The Online Encyclopedia of Wyoming History

Race, Time and the Workplace

Race, Time and the Workplace

By Rebecca Hein

Racism shows itself in a variety of ways, but I didn’t think much about it until I was 24, living in the Chicago area and working with Black people daily. My parents, always on the right side of the race issue, were NAACP members, so I grew up knowing that African-Americans were economically oppressed, and that White people should be concerned about this, and act.

I also recall a brief exchange with my father about George Wallace, governor of Alabama. I must have been in high school and aware of politics because 1972 was one of the years Wallace ran for president in the primary. I asked Dad why he opposed Wallace.

He replied—remember, this was 1972—“You don’t become a successful white politician in the South unless you’re openly racist.” This filled in some of the blanks in my awareness.

In Casper I knew few African-Americans: our cleaning lady, the mailman at our family business and one student at Natrona County High School. College wasn’t much different. As a music major, first at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and then at the University of Oregon in Eugene, I didn’t socialize much outside those small groups. Each music department had one Black student.

This totals five African-American acquaintances before I moved to Evanston, Ill., and took a job in the mail room of an insurance underwriting firm. Three of my five co-coworkers were young Black men. We all worked harmoniously.

Our supervisor, Janet, was a young White woman. Through her attitude toward Doug, the one young White man in our little group—and her resulting implied attitude toward the African-Americans we worked with—I observed a culturally-embedded outlook I might have missed but for my upbringing.

One day when Doug had left the mail room to deliver the inter-office mail, Janet said to me, “Do you know what he did before he started working here? He was a stock boy at Field’s.” (Marshall Field’s, one of the large Chicago-area department stores). Her disdain was obvious.

She never said anything like that about our Black co-workers. Clearly she had a double standard. It didn’t register that the young Black men we worked with were worthy of—or should have had the opportunity for—higher-level careers. But that a young White man would settle for a mail-room job aroused her contempt.

More than 40 years later, I still think about this and wonder what can be done. Evanston isn’t the Deep South, which showed me that racism extends much farther than I’d realized.

It’s the result of our country’s history of slavery and the connected problems that have plagued our society ever since. Maybe one person can’t do a lot, but change surely has to start with what’s inside each of us.

Read about the indignities Carrie Burton Overton had to endure as a young Black woman in Laramie.