I’m parked in the lobby assembling bookcases. Even though we have a facilities staff and work study employees, somehow this falls to me. My students’ dissertations will live on these shelves, so okay. I’m assembling bookcases.
Earlier this morning, I moved another set of bookcases along with their assorted contents. My lovely gay co-worker joined me in hauling this stuff across the suite into the file room because. . . Does there need to be a because? It needs to get done. Tracking down the people whose jobs involve moving furniture – to say nothing of the negotiation this would entail – demands a far greater expenditure of effort than simply doing it ourselves.
Parked in the lobby assembling bookcases means an hour at least erased from the projects my mind and hands could be serving. The article that needs to be written on the relationship between race and the completion rates of doctoral students? Not getting done. The accompanying literature review and data collection to write the article? Ditto. Following up with PhD student leaders on their 9/11 day of service plans? Updating materials that more broadly distribute the cultural capital needed for navigating a PhD? Developing a panel on graduate funding opportunities?
None of it getting done. Because I’m parked in the lobby assembling bookcases.
So when you, Good-Hearted White Dude, wander by, I’m less disposed to chat.
Maybe this is what you see: Here in the lobby squats this friendly student services gal, tacking in pegs and sizing shelves. It’s a relatively brainless task. You think, yeah, sure, it’s fine to come in and visit for a while. Also, her job is to serve. It’s right there in her title. That means she’s there “for you,” right?
Maybe you give her a lukewarm offer of help. You accept her refusal but ignore the unstated dismissal. Her body language is turned decidedly away from you. She’s concentrating her attention on assembly instructions. You disregard all of this information. You’ve decided that her task is less than demanding, and that your desire for connection and entertainment trumps whatever comprises her focus.
You drift around, flipping through dissertations and asking whatever questions pop into your head. You hover. You do not bear one milligram of the emotional labor in this interaction, which really could be as simple as saying, “Gosh, you look really busy. Can I help or would you rather concentrate?” When she gives the vague but polite response required either by her social conditioning or her professional role, you could actually listen. (Hint for the ages, boys: anything but an enthusiastic “yes” is a definite NO.)
You could move on.
I too see the irony here. The first step in fraternizing is walking away?
Yes. Move on.
Of course, that’s only the beginning of what you can do.
Go on out there, beyond this doorway, this moment, this individual exchange. Go and figure out whose job it is to deal with bookcases. Determine what else is being dropped. Which people are continuing to rely on women’s training as peacemakers and housekeepers to pick up their slack? What structures around you reward passing off responsibility? You’re the dude here. In some measurable way, you can ensure that others in the organization are held accountable for their duties.
As you start down this path, you’ll discover all sorts of inequities riddling the workplace. You can step up. Advocate for new hiring protocols, for a fair distribution of the organizational administrivia. For pay equity.
Do it without invoking her name. Do it without expecting kudos or congratulations.
Yes, you want to fraternize. Her inattention feels like a rejection. Maybe it makes you feel lonely or hurt or angry. Notice this. Notice too your frame of reference. The interest you’d like her to have in you? It’s most likely consumed by work that has to be done. Work that shouldn’t have been hers in the first place. She’s assembling the goddamned bookcases.
Now let’s zoom out. Let’s carry the metaphor into all the other daily interactions, the ones where you may want her interest, where her “signals” are “ambiguous” (see hint for the ages above).
Supermarket, dance floor, classroom, gym? She’s not ignoring you. On the contrary. She’s quite aware of you. Some part of her mind is weighing the dangers of acknowledging you against those of failing to. She’s also gauging the time it will take her to finish this activity and get to the kids. Or the errands. Or the pile of work left behind at the office.
Meanwhile, the unrelenting clock hammers along her bones.
None of this qualifies as worry precisely. If a technical simile is your bag, imagine her mind working like the GPS in your car. Calculating. Recalculating. Route, traffic, construction, side roads. An unexpected detour, so yet another recalculation. She’s planning menus for the week and when to drop in on the friend bedridden with preeclampsia. How to fit in the doctor’s visit with her aging mother who needs her medication adjusted. When to deal with the overdue car inspection and oil change. With whom she can safely discuss the shit going down at work or at the kid’s school that is causing concern and possibly even irreparable damage.
Her 401-K. Melting icecaps. Police slaying her Black neighbors. An unhinged white supremacist with the nuclear codes. And how she’ll get the groceries across the parking lot without getting raped.
So you want to chat her up about Game of Thrones or Thievery Corporation’s new album or your opinions on race in America. You’re thinking, hell, she’s just assembling a bookcase. But she’s got that tight smile and a body that’s shouting, “DUDE, I’M KINDA BUSY HERE!”
You want to fraternize?
Then hear what she’s saying.
And go pick up the slack.
Not just here in the moment. Probably not here at all. But in the world outside of here. Show up at the meetings of the county board and the police commission. Advocate hard for keeping ACA protections in place. Lead efforts to diversify and make equitable the organizations you are a part of.
Pick up the slack with your aging neighbors. Learn the names and policies of the local leaders, and engage them in conversations about issues that matter. Fight to preserve the park and green space next to that new office complex.
No one expects you to do all these things. Around the many other commitments of your life, in that cushion of time you were hoping to share with her, pick one or two actions. Choose those that call on you to risk a little. (Ranting on social media won’t cut it. Sure, it’s what everyone most wants to do right now. Immediate gratification, low stakes, and zero impact. Slacktivism won’t move the needle one nanometer).
Choose actions that let you shoulder a bit more of the burden for protecting what’s precious here. Here’s a data point for you: last spring, Daily Action reported that 86% of the calls to resist Cheeto Jesus were coming from women. Until that number dips down at least to 50, yeah dude, we’ll be kinda busy.
The truth is, she’d probably love to make room to fraternize with you. I know I would. She needs you to offer up a bit of your power and privilege to carve out that room. She’s spending a lot more currency than you can imagine on those bookcases. Assembling them, repairing them, ensuring they’re put to good use, even pulling them from the fire. You don’t have to go far to track down a set that needs your hands. When you do, I promise you’ll also find her. In this shared effort to make something good, you of the good heart will end up beside her. With us. Working to build what can hold us all.
Image: Ethel Léontine Gabain, Women Welders at Williams and Williams, Chester (Grosvenor Museum)