Saturday, April 28, 2007

It's A Man's World-Dammit!

Note: Rennatta Frazier, mentioned in this article, was an african-american police officer in Springfield IL, our home. Se was railroaded and fired from the department and later, after this was published in the local paper, found innocent.

I work in a female dominated profession. In my office, I work with nine women and zero men. Counting step-children, I have five daughters. We all wish the very best for one another. I’m married to a feminist. His dreams for us often exceed our own. It could be easy for me to believe that sexism is on life support and society is ready to pull the plug. I seldom encounter it in my day-to-day life. But, I know it exists.

Lest I forget, a dramatic reminder recently smacked me around. I staffed an exhibit for my agency last week. The exhibit was part of a statewide professional organization with a membership that is about 98% male. I don’t need to say what profession; it doesn’t matter. It would have been the same if it were butchers or boat captains.

It was on my husband’s (Michael) day off, so he accompanied me to the exhibit. I was happy for the company. We don’t get nearly enough time together these days.

My object lesson started the minute we walked in the door. I’d spoken to the exhibit coordinator a couple of times on the phone. He was friendly and personable. When we arrived with my exhibit in tow, I introduced myself. The coordinator looked at my husband and directed him to the agency’s booth. It felt odd, but I shrugged and started setting up.

When the male exhibitor next to us showed up, I introduced myself to my new neighbor. I also introduced my husband, saying he had come to spend the day with me. Mike nodded, and without saying a word, and went back to reading his newspaper. The neighbor struck up a conversation, not with me, with Mike. He even enlisted his help setting up his display.

Very few of the conference attendees stopped by my booth. Most of the visitors to the booth were other exhibitors, mostly women who worked for other agencies. We’d share information with one another while the conference attendees were in their sessions and with the attendees when they were on their breaks and other designated times during the day.

But on nearly every occasion when a man stopped by the booth, I’d introduce myself, and the man would look at my husband and start asking him questions. Now, Mike is a very smart guy, but knows little about my agency and the services we provide. So, he’d look to me and say, “Celia?” and I would respond.

If the visitor asked a follow-up question or comment, he would again direct it to Mike. Mike would turn to me and say “Celia?” and again I would respond. As the day progressed, I started standing when a man came up to the booth. I had hoped that would make us more equals and Mike less, since he’d remain seated. Still, each man would direct his questions or comments to Mike.

Crazy as it seemed initially, it soon became maddening. When men would ask questions I would lean into their line of sight, answer their questions, tell them about my agency and try to get them to make eye contact. Despite Mike’s turned back and silence my efforts mattered little. Mike still was the “master” of that 8x8 booth domain and I, his lowly servant; I wasn’t even an annoyance, I was invisible.

I could not help but think about Renatta Frazier and what has happened to her as an African-American female in a predominantly white male profession. I did some quick research on the Internet and found a study of women and policing. It said that women receive, at best, a cool reception from male officers and, at worst, open hostility.

It identified the presence of discrimination in the workplace by virtually all black women officers (92%) and more than half (57%) of the white women. It also found that the discrimination within the police departments exists on two levels -- gender and race.

Even if you’re one of those people that think statistics lie, you have to take the study seriously. Let’s suppose that one-third of the officers who responded were just being bitchy, or had an ax to grind… make up what ever reason you want, wouldn’t it still be a dramatic finding? It puts what is happening to Frazier into a context impossible to ignore. Institutional racism does exist in police departments across the nation. We’re not so special that it cannot happen here.

It isn’t enough that several mainly Black organizations are pursing justice for Renatta Frazier. Shouldn’t we give her the benefit of the doubt? If you were an elected official, wouldn’t you want to make this investigation a priority? If you were in Renatta Frazier’s union wouldn’t you fervently defend your union sister? If you were a caring human being wouldn’t you want to offer her your support? Wouldn’t you?

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