Dr. Allan Johnson

October 2005

I was at a talk/discussion with Dr. Allan Johnson last night, author of several books about white privilege. It was a good discussion overall, I got a lot from it, but one thing sticks in my mind.

He gave a story about a black man who founded and was now a partner in his own law firm in New York. The man goes into work on a Saturday, gets off the elevator on his floor and heads for his office. A junior attorney, recently hired and white, asks, “Can I help you?” The partner replies, “No, thanks,” or something to that effect, and starts moving toward his office. The junior attorney then asks again, more pointedly, “Can I help you?” At this point in the story the “aha!” moment is that the white junior attorney is questioning the black partner because of his race.

But as this story was being told I found myself questioning that conclusion. Maybe this is terribly racist, I don’t know, but I found myself thinking: Could a middle-aged white person walk into a partner’s office at a law firm in New York on a Saturday without being questioned at least once? Absolutely no way. And if you are a partner in a law firm and someone who is obviously a new employee stops you and asks, “Can I help you?”, wouldn’t this be a good time to limit this person’s embarrassment and introduce yourself, or at the very least say something wry like “Nope, just going to my office.”?