, there was precisely one black woman who worked there. She was friendly enough, and even though I was young and still in my, “Oh, a black person, let me prove how not-racist I am,” phase, I don’t think she minded me too much. As far as I could tell, everyone treated her well enough. When I saw her, most of our conversations revolved around her daughter, the perils of living in Orange County, and her surprise that I not only knew who Gil Scott Heron was, but that I agreed the “revolution would not be televised.”
“Hey, hey, Heron,” she’d say occasionally, when the office was empty and I was filling out paperwork, usually around lunchtime. About six months before I quit, the agency hired another behavioral specialist, and its second black employee, a grew-up-in-Watts, shot-in-the-thigh, slight-hitch-in-his-step former gangsta’, who had no problem condemning the stupidity and cowardice of thugs and drug addicts, even while working to help them. As one might expect in a 100-person organization with 2 black employees, the accountant and the new behavioral specialist took to each other pretty quickly. I’d often do my best to glom on to their conversations, but I was the proverbial third wheel, and even though both were polite, they didn’t have much to say to me when they were together. Neither meant anything by it, I don’t think; both were friendly during these brief cultural reunions, and afterwards too. Still, in a very spoiled kind of way I didn’t like feeling excluded, not to mention I was deep in the throws of white guilt, so, since I possessed far more curiosity than tact, I asked about their club.
The accountant, I should add, grew up not far from where I did, and so I wondered what about being black trumped our socio-economic similarities. She and I were both college educated. The new behavioral specialist was not. It was lunchtime when I asked, and the office was empty, and I did it in such a tentative, careful and self-effacing way that I actually managed to avoid offending her, as I’m sure it must seem that I did. Never underestimate the power of hat-in-hand humility, by the way; people are usually willing to talk.
“Two weeks after he was hired,” she said, referring to the new behavioral specialist, “Tammy,” our boss at the time, “called me into her office and told me that our conversations were making some of the other employees uncomfortable.”
This was 2002, by the way, and let me add that the accountant was universally regarded as excellent, and the new behavioral specialist was, by all accounts, exceptionally good at his job–far better than I was.
“She told me not to play favorites, for any reason, but I knew what she meant,” she said, keeping her voice lower than was her custom. “She meant one black is fine, but two niggers are dangerous.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Then she added, “It’s not a club, Travis; at least not one you’d ever want to join.”
I think I muttered something fairly impotent like, “I’m sorry,” while she explained our boss’s behavior was neither unusual nor unexpected. It didn’t actually bother her too much. The thing is, I was sorry; sorry for her, and sorry that my limited racial imagination failed to perceive the weight of racial civility. It’s not as if I was naive to the ways in which race persisted in America, not at all, but I was surprised at its display. Institutionalized, sure, but unselfconsciously on display in conversations between co-workers that I imagine went something like, “I’m not racist, but…”
After that, I did my best to act the same around them, but for the most part I failed–to their relief I’m sure. It started me wondering though, how well are we really served by civil tongues? I’m all for diplomacy, and understand the utility of a well-placed reminder of past transgressions, but what do you do with anger when its provocateur is so expertly hidden? Maybe we’d be better served with a little less racial civility. It sounds ridiculous when I write it–less racial civility, I mean–but burying things is only useful when they’re dead. Burying things when they’re alive only helps them grow.
Seriously, how do you indirectly remind your husband to bring you flowers when he claims flowers don’t exist? I don’t know, but it’s enough to raise a riot.