Of Burdens and Burquas

Just prior to clocking out, today at my day job (which, ironically, is working the night shift), I called a meeting with my boss and shift supervisor. The issue? Not replacement coffee filters for the break room, or how to coordinate garments of wretched hideousness for the upcoming Ugly Sweater Holiday party. No, this meeting’s premise revolved around one very unusual subject: Arab-American men. Or, more succinctly, Arab-American male customers, and their utter lack of decent regard for the female employees who are attempting to assist them. 

But first, if you please, some background. Like a lot of my fellow artisans/poor white trash 20-somethings, I work a day job to support my ridiculous habit of dreaming about one day achieving Margaret Atwood-like ascendency (even Nora Roberts-like ascendency would probably do). Unlike a lot of my fellow homies from the Negative Bank Balance Allegiance, I have a day job that I enjoy, am positively challenged by, and make a healthy living wage at, with a company that not only respects and values its employees, but downright pampers them, truth be told. Having roots in a turbulent, capitalistically damaged suburban background, with a long-nurtured viewpoint on office employment as the epitome of misery incarnate, I sometimes have to stop, blink stupidly a few times, and wonder which karmic deity I must have finger-fucked subconsciously to turn up in such a fortunate position.

(This isn’t about me trying to kiss ass on the Internet, though. For obvious reasons, I’m keeping the name of my workplace and the title I hold under strictly confidential wraps. Don’t even bother trying to get it out of me; I’ll just make up something ridiculously asinine to sate you.)

But no facet of employment, regardless of wide-ranging levels of satisfactory performance, is ever, ever, ever perfect. And with my job, the drawbacks are limited, but they do include the occasional brush up with irate customers. From day one, we are prepared for and trained in how to handle situations where tempers flare, hackles are raised, and offensive epitaphs are hurled against you the employee, the one who is paid to listen and soothe and serve and please. As I mentioned, this company takes better care of its employees than most, instructing us to hang up on abusive customers who call in for service, but its dance is a delicate one. Indeed, the very nature of customer service is that of the careful observation and “proceed with caution” flashing yellow mental lights. Every one of us was hired for our ability to master the complex steps, and speaking for the vast majority, our customers are unequivocally pleased by the results.

And then there are those whose pleasure is perhaps derived from more sinister a source. As I found out firsthand two nights this week, contending with Arab-American male customers over the phone as a woman is about as much of a picnic as maintaining the physical stamina to keep taking the stairs every morning, instead of the elevator. In short, these men call in looking for assistance. The voice that answers the phone belongs to a woman. It isn’t long – not more than a minute or two – before the caller begins to grow short-tempered. He gruffly interrupts the female employee mid-sentence, angrily dismisses any attempt on her behalf to resolve his question, slides into a slew of insulting rhetoric and baseless accusations, and then finally demands to speak to a (presumably male) supervisor. After the call has been transferred on up the chain of command, the customer pulls a surprise 180 and strikes an immediate friendly demeanor with the male supervisor, although the answers given for the second time vary to little degree from those that initially came from the female employee.

Twice now I’ve been forced to acquiesce this behavior and turn the call over to my superior. Additionally, a female coworker on my team once took a call from an Arab-American customer who asked her if “there was a man” he could speak to. (Everyone else being on calls at the time, she finished the conversation and solved the customer’s question, smoothly and professionally.)

Now, as any good, bleeding heart, radical progressive who participated in a bake sale against racism in high school, I am loath to label myself a bigot. Sarah Palin is a bigot. Rand Paul is a bigot. Me? I donate money to NORML. I volunteered at a women’s shelter. I thought Evan Rachel Wood’s character’s speech in Thirteen about everyone being required to marry someone of a different race, so that in one generation, prejudice would be wiped out, contained a larger grain of logic, though shrouded in youthful idealism. But in this world, patterns persist so as not to be overlooked, and I cannot turn a blind eye to a repeat performance by multiple individuals belonging to the same cultural base.

Thus, knowing my boss and shift supervisor to be unfailingly approachable, willing to listen, reasonable and understanding, I initiated a discussion. We all agreed on the root cause, and came to the same conclusion: despite how monstrously un-PC it feels, a situation such as this one directly impedes our ability to do our job. If a caller has made up his mind, the instant he hears your voice and your name and subsequently characterizes you as a creature lower than dirt, based upon evidence no more compelling than your sex, nothing you tell him is going to make him happy. As a remedy, we decided it would be best for my female coworker and I to access the situation on a case-by-case basis, and if a conversation looked to be headed in that oh-so-nauseating direction, we were to find a way to transfer the call over to a male coworker as soon as humanly possible. Admittedly, such an action makes me feel like a bit of a coward, but holding this scenario up against a pragmatic spotlight, we need to be able to do the job we were hired for, and we cannot hope to accomplish this with lightning bolts of cross-cultural misogyny striking every so often.

I suppose I felt compelled to write about this situation not necessarily to let loose a cathartic stream of workplace related turmoil, or even to probe at a deeper understanding of how far to tolerate intolerance. Truly, I have no concrete objective, other than to ponder and reflect. After all, the sexism inherent to my world frequently has little in common with the sexism of the fundamentalist Islamic world, although both serve to damage society as a collective and functional whole. And when self-identified feminists like myself fall into direct conflict with the shadings of an even more gruesome societal ill, it leaves one not only shaken, but in many ways addled and distraught; questioning our ability to confront a hedonistic version of the very thing we’ve thought ourselves experts on. From where I stand, free to speak my mind and wear backless dresses, the leap from not enough women on The Daily Show to having acid thrown in your face is as difficult to fathom as actually having to be a 1950s-style housewife. (Confession: once upon a time, I presided over the complete ruination of a pot of ramen.) It’s a correlation I am that terrifies me to my core; I am frightened to face it, yet cannot help but recognize this type of development as symptomatic of something I’ve mostly only been exposed to via reading the news. This forces you to recalculate your ability to process the firsthand embodiment of what you’ve protested against but never experienced in such a close-up manner; it insists that you evaluate your own intrinsic presuppositions about an insular culture and the people who comprise it, and calls into question your views on multilateral tolerance for what really needs to be a worldwide non-sequitur.

And so, what becomes of it? I will continue doing my job; I will continue to love and cherish a healthy portion of what I do there and who I work with; I will be a writer intimately familiar with the bold kiss of empowerment, and I will earn a living in a profession I adore while doing so. It seems a bit hollow, perhaps, but encountering these types of old-world, back-asswards miscreants only makes me want to try harder, go farther; have fun and kick butt. If not for the sake of my own drive to succeed, then in a roundabout way, for the women smothered by oppression – for whom the glass ceiling will always be not a goal to break through but instead a potential weapon. 
 

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