Working for my town’s Water & Sewer Department may have taught me more than any internship I’ve had. This is not one of those “hard work teaches you how to appreciate your privileged education” think pieces by someone like Mike Rowe, as much as I respect him. What I learned about water and sewer systems, how to paint fire hydrants, how to drive any and every kind of truck, and how to replace man holes definitely has utility, but I learned far more about myself and the human condition during my time at the sewer department than I did about the work itself.
My summer at the Sewer Department started shortly after I graduated from one of the most prestigious and conservative college preparatory schools in Upstate New York. The first thing I learned on the job was that I was not a real sewer worker; I was “summer help.” “Summer help” is simply a nice way of saying cheap labor provided by relatively privileged locals. One of the more unsettling realizations I came away with was the fact that I was only making a little less per hour than most of the veterans of the department, whose salaries weren’t high enough for them to even afford the property taxes in the town that they were serving. This was one of the factors that led to my alienation from my coworkers.
For the first few weeks, hardly anyone would talk to me other than to assign me work. In fact, the only person who would talk to me happened to be someone who I had gone to middle school with who now worked at the Water & Sewer Department full-time. This person also happened to have a swastika tattoo on his forearm.
In a classroom setting, it would be easy to criticize and dissect the notion of suburban neo-Nazis in Upstate New York and make a blanket moral judgment on how reprehensible this tattoo was, and by extension, the person who chose to have it inked into his forearm. Yet in real life, I found it profoundly difficult to confront the hatred and atrocities this tattoo symbolized when I was flagging worksites or replacing manholes with him. In my moments of personal reflection, which occurred often when I was painting fire hydrants and fences, I would rage internally at the swastika and the man bearing it. But there was a job to do.
There was also rampant racism at the Water & Sewer Department. Confederate flags adorned the lockers and trucks of many of the workers even though these proud confederates had a black coworker. On my first day, after I was asked about my thoughts on President Obama, the driver of the truck I was in exclaimed, “He should’ve been shot a long time ago.”
I had never heard the n-word so many times than over my summer at the Water & Sewer Department. I happened to be working there as the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin was playing out on the break room television every morning, on Fox News, no less. Much of the racism I encountered was when I was present and when my black coworker was not, yet he still saw the Confederate flags, still heard the groans when Trayvon Martin sympathizers came on the television—but he never quit his job.
Before working at the Water & Sewer Department, I was convinced that racism existed, but not in towns like mine in the Northeast. Then my summer job rocked my world, and I realized that racism could exist in some of its worst forms right in my backyard. And then I came to Wesleyan, where, like many, I thought that I was coming to a progressive utopia where we fight racism and oppression in the outside world, but no such thing could possibly exist within the confines of our New England campus.
As I learned through the lived experiences of my peers and my own sobering observations, racism exists at Wesleyan from the level of microaggressions to institutionalized racism. Yet for many white students at Wesleyan, even if we consider ourselves allies, we fail to see the degree of racism between microaggressions and mass incarceration or police brutality. More often than not, it is in jobs that aren’t unpaid internships, where white people often find a false sense of security about racism in the workplace, that many of us will finally realize how bad racism can really get in predominantly white spaces, even in the northeast, even in the 21st century.
It is incumbent upon white students at Wesleyan to continuously inform ourselves on race, racism, and their ramifications and implications in our society. If we think that we are in a bubble where racism doesn’t occur, we are fooling ourselves.
This job did not teach me why people perpetuate racism, but it did teach me what it’s like to ignore it and continue doing a job. The task at hand was an excuse for my inaction in my mind until I came across Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” (where following orders in an evil organization is just as bad, if not worse, than giving the orders themselves) when I began attending the Center For Humanities’ Monday Night Lecture Series on campus. It was at that point that I realized that being a cog in a machine that perpetuates racism is nothing to take conciliation in. Through this lens, I was in fact no more morally superior than my racist coworkers because I did nothing to stop their racism. No internship could have ever taught me that.
Lahut is a member of the Class of 2017.