We have a fieldstone retaining wall that runs most of the length of our property. It’s great for curb appeal, but it also tends to slowly come apart. Occasionally, sections need to be rebuilt. On the face of it, this involves taking the stones down and then stacking them back up, but there is more to it. You need to have a plan and some knowledge of building a stable wall to do it right. A few years ago a portion of the wall got to the point where it was clearly going to collapse fairly soon, so something had to be done. I don’t have the strength, the knowledge, nor the desire to prove my manliness to do this job. So, I called two landscape companies for estimates.
Just making the call made me aware of my middle class privilege. Not only can I afford to live in a desirable neighborhood with nice landscaping and well cared for houses, I can also afford to pay someone else to do my part to make sure it stays that way. I do this with the vast majority of the maintenance on my house. Walking into a Home Depot or Lowes makes me feel overwhelmed, but buying and using something as simple as a can of WD-40 gives me that “I’m a man!” rush. I’ll usually watch whoever repairs whatever is broken and feel like I’ve accomplished something. But, that’s not what this post is about. This post is about privilege and racism in everyday life.
The owner of the first landscaping company, a middle aged white man, walked into the backyard with me, and immediately I could tell he didn’t want the job. It’s a tight space, so you can’t get machinery back there. It has to be done by hand. Also, the 12 foot segment that needed repair is a relatively small job for a landscaping company that designs and builds whole properties. He was immediately talking me up to fixing the whole 90 foot wall, or at least a lot more of it than needed fixing. His attitude was already making my decision pretty easy, and then the racism hit me like a ton of fieldstone. He says with a chuckle, “This is the sort of job you wanna hire a bunch of Mexicans for.”
These things happen when you are a white guy talking to other white guys who don’t know your political or professional background. Sometimes even when they do, but that’s less often. Here, on the front stage of my backyard, I think this landscaper was performing some sort of middle-class-white-guy bonding ritual. I mean, neither of us wanted to do this lousy job, right? We should find somebody for whom this job is more appropriate, like maybe some migrant Mexicans who we could underpay in good conscience, I guess. I was shocked, but I did nothing of consequence at that moment. It still bothers me that I did nothing to confront the racist comment. I knew right then he wasn’t getting the job, but he didn’t want the job anyway. I let him write up a quote, which was about 7 times the quote of the company I finally went with, and then threw it away when it arrived in the mail.
The owner of the company that did the work, also a middle aged white man, was upfront that this wasn’t an attractive job because of its small size and the confined space. He said he’d do it, but at the end of the summer season when he does smaller jobs. He did the work over a day and a half, with one younger white man, and charged me about $500 less than the initial estimate. I watched for a bit, and maybe learned enough to tackle the next section that just might come down under the Syracuse snow this winter.
However, the clearer lesson I took out of this adventure in home repair was that privilege is ever-present and that if I am serious about confronting it I have to be ready to address it in the moment. In this case it was racism, and I did nothing about it. Instead, I helped do the small scale work of maintaining our current system of racial stratification.
Progress is noted in the racial divide. In the south the reference for those suited for the undesirable work, at least for older racists, would have involved a different ethnic underclass. And should the racist been called out for his/her ignorance it may have made no positive impression on the racist, but maybe, just maybe, that wall might be a bit weaker.