Race and Printing: It’s Not All Black and White
In the spring of 2020, the brutal murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department unleashed an overdue national awakening about the racial injustice that persists in the United States. Suddenly, in the midst of a public health pandemic, thousands of people across the nation began to recognize that America suffers from a racial pandemic, as well. In response, a variety of business sectors, including those that are primarily made up of white men, are looking inward and seeking ways to address systemic racism in their industries.
In-plant Impressions recently spoke with four managers at in-plants around the country to learn more about the challenges they have faced in the workplace based on their race and how they’ve handled them. Unlike the murder of George Floyd, and the many who died in similar fashion before and after him, the discrimination these managers experienced was not as black and white and manifested itself in various shades of gray.
It’s Often Subtle
Bill King, who manages the in-plant for Mesa Public Schools, Arizona’s largest school district, is a third-generation printer. He began his career working for King and Sons Printing, a business founded by his grandfather in their native Detroit. When he was growing up, large corporations were required to contract a certain percentage of work to minority-owned businesses. McDonald’s, he recalls, consistently gave the company what he describes as “the worst job in the world,” a labor-intensive, three-part NCR job with “little bitty” margins that weren’t very profitable to produce and nobody else would do.
“My father would say he made hardly any money on the job, and if NCR paper went up any more, we might be losing money,” King says. “He didn’t turn up his nose because if another job came up that had better profit margins or was easier to do, he didn’t want there to be the excuse that he wasn’t being cooperative with other jobs. That’s the part that people don’t understand. They think you always want the gravy jobs. Everyone knows you have to walk before you can run, but does it always have to be stacked against me?”
After moving from a predominately black city to a predominately white one in 1982, King found that in the profession that had been associated with his family’s name for generations, people seemed surprised to learn he was a lead pressman or even in printing at all. When he worked for the state of Arizona and a printing position opened up, a work acquaintance encouraged a friend to apply for the job, adding that “Bill’s a printer, so I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t be one,” which suggested that if he could do the job anybody could.
“It’s usually little subtle things — expectations or lack thereof that people have of you,” King explains, like colleagues and customers who are less friendly or cordial outside of work or customers and vendors he’s spoken with on the phone who are surprised to learn he is black when they first meet in person.
King also cited efforts by customers to try to coerce him into committing to deadlines that are not physically possible to meet, “almost like they’re trying to set me up for failure,” which he concedes may just be a printing thing, “but honestly, as a black man in America, I’m schizophrenic,” because like most black men in America, he has to work twice as hard to prove himself.
While he feels his workplace is an inclusive environment, and he receives accolades for his achievements, King says, “I feel like I have to be better.” He can’t get too comfortable, he says.
“Usually people who have ulterior motives try to use your work or say you’re not living up to standards and try to chip away at everything else,” he says. “I make sure that everything I do is above board and great printing, and that my word is my bond.”
‘I Have to Work Harder Every Day’
Seven years ago, at 3:30 a.m., Paul Sprow was pulled over by the police, while heading to work at the Arlington County, Va., in-plant he manages not far from his home.
“I wasn’t speeding, but the way I was treated and talked to made me feel very small,” he remembers. “The first thing I did was put my hands in the air, which I think made [the officer] even more [angry].”
That small feeling was a familiar one for Sprow, who took a printing class in high school in 1976 and never looked back.
“Most people who came out of high school then went to work for the phone company, the lumber yard, or the Ford dealership,” he says. “Printing fascinated me; I just love putting ink on paper.”
When he started out in the industry, Sprow quickly learned to keep his head down and just get the job done. His first job was at the Continental Phone Co. where he was one of two black workers in the print shop.
“I could always feel like there was some animosity. We couldn’t really make any suggestions. It was come to work, do your job and be quiet,” he says. Later, at IBM, suggestions were heard, but not always taken seriously, and at another shop his hours were constantly being changed.
While these work conditions made him feel uncomfortable, it made him stronger and more determined than ever to succeed in the industry. It also taught him to never get too comfortable.
“I feel like I have to work harder every day — and I’m in a great environment and love it to death. But from past environments and looking at the way racism is in America now, I just know that I have to do more to stay ahead than anybody else to prove myself,” says Sprow, a lesson he’s passed on to his children and grandchildren.
Turning Anger into Positive Energy
Being the best is a philosophy that Kahrim Wade, director of Print and Mail Services at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, also ascribes to. Although he considers himself to be his harshest critic, he agrees that black men and all men of color have to meet tougher standards in the workplace.
Still, he says, “the people I’ve worked with over the many years have been great. There’s something about these print guys — we see each other as family. If you do something to one of us, it affects everybody.”
That does not mean he hasn’t had brushes with racism.
“My experience with hate and maybe animosity came from outside my working bubble when colleagues within the university did things like hang up a picture of a monkey and write my name on the wall next to it, slashed my tires, and spit on my car,” he shares. “It takes a lot of hate to spit on someone’s car or cut your tires and do everything to garner reaction or a reactive response.” There were witnesses, but no one came forward and Wade let it go.
“Was I angry? Yes, but I was always taught to take that energy and turn it into something positive,” he says. “I use that energy to push me even further to do more.”
He recently formed a group of leaders of color in the printing industry, many of whom haven’t been as fortunate. “I’ve heard some scary stories and stories about working twice as hard and being overlooked for promotion year after year because the printing industry’s environment and culture inherently has been made up of white men who run this industry and would like to keep it that way,” Wade says.
He understands their frustration because, as with the racist attacks on him and his car, the inclination is to not be too reactive for fear of losing one’s job. But he also believes that it’s important to find ways to correct racist behaviors.
“The COVID pandemic has brought to light a lot of the systemic racism in institutions and processes that are out there. I’m hoping that people are seeing injustices when it comes to systemic racism in every workplace. People were ignoring it, but now they can see it,” Wade says.
He’s hoping the group he started will evolve into a national network to support and attract other minorities and women to the industry.
“This stuff is hard, and if you are going to progress in this field, which changes on the pulse of technology, having that information is going to be key,” Wade counsels. “You should love what you do and connect with like-minded people, which helps a lot, and share ideas as a collective. One person doesn’t get all of this knowledge alone, and it also opens eyes to what else is going on out there.”
‘You Eventually Overcome It’
When Roland Falana was still relatively new in his role managing Duke University’s in-plant, he was often assumed to be the subordinate of a white colleague who accompanied him to meetings. In response, he would chuckle and joke, “‘Well, I try to be her boss,’ and you could see the embarrassment on the person’s face,” he recalls.
Having grown up during segregation, Falana knows a thing or two about racism, which he experienced regularly during two decades as a Marine Corps officer, most often off base. Thankfully, at Duke there has been little incidence of that. The most serious situation, which happened when he worked at another university, involved an employee he disciplined who then filed a grievance against him.
“It was like in the old days. I felt like no one was behind me. It wasn’t until she went overboard in the complaint that people realized something wasn’t right there,” Falana says. “Then the department got behind and supported me, and the grievance committee could see there was bias on her part.”
His military experience and growing up under segregation prepared him for such an experience, but he urges other minorities in the industry to push ahead.
“You eventually overcome it. It’s kind of known, I hate to say, but you have to prove yourself and put in more effort than your counterparts,” says Falana, adding that non-minority managers need to realize that sometimes bias does exist. “We all have to self-examine and consider other people’s backgrounds.”
Seeking a Level Playing Field
Sprow wants fellow print managers to stop looking at color and being intimidated by black people.
“If everybody would look at people on the same level playing field and treat them as human beings, I think there will be a big change in the field,” he says. But in the meantime, minorities looking to enter and advance in the printing industry should soak up as much knowledge as they can, which will help them progress in the field.
King’s advice to young people wanting to move in and up is “to be fearless and the kind of person who reaches out to other people who’ve been successful, whether they’re black or white, and network.” At the same time, people like him who have thrived in the industry must reach down and give back, he observes.
King also believes that when non-minority managers attend conferences where there is a mere handful of minorities in a room of a thousand or more, they should wonder why.
“That should be a reality check,” he says. “This racism thing, it’s not easy and it’s not just a black-and-white thing; there’s a bunch of gray and a lot of times that gray can make people feel really sad or uneasy. The black-and-white stuff, the cold, hard racism, you can see that one coming. You take that shot and you roll with the punches. It’s those little things, the death of a thousand cuts, those are the ones that kind of combat you.
Related story: Discrimination and Diversity in the Printing Industry