It was a stormy work day, rolling up to 2pm and I was ravenously hungry. This was typical of agency life – always on the go, doing the best one can, trying to do a million tasks at once; not doing a particularly good job at any of them. Rain was falling sideways so it made staying in the office for a quick 15 minute lunch break a far more appealing prospect than braving the weather on the other side of our large windows.
I don’t remember exactly what I had packed to eat that day – the day that I realized that I was a complete and utter bigot enabler – but it didn’t matter. At the arrival of Ron* at the communal lunch table, I knew I would probably lose my appetite anyway.
Ron was our well-liked office loud mouth; an endearing, witty, smiley man from Iceland with a wide set of shoulders and fierce determination to dress way too casual for a guy with the title ‘Head of Search’ in his email signature. Despite my cringing as he pulled up a chair alongside me, in the year and a half that I had been at our small advertising agency I could say that on all accounts I had genuinely enjoyed his company.
We’d joked about the inefficiencies of our workplace, shared a love of food trucks, gone to sports days together and he even invited himself to my birthday party one year, partner in tow. I found him incredibly disarming with his quirky accent, frenetic body language and intelligence; traits that also drew many other co-workers to listen to his strong world views.
But on this particularly stressful day, and following a blurry month of global events like terrorist attacks, natural disasters and gun massacres, I noticed a crack appearing in our working relationship. Considering the rapid change occurring across the world, Ron’s unchanging, uncompassionate outlook and particular brand of ignorance was getting too heavy for me to bear.
“If you ask me, we should lock the borders, nuke the lot of them and then pave it over with concrete,” Ron said from behind a fork full of butter chicken. This type of remark shocks you the first time but when such sentiments are speckled about your workplace so often you eventually just ignore them, dissociate yourself, laugh them off or roll your eyes.
Ron looked around, happy expressing his opinion, leveraging the five years he’d been at the company, his bulky build and forceful tone to make his point. I sat there, head in my bowl and ate away in silence.
“I don’t know if I agree with you, Ron,” someone newer to the team might say. They’d be dealt their blow in a tirade of half-truths and twisted news headlines. Later on, someone caught in the crossfire would inevitably say to someone else, “God, can you believe what Ron said?”
“Yeah… It’s pretty bad. But that’s just Ron,” you would say in response.
But that’s simply not good enough.
In the workplace we try to get on with things despite people like Ron because we assume that this will be the quickest way to have the conversation over and done with. During this particular lunch I realized that in doing this, I was no better than Ron himself. I appreciated him for the good times and then ignored the bad.
This is how I enable bigots.
It’s an old story, the idea that if you don’t make a stand when you hear something wrong you’re as guilty as the perpetrator. It’s one we’ve had drummed into us ever since we first encountered grade school bullying. But being an adult and knowing better, in my opinion, is actually worse.
A bigot enabler wipes their hands clean of any sort of accountability, they take the easy road of being cordial and affable with everyone, no matter whom they’re dealing with and what their views may be. In our heads we think, ‘well that’s their opinion,’ or ‘I better not say something in case I offend…’ but that narrative needs to change.
It doesn’t mean you have to stoop to a certain level and go tit for tat with people like Ron, but it does mean being very clear that your opinions on the Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, sexist or racist point they’re making are strong and opposed. You can do this by reasoning with them, if you have the patience of a saint, or you can do what I did:I left the lunch table and then I eventually left the company.
Ron was a big part of my decision to leave and explore broader horizons, and that would be my key advice to bigot enablers who find themselves turning into the accomplice they never imagined they’d become – leave. Get out of the company, relationship, friendship, sports team, whatever environment you’re in if you’re ever tempted to just turn a blind eye or take the good without the bad when it comes to bigotry.
You might think you shouldn’t have to change who you are, or that you shouldn’t have to make a personal sacrifice for someone else’s point of view, but if you don’t change your environment then the only thing changing, is you.