ROXBURY, Mass. Schuyler Colfax III is a member of minority group whose reputation has been sullied by the boorish habits of its less reputable members, and he struggles against the stereotypes that have resulted. “I’m proud of my heritage,” he says, “but it’s hard because people are prejudiced against us.”
“Got to get there early–I’m on ‘white people’s time.'”
Like members of many ethnic groups, Colfax’s name is a dead give-away of his heritage since it is reversible “like an L.L. Bean windbreaker,” he laughs. “I’m a WASP”–a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant–“so most people don’t know whether I’m Mr. Schuyler or Mr. Colfax when I submit a job application.”
That impediment, coupled with a severe disability–a chronic distaste for productive labor caused by inherited wealth–have limited Colfax’s employment prospects, causing him to spend long stretches of idle time at his parent’s summer place watching tape-delayed broadcasts of sailing regattas, frequently disrupting family plans for use of the spare bedroom by his mother’s visiting “girlfriends.” “Schuyler is a wonderful boy, I love him like a son,” his mother “Smoki” says. “In retrospect I don’t think we should have bought him a Brooks Brothers diary until he had an actual ‘job’ job,” she adds, making “finger quotes” in the air.
Brooks Brothers Diary: For those who need to keep track of nothing to do.
But things are looking up this morning for Colfax as he reports to work at the Mandela Community Center in this majority-black neighborhood of Boston to become the organization’s first full-time diversity officer, and the first WASP diversity officer anywhere in America. “When you think about it, it’s only fair,” Colfax says as he bounds up the front steps with the credulous enthusiasm that is characteristic of his race. “WASPs used to rule this land, like the aboriginal people we introduced to the blessings of smallpox,” he says, referring to Lord Jeffrey Amherst’s use of disease-infected blankets and handkerchiefs as germ warfare against the Norwottuck tribe in New York. “Now we’re in the minority!”
The unusual appointment came about as a result of a settlement imposed on the center, which had been accused of mishandling federal grant monies, by Judge Carter Colfax, an uncle of its newest employee. “It appeared that the only way my nephew was ever going to get a job was by a court order,” the salty jurist notes. “Since he’s too rich to steal, he was the perfect candidate.”
Colfax has chosen to wear his preppiest blazer to his first day of work, a soft pink number that he usually reserves for summer cocktail parties. “I know ‘ethnic’ types like to dress in bright colors,” he says as he examines his bow tie in the glass front door. “I want to fit right in.”
“Schuyler got a job? Get outta here!”
Colfax is greeted by Leroy Murdock, the group’s treasurer, who has taken over for the recently-departed executive director, currently the subject of a grand jury investigation. “Very excited to meet you!” Colfax gushes. “Where’s my office, I want to get right to work.”
Murdock escorts him down a hall to a windowless room with a metal desk, two chairs and a file cabinet. “I suppose this will do for now,” Colfax says, “although I’m claustrophobic so you’ll eventually need to make accommodations for me under the Americans With Disabilities Act,” he adds with a wink, letting his new employer know he’s “hep” to the latest in federal employment laws.
The two men sit down and palaver for a bit, then Murdock asks in a more direct fashion what exactly Colfax sees as his role in the organization.
“I think I’d like to help colored people . . .” Colfax begins, but Murdock cuts him off.
“I, uh, don’t think you should say that around here,” he says with an upraised eyebrow and a look of baleful intent.
“Why not?” Colfax asks.
“Because . . . it’s not used anymore,” Murdock says, fearing the wrath of the federal judge who is monitoring his organization if he goes too far.
“Well, what’s the good word these days?” Colfax asks cheerfully.
“You can say ‘people of color,'” Murdock replies.
“What’s the difference?” Colfax asks.
Murdock struggles to formulate a response, then gives up and falls back on an appeal to fashion. “That’s just what we say now,” he says with an air of uncertain finality.
“That’s going to cost the NAACP a lot of money, changing the stationery and business cards,” Colfax says with a look of disapproval. “Not very thrifty–mind the pennies and the dollars mind themselves!” he says, adding an old WASP apothegm in an effort to end the conversation on an upbeat note. “Why don’t you introduce me to the staff.”
“Okay,” Murdock says, and the two get up and walk down the hall to a back office where clerical employees toil away with the minimal relief from the heat provided by a single room air conditioner in a window overlooking a parking lot. Bookkeeper Ta’Nisha Shelton is at her desk, entering invoices into a computer program, as the pair approach. “Ta’Nisha, this is our new diversity officer, Colfax Schuyler.”
“You got it backwards,” Colfax says, and says his name in the correct order as he extends his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” she says.
“Mr. Colfax is here because of the court order,” Murdock says with a wry tone, “so you have to be nice to him.”
“Okay, well, I’ve been warned I guess,” she replies with a smile.
“Don’t worry, I’m easy to get along with . . . as long as you don’t interrupt my afternoon nap!” Colfax says with a wink to let the young woman know he’s sort of kidding.
The three share a laugh, and Colfax looks around the room at the dispirited air of the other employees in the room, which is getting warmer as the sun climbs in the sky.
“Everybody looks a little peaked,” he says in a voice loud enough to be heard by all of them.
“What do you mean?” Murdock asks.
“A little sluggish–my father always said sweating’s good for you,” Colfax replies.
“Well, it’s not like one of your fancy office buildings downtown,” Shelton says, fanning herself with a take-out menu. “The heat makes you tired.”
“Well, sure, I know,” Colfax says as he rubs his hands together energetically, hoping to generate some enthusiasm by example. “But can’t we get a little rhythm going?”