When I try and think of the place where I have felt least respected in my life, the strongest image that comes to my mind is on the other side of the reception desk at Centrelink, or by extension, the job network providers.
I get it. There are lots of angry, unpleasant clients to work with who treat staff disrespectfully. Day in and day out, I totally understand how hard it would be to keep treating people kindly, respectfully, trustingly, only to have them (sometimes literally) spit in your face.
I would become guarded too, no doubt about it. I would become calloused and inured, and assume the worst while doing my best to remain courteous on the surface.
But it still sucks to be on the receiving end of that barely concealed disdain. Disdain that yet another person has walked through the door in need of something, and they’ll probably ask for it none-too-politely.
It makes me feel small. It makes me feel worthless. And I don’t like it.
I see an gentleman in his 50’s wearing a smart business suit approach the reception. He’s a client, and he asks for someone’s email address. He tells a joke and the receptionist laughs, playfully calling out after him as he walks away. When she turns to see the next client her face falls, and she snaps at the young man with dark skin, telling him with a passive-aggressive mutter and increasing bluntness to go sit down and wait.
I try and distinguish myself from the other clientele. I lay it on thick, being charming and polite, using big words to give the impression of intelligence and casually mentioning my qualifications so that the staff will treat me like something closer to an equal. I see the moment when they go “Oh, but you’re more qualified than I am. You could be doing my job, or my manager’s job.” I work so hard to give the impression “I’m not like the others”.
And I’m ashamed. Because it means that I’m willing to push other human beings down in order to stand on top of the pile, and be treated slightly better than them.
It’s a shitty system we’re part of, that de-humanises people who are looking for work. And I know that when people treat me like I’m worthless, not only do I feel worthless, I want to act accordingly. Because it’s exhausting trying to convince them that I am nice, that I am intelligent, that I am worthy of respect. And honestly, even when I try really, really hard, it doesn’t often change the way I’m treated. I guess a few polite exchanges can’t undo years of being treated badly, and so no matter how hard I try I’m still likely to elicit a care-less response from someone who’s deep in the pits of compassion fatigue.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m the educated, qualified, not-quite-white-but-certainly-not-black one. I’m the one with a family wealthy enough and supportive enough to have bought me a car when I needed one, so I didn’t have to ride a bike to my appointment. I’m the one with a smart phone with internet connection, so that I can find what I’m looking for instantly. I’m the one with a USB dangling off my car keys so I can take the files easily. I’m the one with a folder to keep my documents from being creased, and access to a shower so I don’t have strong body odour. I’m the one that grew up in a safe family where I was never exposed to drugs, and who found themselves in a stable and healthy relationship. I’m the one that grew up speaking English, as a male, currently in the prime of my adult years.
I have privilege coming out the wazoo.
And I still found it hard.
It breaks my heart to think of all the people I passed today who will not have such an easy time as I did.
And I don’t have any answers.