14 years of living in the inner city does something to you. What it does depends on who you were before you lived there, whether you felt like you had a choice in living there, and how much access you had during your time living there. We chose to live here. We have enough access now to pretty much any other neighborhood, including the one I am going to talk about here. We came as immigrants to the ghetto. We came here to listen and we came here to learn. We came here to understand a place that seems incomprehensible to many. Some look at the inner city as scary others look at it with judgement. Others call it home without thinking about how different their home is than the homes of others a mile and a half away. We looked at it as a place that could use a hand, not a hand out. We looked at the ghetto as misunderstood and we wanted to understand it.
Almost a decade and a half later, I think we are starting to understand enough to articulate some of the themes or forces that keep the inner city in place rather than moving forward. It reminds me of learning about the coefficient of friction back when I was in high school or college Physics classes. The coefficient of friction is what keeps a block from sliding down a hill or a ramp. The greater the coefficient of friction an object has the less likely it is to slide down a hill. Or if the hill has a low coefficient of friction the object can slide down it a lot easier. It’s why we slide on roads when they are icy or snow covered. The coefficient of friction was lowered by the ice and snow and when we take a turn too fast or try to slow down quickly it doesn’t go as planned. The ghetto has a higher coefficient of friction than where I am originally from. It’s going to take more force to get things moving.
I don’t know about Meg, but I feel like I am straddling two worlds sometimes. I have the world I grew up in, white middle or upper middle class suburb and poor, black ghetto. When my sister got married last summer, her wedding was on the border of The United States and Canada. Like, literally on the border. Meg, the kids, and I “snuck” into Canada by walking north 100 feet and then would “sneak” back into the states by walking back. There was a point where we were simultaneously in Canada and The US and while we were in both places at once, we were never fully in both. One foot rested on Canadian soil and the other on American, but never both feet fully on both sides at the same time.
Perspective, though, can come from both sides at the same time. I can be in both places and see one for the other and see one from the other. Unfortunately, what I have seen is sometimes those of us that are on the outside do things that increase the coefficient of friction for those stuck on the inside. One place does things that make it harder for the other.
That is what this story is about. It is about something I saw. It is about seeing things from both perspectives. It is about friction and force and maybe allowing for some access into the insights of someone that has two feet in two places at the same time. Before we dive in, I want you to know some ground rules. The first is, please feel free to disagree with me. The second is give space for those that agree and the third is the most important one, if anything I write or say in a video strikes a chord with you, I need you to understand that this is one interaction between a couple of people and millions of these interaction take place every day without us even noticing. If something I say seems to make sense, understand that it is a single drop in the ocean of injustice that exists.
So here we go. I am a selfish asshole sometimes. A few days ago was my sister and her husband’s anniversary. We have a tradition of swapping kids so the other couple can go out for dinner or drinks or whatever for each other’s birthdays and anniversaries. Meg has been really wanting to see her friend Kelly and they had a nice set up going where they signed up for 5k’s or triathlons together as a way to keep in touch. Since Covid has everything like that shut down there hasn’t been a natural or easy way for the two of them to hang out. When she mentioned that Kelly wanted to do something on Saturday night, the same night we were watching Ash and Phil’s kids I saw it as an opportunity to not be a selfish jerk. I need more opportunities like that to not think of myself, to put others needs or wants in front of my own. The Frahm girls were going to come over around 5. Meg wanted to get some miles in on her bike before leaving to go over to Kelly’s.
At 4:05 standing in the kitchen, it occurred to me that I was responsible for dinner for 5 kids and really needed to get my shit together if I was going to be ready in time for the rest of the kids to come over and join us. Covid has made it hard for me to figure out what food we have in the house. I should know better, but I don’t. Because of my ignorance about what was in the fridge or basement freezer, the easiest thing for me to do was run over quick to Papa Murphy’s and grab some pizzas. All of the kids would like that. There was a newer bbq chicken pizza I thought sounded pretty good and I could even grab a dessert. It was a chance for me to be the cool uncle, to give the kids a fun night – something that has been hard to do lately since the kids are not really hanging out with their other friends much.
The only problem is I should have thought about all of this 20 minutes sooner. We didn’t get into the car until 4:15. Papa Murphy’s is about 10 minutes away from our house. I remember doing the math quick in my head. 4:15 plus ten minutes is 4:25. The Frahms are coming over at 5:00 and they are usually pretty punctual. As long as I leave P-Murph’s (that’s what we call Papa Murphy’s) by 4:50 we are good to go. That means as long as it doesn’t take 25 minutes we are money. I can’t remember it ever taking that long there. They aren’t cooking anything and one of the pizzas I was going to order was a pepperoni, those are usually premade in the cooler ahead of time. That just leaves the bbq pizza I wanted. In hindsight I probably could have ordered it online ahead of time, but that didn’t occur to me at the time.
Throughout the telling of this story, I will have to pause and explain the layers behind what I saw. The first time I need to do that is right now when I describe the employees I saw and what I assume the owner is like at that particular P-Murph’s. The store is located on the edge of a very wealthy area, the wealthiest area around. According to the site linked, it is the wealthiest zipcode in the state. Isn’t it kind of odd that the richest zip code is less than ten minutes away from where I live, the poorest zipcode in the state. If you are like me and you like comparisons and looking for patterns, especially in numbers, here are two charts that might help you frame in your mind where I left from and where I was going.
You can see how close they are to one another. I can run from my house to there without stopping. I could run there fast without stopping.
Now look at the demographic info. What similarities and differences do you see. The two zipcodes are about the same size in terms of population, but that population is about as starkly contrasted as night and day. Light and dark. White and black. Rich and Poor. Academically inclined and disadvantaged. There is something to the commute time too, but that’s for a different day. Based on the demographic data, what can we say about the owner of the P-Murph’s? Would we assume he is poor and black or rich and white? I have no idea, but if I had to guess and if you had to guess, what would you assume? What would you assume the income of that person would be? Is it closer to 24k a year or 91k? Also, look at the average compared to the mean. We can get into how averages and means work and how the average is skewed by outliers. What type of outliers exist in the rich area? The super rich living there skew the average adjusted gross incomes greatly up, about double. Where I am from, the average adjusted gross incomes skew down about 12%. That means there are people pulling down the average. In fact they still pull down the average even though we skew it way up.
Ok, so we can’t get too far into the weeds here. We can dive into demographics a little, but that’s not the point. Statistics should be used to frame themes, not make a point. The theme or the story that is being told here is that the poor and rich are very close to one another and that overall poor equals black and rich equals white. I guess it makes sense then that the three people working at that Papa Murphy’s were all black. Making pizzas is a job, not a career. It’s a job that could allow you to earn about $24,000 a year if you’re lucky. For some reason, if you haven’t had your foot in both places you can’t see what is obvious for those of us straddling a line. Inequity, earned or unearned can be felt and when inequity exists between white and black – you can feel it. I felt it when I walked into that Papa Murpy’s.
While telling this story I want to point out some attitudes that would help you if you are worried about being a “Karen”. All that means is you want to avoid adding to the problem and helping the problem. You are asking yourself what you can do to help. The thing is, I can’t tell you explicitly what you need to do to help, but I can tell you how to think and you can make decisions in moments that can help. Woven within this story are a couple Anti-Karen Attitudes that will allow you to make anti-racist decisions more confidently.
Anti-Karen Attitude 1: Understand the untold story or themes that exist around you. If you can’t understand them consider whether or not you have oriented yourself in a way that would allow you to have to interact with those themes. If you are too far removed that means something and you have to figure that out before you can move on to the other attitude shifts. The untold or unsaid story or theme is the juxtaposition of rich and poor and how who falls on which side of the dividing line between the two is more dependent on skin color than anything else.
Behind the counter were two 20-ish year old black men. It was hot in there. It was hot outside. If you have ever worked in a restaurant when it is really humid outside, the floor absorbs that humidity, probably because of residual grease or squished food particles that don’t come up through regular mopping. The two Black men were sliding between work stations instead of walking. I did this when I worked at George Webb sometimes. The floor would get slick and it was safer to slide than step. As they slid around making pizzas multiple times I heard them ask one another what was on a particular pizza. Salami, green pepper, tomatoes, and pepperoni or something like that. It appeared my two Black pizza making friends were new at their job. I’ve been new. It’s hard. No matter what you do, you always end up doing something wrong. You just don’t know what you should be doing at every second of the time you are supposed to be working. Things that will become normal for you aren’t normal or intuitive yet. At 4:25 I entered the store. At 4:30 a Black woman about the same age – young, not old, closer to 21 than 18 came from the back and took my order. 3 times the Black men making the pizzas apologized for things taking so long. They were concerned about my experience.
Anti-Karen Attitude 2: Worry about the experience of Black people. Give a shit. Think about them before they are put in a situation where they need to think about you. Try to put yourself in their place, not as a Black individual but a person with life experiences. If you can’t relate, consider what it means that you cannot relate with the experiences of the Black person you are interacting with. What does that mean?
While paying, a White man walked in. Smartly, he had ordered his pizzas online before leaving work. Based on his shirt, he worked at a BMW dealership. He looked like more of a salesman than a mechanic. After him a White woman walked into the store. The Black woman briefly checked on them and went back into the rear of the store, where only employees are allowed to go. After a minute she left with two small bottles lemonade and walked through the entrance and out into a car with someone waiting, presumably to give her a ride home. 20 seconds later after another white man in his mid forties with a lot of Brewers attire walked in declaring he had an online order to pick up, my two Black pizza making friends were alone in the store with 4 White people looking for pizza so they didn’t have to disrupt their relaxing Saturday nights by being forced to cook – the same thing we were now expecting my two Black friends to do for us.
It struck me standing there that I was doing something unseen and imperceptible but very real. I was contributing. I was contributing to something. And I had motivations for that contribution. I got my kids ready, got them in the truck and drove over to pick up dinner because I wanted something easy. The two pizzas and the smores cookie dessert thing were about $30. Let’s be really vague and use some creative rounding and say that I receive $30 of actual money for every hour I work. I’m a salaried employee, but it’s not hard to figure out how much actual money you take home. Take your paycheck and divide it by the number of hours you worked. That’s your hourly take home rate. Let’s say mine is $30 an hour. So it was one hour of work for me to buy the pizza. That means that for me, 60 minutes of my time equated to 2 pizzas and a smores thing. I don’t need all of the $30’s I get for every hour I work. Because of that I can take some of those $30’s and buy things that I want, not just things that I need. My needs and the needs of my wife and kids can be met for a couple of those $30 hours. I have margin. I have space. I have so much margin and space that I can spend an hours worth of pay on dinner, just so I don’t have to do the work of cooking and cleaning for myself and 5 kids when I really don’t want to.
Know the untold story.
Part of that untold story is the fact that we are in Coronavirus times. It’s stressful. How do we act? Can I go outside without a mask? Why are you not wearing a mask? Is the world ending? Is the new normal here or are we still waiting for that to magically appear?
I think this would be a good time to help you understand what circumstances would allow for two brand new, let’s call them 21 year old Black men to be working at Papa Murphy’s.
The income produced by working at a place like that where I am originally from (white suburb) is meant to help kids make some money during the breaks in the college year. It’s meant to be life experience for young people. I wonder how many college kids are working right now at a place like that. I wonder if my parents would have wanted me to work or if they would have sacrificed some of their margin to not put me in a position where I could have been exposed to the Coronavirus for $9.75 an hour or about $7 an hour after taxes. Those two Black men were new. I wonder what the owner was doing at 4:35 when two Black men were desperately trying to make pizzas for four white families. Four white families that might not even eat all of that pizza. Four white families that probably had enough food at home to not have to rely on two Black men to make their pizza.
At 4:36 the White woman’s pizzas were ready, but her garden salad was not. What goes into a garden salad one of the two Black men asked the other. It became obvious that my order was going to be made after the other white peoples so I went outside to check on the kids. Who were within eyesight in the truck so they didn’t have to come inside.
I could feel myself starting to get annoyed at that point. 12 minutes had passed between when I got there and when the white woman walked out of the store with her pizza and garden salad. One down two to go until my pizzas were ready. This is where my experiences living in two worlds helped me to fight against my bias.
Anti-Karen Attitude 3: Check your bias by knowing biases come out when we are stressed and then fight for the opposite of your biases. Understand that we are biased naturally toward ourselves and the worlds were our feet are planted.
I did not like how long things were taking. But because I know that there is an undercurrent of racial tension between where I am from (where my two Black pizza making friends might have been from) and where the three of us were geographically located at the moment there was no way I could ever let them think I was annoyed or aggravated or I disapproved of their performance. Under no circumstances could I contribute to the perception that a white mans needs or wants are in any way more important than the wants or needs of anyone else. And in order to do that that, I had to actively check myself to make sure I in no way was insinuating the untold story was one I wanted to participate in. They were new. It was hot. It was humid. There were a ton of orders to fill. They had no help. They should have been trained better and weren’t. The boss should have known that. Maybe someone called in sick. Maybe that’s a sign that the working conditions aren’t great. They were struggling for $7 an hour. I knew that about them. All they knew about me was I was white and spent $6 on a giant cookie. A giant cookie that cost one dollar less than their take home pay for 1 hour of work.
At 4:40 I was well within my right to be annoyed. I was not within my right to use my annoyance to degrade or contribute to any said or unsaid theme. What a lot of us don’t realize is a bunch of these racially charged exchanges start with a misunderstanding or subtle perpetuation of a theme. Here the theme is white is rich, black is poor. Make the white happy by not inconveniencing them. What if “we” all did the opposite. What if we went into situations like I found myself in at 4:40 on a Saturday night. What if we said, actually, you are the one that is being inconvenienced right now. You are the one that should be encouraged and validated instead of you feeling the need to validate my perceived discomfort or inconvenience.
At 4:41 the guy with the Brewers gear on got his garden salad and left. The BWM guy was waiting on one additional pizza and at 4:42, 17 minutes after walking in the door at P-Murph’s I went outside to check on the kids for the third time. They were frustrated. They were hot, they were unhappy and fighting. I was hot. I was frustrated. I was unhappy and fighting the urge to want to be mad at my two Black pizza making friends.
I’m not you. You aren’t me, but I think you probably do this too. You get frustrated when things don’t go your way. You get frustrated when something should be easy, but it isn’t. I just want pizza so I can sit on a chair and read my book or scroll Tik Tok while the kids eat their pizza. I don’t want to have to make something for them. I want life to be easy and not hard.
I live in the place represented by the data on the right. I was standing in the place with the data on the left. All 57,402 people living in both places probably want what I wanted at that moment. Not pizza, but ease of life. How the fuck does someone have an easy life living where I came from?
At 4:42 after listening to my kids bicker with each other I recorded this video:
At 4:46 I walked back into the store. This is where things could go really well or terrible. Money is a tricking thing. There is power associated with money. Money moves things. I want this to happen, give someone money and it can happen. I don’t like this, money can be used to change it. With power comes control. With control comes a hierarchy, like at work. The boss controls who gets the money. A good boss will distribute the money based on clearly communicated and defined parameters based on the values of the boss, hopefully performance and merit. But the boss is in control. The person with the power to distribute the money has the control. One way they can give away their power and control is by giving away some more of their money. When someone is given a promotion they are typically given more money and more influence (aka power).
For some very strange reason, I have a ton of power. Coincidentally, I have a ton of money. The way I present myself when tipping matters. I can use that power, money, and influence for good or for bad. If I tip a dollar, it is a nice thought, but what does that say about my genuine level of concern for validating their work. Because that was the point right? I wanted to take some of my money, power, and influence to validate and communicate beyond nice words that I appreciated their hard work and I think they should be compensated accordingly. I wanted them to know they mattered and in no way was I interested in using my privilege (the fact that I could spend $30 on fucking pizza during a pandemic) in degrading or minimizing their worth.
Anti-Karen Attitude 4: Write the story you want to tell. If you want to make change, rewrite the narrative. In this case, they are worth more than $9.75 an hour.
At 4:45, before walking back in, I took out $3 from my wallet. That seemed like a nice amount.
At 4:48 the two Black men started working on my bbq pizza. The signage advertising the giant smores cookie caught my eye. $6 for a pan of cookies that the 5 kids and I were going to probably only eat half of, if that. I pulled out 3 more dollars and walked over to the tip jar.
(Let me give a quick aside about tipping in this type of situation. Remember this is coming from someone that has his feet in two different worlds. It’s fine to tip and have the person receiving the tip notice it, especially if the tip is not insulting. $6 for pizza that took way too long to get, isn’t insulting. What would be a missed opportunity is not tying the tip to what you appreciated about the person receiving the tip. Remember power and money are related. You have to keep in mind what the power is being used for. In this case, I wanted the power to validate, humanize, and reward hard work)
Anti-Karen Attitude 5: Understand your own intentions and don’t be afraid to overly articulate them. When there is an untold story or racially charged theme at play and you are working against it. Name it. Say what you are doing and why you are doing it. Make your intentions known.
At 4:49 the two Black men started working on my second pizza. Alone with them in the store, I began to tell them how much I appreciated their hard work. They immediately apologized for it taking so long. Three times I had to redirect their apologies. Because it seemed a little out of place to apologize for the generations of government sponsored slavery and segregation and then decades of unwritten policy and further segregation of whites away from blacks under the guise of suburban sprawl and the desire for whites to raise their kids in good schools which was the untold story I was living while standing inside a Papa Murphy’s with one minute to go before I was supposed to be driving back home, I decided instead to further describe what I appreciated about them and how I empathized with what they were experiencing.
It sucks that it’s so hot out.
I hope you guys can get a break soon.
You are working really hard.
I admire how you are working together as a team.
I wish I could help make your night easier.
I am sorry that I made it harder for you.
You are working a hell of a lot harder than I am right now and you deserve to be compensated appropriately.
I think I am telling all of you this, because of a phrase we are saying a lot right now. Black lives matter.
Anti-Karen Attitude 6: Perspective. Black lives matter is a reminder for all of us. Those two Black men matter. Yeah, it’s about police and not killing people but it’s also about two Black men working at Papa Murphy’s by themselves on a Saturday night and how we show them we choose to not participate in the untold story.
At 4:50 I was handed my second pizza. Below is the picture of that pizza I took when I got home.
Anti-Karen Attitude 6: Grace.
There were points during the 25 minutes I spent trying to get pizza, where I could have contributed to the unwritten story. There are two parts to that story though. There is what plays out in real life and there is what plays out in our heads afterward. The pizza I received was fine. Did it look like it was supposed to, not really. Would I have been justified to be annoyed about the minimal pepperoni coverage, yeah probably. But, when taken in the context of the untold story and the fact that I want to validate and the re-humanize Black people I’m around, there would be no place for that. What we fail to realize a lot of times is that the things that play out in the world around us are dictated by our inner thoughts and the way we choose to orient ourselves. The world is infinitely complex and yet very much binary. I am either pro segregation or I am anti-segregation. I am either racist or anti-racist. I am either kind or unkind. I am either racially reconciling this country or I am perpetuating what exists now, the opposite of a reconciled place where equitable opportunity through education and wealth have not been distributed evenly.
For the sake of my two Black pizza making friends. I hope they live in the place represented by the demographic info on the left. I hope they are coming from a place of surplus and margin. I hope they emerged from a school system where test performance can be dumbed down to excellent vs. poor. I hope on that Saturday night they did not have their feet in both places because that would mean they come from the place where I am from – a place with no diversity, no money, and no prospects of change because the test performance (whatever metric they use to measure the success of students within that system) can be listed as poor. If you read any of this and can be convicted even slightly, I want you to reflect on this idea. School test performance is currently our best predictor of future success after high school. How did we get to a place where we put all the poor black people in one place, my place, and expect them to stop being poor if the system specifically made for educating a child in hopes of future economic prosperity produces poor results in one place while producing excellent results in another. And then we have the audacity to get mad when our pizza takes a little too long to make.
Obviously, this isn’t a story about pizza. It’s a story about white and black and because of that it is a story about rich and poor. It’s a story about the four miles that separate hope and despair. It’s a story about prosperity and whatever my neighbors call what they have. Who would have thought all of that would have come out of me not wanting to cook dinner. I guess that is the type of stuff you notice when you are straddling two worlds.
Real quick. If for some reason a representative from Papa Murphy’s ever reads this. I think you should apologize to those two Black men working there. The working conditions sucked and their hard work benefited someone else far greater than it did them. Also, I have no interest in discussing any type of refund or listening to anything resembling an apology. Please do not devalue the experiences of those two men by attempting to communicate in any way that my time and discomfort is any more important than theirs.
Thanks for reading and interacting. I would be happy to take suggestions or feedback. I specifically enjoy feedback about not understanding specific parts of my story, because it helps us to refine our message. If you want to comment or ask a question, please do so. I am getting better at communicating but am still very new. Also, if you have any specific questions, we would love to start answering those through our video and/or podcast work. Who would have thought us moving into the inner city 14 years ago would give us this much to talk about. Thanks for spending some time putting your feet in two different places for a little while.