Queer Encounters With Race and Gender While Package Handling for FedEx
Working overnight in a warehouse handling packages for FedEx this past year has taught and helped me grow a lot. I experienced the warehouse environment as a microcosm of American society that reflects the broader race and gender relations that structure our world, and as a result have come to see my whiteness and queerness more clearly. Working for FedEx has changed me for the better, and I would like to share how my learning and growing took place.
Package handling for FedEx is a very physically demanding job that requires significant amounts of strength and endurance. Shifts typically involve between four and ten hours of constantly lifting packages of many shapes, sizes, and weights, as well as a lot of walking between sorting areas where packages are stacked in cages behind FedEx trucks whose drivers then deliver throughout the rest of the day. According to my FitBit I walk an average of 12 miles a shift, and according to my musculature I have gotten into the best physical shape of my life.
FedEx receives and sends shipments from a wide variety of sources, which means that we handle everything from furniture, car parts, rugs, pet food, human food, medical supplies, clothing, makeup, and even some Amazon packages that other shipping companies like the United Postal Service cannot handle due to the enormity of Amazon’s shipping empire.
Prior to the pandemic we received an average of 30,000 packages a day, all of which need to be unloaded from trailers, scanned, and sorted for delivery before 9:45am. Shortly after the pandemic our volume increased to an average of 60,000 packages a day, which resulted in longer hours, deeper exhaustion, and louder frustration among drivers who cannot fit all of the packages into their trucks. We continue to struggle with handling the increased package volume that the pandemic has caused because we remain understaffed as most new hires quit within a few days and the backlog of undelivered packages grows each day.
There are many opportunities for packages to be crushed during their handling, for they must be unloaded and stacked among many other packages by exhausted package handlers, and then reloaded onto a delivery truck by drivers who are often disgruntled and pressed for time. A driver once complained to me about all of the heavy packages he was receiving, and grinningly confessed that sometimes he drops them on purpose so that they break and he doesn’t have to deliver them. My face contorted with angry disapproval in response because this meant the driver was not only refusing to do his job and wasting many instances of time, effort, and money, but also paradoxically exacerbating his own complaint by ensuring yet another shipment of the same heavy package he purposely broke will return days later. “Whatever makes you feel better,” I said sarcastically before walking away from his emasculated frown. He hasn’t talked to me since, and I’m not mad about it.
Packages initially arrive in trailers that teams of three unload onto a conveyor belt as quickly as possible. There is no way to tell what will be inside of a trailer until it is opened; sometimes the trailer is completely full of packages, while others only have a few packages inside of them. One of the most dreaded trailers we receive are from Chewy, the pet supply company, because they are full of hundreds of heavy dog food and kitty litter boxes that must be lifted with back, leg, and arm muscles. Other dreaded trailers are full of large packages called “non-conveyables” (NCs) that are too big for the conveyor belt and must be loaded onto a tugger that is driven around the warehouse to be manually unloaded wherever the packages belong.
I handled NCs for a few months during the beginning of my employment, and did so with the thrill of approval from my manager until one day when I was handling NCs by myself on an understaffed Saturday. I became overwhelmed with utter exhaustion when after five hours of constantly lifting heavy NCs I confronted a trailer full of nothing but boxes of wooden furniture and exercise equipment that were stacked towering above me. The unloaders were getting angry because they were running out of space to stack the NCs, and I began to panic. My body was aching and I was very hungry so I shamefully told my manager that I couldn’t do it anymore; his jaw clenched, lips pursed, and I apologized before he told me that I could go home.
This manager resembled my childhood baseball coach who I failed by running away from every pitch and dropping every catch, which is why this manager’s approval meant so much to me. I feel that this job allowed me to cathartically (re)enact childhood trauma because I was able to successfully participate in the sportsmanlike masculine behaviors that terrified me as a child. My inner child loves this job, as does my masochistic adult self, but my true self hasn’t been pleased because this person is an educator and critical observer of human behavior who would rather spend time and effort writing and teaching than proving his masculinity to authority figures.
White Complaints and Mexican Diligence
The warehouse is comprised primarily of Mexican workers, and the management is almost entirely Black. There are only a handful of white employees in this warehouse, myself included, which means that it is an environment wherein whiteness and white power are not centered — much to the distress of my fellow whites, even though they do not articulate their distress in terms of racial tension.
I’ve learned a lot about how whiteness shows up in the workplace by observing how the white men in the warehouse communicate and occupy space differently than the Mexican and Black workers. I am a white non-binary queer person who closely resembles and can believably perform the roles of a straight white man, which means that I am included in the Aryan brotherhood as a presumed validator of white grievances and participator in white masculinity. My inclusion within the Aryan brotherhood is tenuous at best, however, because all it takes to be excluded and potentially abused is an uncensored movement of the hips or lips to out myself as a phony imitator of the white mascquerade.
One of the first things I noticed about the white men is that every one of them has a habit of controlling or complaining about the workload, both of which imply that they perceive themselves to be superior to other workers and/or this kind of work. I have never heard a Mexican worker complain about the work, and instead witness sincere humility and dedication to this job despite its difficulty.
The people who I admire most in the warehouse are Mexican women because their work ethic astounds and inspires me. One woman named Magda works this job overnight before heading to another 9am to 5pm job in a different warehouse. I cannot fathom the depths of her exhaustion, but she never volunteers it unless I ask her if she’s tired, and even then it seems like she is ashamed to admit that she is tired and instead talks about supporting her family. Despite working over 40 hours a week she regularly brings in platters of cookies and pan dulce to share with everyone else. I am deeply moved by her integrity, humility, and generosity, and wish that more white people could see Mexican laborers as essential contributors to our economy instead of “illegals” who take jobs that most white people are too proud and/or lazy to pursue in the first place.
The Burden of White Masculinity
A young white man named Nick who told me on two separate occasions that his mom did drugs while she was pregnant with him is systematically disfavored by everyone else without his awareness because Nick constantly tells other people what to do out of a sincere belief that he knows how to do it better. Nick unfortunately doesn’t make much sense at all, and is one of the slowest and least efficient workers in the warehouse — but he doesn’t see his inadequacy, and is in fact convinced of his superiority. He frequently gets into conflicts with Black managers, and comes to me to vent about his issues about how things are done, assuming that I am on the same page as him because I am allegedly his Aryan brother. I’ve come to expect his venting, and the last time he tried it I preemptively asked him if he’s been trying to control others again. He ignored my question to begin complaining about something the management was doing, and I walked away shaking my head.
On another occasion he shared a complaint during a meeting with the entire warehouse, and as soon as he began talking a Mexican friend of mine pointed toward him saying, “Mira, mira!” as snickers filled the room. I didn’t know what was going on, and had to translate what mira meant when I got back to my car, and found that mira means “look,” which made me realize that someone was making fun of Nick while he spoke. I feel badly for Nick because he doesn’t seem to have any idea or concern about how poorly he is regarded by his coworkers, which probably has a lot to do with his prenatal development, and I do my best to treat him with respect, but cannot deny how irritated I am by his dominating behaviors that derail our collective efforts and make many people uncomfortable.
There’s another white man named Steve who was recently promoted to a manager because his suggestions, unlike Nick’s, are actually helpful. He is just as dogmatic and certain about the validity his suggestions as Nick, but does a much better job of effectively communicating and implementing them. After being promoted Steve stood behind me to silently observe how I was stacking packages, and apparently found fault in my technique because he complained to another manager about it. The other manager didn’t see anything wrong with my stacking, however, which makes me think that Steve was more interested in dominating me to demonstrate his superiority than helping me become a better package handler — which parallels broader patterns of egotistical white masculine dominance that imitate a position of superiority that doesn’t actually exist.
The most egregiously problematic white man in the warehouse is named John, a bona fide Trumpette who wears MAGA and Trump 2020 gear on a regular basis, including shirts with “Trump 2020: Fuck Your Feelings” and “Trump 2020: Make the Liberals Cry Again” printed largely across them. John seems extroverted because he never stops talking, but the only thing he talks about is how much he dislikes this job and California. He, like Nick, turns to me for white masculine validation that I don’t provide, and instead squawks like an irritated bird trapped in a cage of his own design.
Once while I was washing my hands in the restroom John came in and sardonically said that this was a great way to be spending a Friday evening; I remained silent but made stern eye contact through the mirror, and watched him bristle under the weight of his negativity. He regularly shares a similar sentiment as he loudly narrates how he never expected he would be doing this kind of job when he grew up. He has another job as a pool man that he also complains about because no matter how well he cleans the pool he is called back to clean it again. He still has a hard time affording his bills, and I understand and resonate with his frustration, for I have been working four jobs and can still barely make ends meet, and know how demoralizing it can be to do repetitive and physically exhausting work. What I don’t resonate with is how he appears to use a presumptive sense of entitlement to maintain a false sense of superiority that stresses him out more than the actual job itself. Humility would probably alleviate a lot of his stress, but humility is rare within communities that are predicated on and burdened by maintaining a superiority that doesn’t actually exist.
Sometimes the management plays music during our shifts, and usually the music is either cumbia or hip hop because this reflects the music tastes of the predominantly Mexican and Black workforce. I don’t recognize most of the songs but don’t mind hearing them because I’d prefer any kind of music to the cacophonous loudness of the warehouse. Toward the end of a shift a white pop song from the 70s came on, to which John immediately blurted out: “Here’s a song you know!” to no one in-particular. My back was turned to him as he said this, and I had to restrain myself from turning around and asking him whether by “you” he meant he himself or other white men of his demographic. By using the word “you” in general terms John was implying that all people would recognize this song, when in reality it was probably just he and I who recognized it since we were the only two white people within earshot. This implied to me that John’s concept of “youness” is fundamentally based in whiteness and what he finds to be familiar as a white man. It seems to also follow that if “you” didn’t know this song then “you” are not a real person who matters (to John). John performed whiteness with this utterance by projecting his personal sense of familiarity as a criterion for what “you” would recognize instead of humbly and more accurately stating that it was a song that he recognized. White men have been acting this way for centuries by imposing whiteness onto cultures of color by presuming that whiteness is inherently superior to everything else.
John’s (mis)behaviors seem to be just as obvious and irritating to everyone else as Nick’s, for during one shift he appeared very upset and frantically blurted out to no one in-particular (but probably toward me as his presumed Aryan brother) that “Everything is fine, just great — someone told me to be quiet!” He seemed genuinely hurt and deeply shook by this criticism even though it’s true that he probably should be quiet for both his own and other people’s sanity. The fragility of his feelings along with his lack of awareness about how negatively he comes across to others helped me realize that snowmen are made of snowflakes, an irony that is embedded in the unconscious emotionality of white masculine conservatives who are comprised of an icy, coal-eyed conglomeration of the sensitivities they’ve denied within themselves. White men like John and Nick are among the most sensitive and volatile social group on the planet because they refuse to acknowledge their vulnerabilities out of a broader, deeper, and stunning lack of self-awareness, and instead perform their hypersensitive emotionality as anger and victimization.
One of my closest friends in the warehouse is named Luis, a young Mexican guy who notices and finds humor in the same absurdities as I do. He’s spent a lot of time unloading trailers with John and a deeply homophobic Mexican guy named Omar who uses the words “dude” and “bro” numerous times a sentence and became enraged when Nick accidentally touched his hand (“What are you a fuckin’ fag?!” he screamed as I shuddered a giggle).
John was gone for a few weeks so I asked Luis why and he said it was because he was at home crying about Trump’s impeachment. “Really?!” I exclaimed with a startled laugh, but Luis said he was just kidding and that John was visiting family somewhere in the Midwest. I then asked Luis if he had any John-related anecdotes he wanted to share, to which he first responded with exasperation and a claim that there were too many, but after a few moments and a laugh he told me that one time John revealed that he once “did it with his cousin” and it was “the best time ever.” I was shocked and asked Luis if he was still joking because I didn’t think that incest would ever be a point of casual conversation for anyone — even John the Trumpette — but Luis assured me that he was telling the truth, and that John had indeed actually said that. I then started thinking about how cousin-fucking is a classic white Redneck joke that was inherited from British ancestry who fucked within the family to keep the royal bloodlines “pure.” I now wonder whether inbreeding inhibits the development of empathy by forestalling interactions with other social groups, and whether ritualized inbreeding within white communities is part of why so many white people act in cruel and unusual ways.
Working among white men like Nick, Steve, and John has helped me realize how white masculinity is performed and structures environments where white people are the majority. The fact that white workers in the warehouse are outnumbered by Mexican and Black workers has created an environment where whiteness plays out in its perverse purity — the same kind of perversity upon which Puritanism depends. Whiteness when transferred into power structures creates a situation where white men set the terms of how things are supposed to happen and who gets to do them, and when this can’t happen the aforementioned white masculine behaviors play out in unconscious recognition of a shift in the power dynamic that has been taken for granted as a norm by white people for centuries.
Encountering Blackness and Experiencing Racial Tension
I will reflexively admit that I have a tense relationship with the Black managers in the warehouse because I am intimidated by their power and recognize mutual apprehension between us whenever we attempt to interact. I feel my whiteness and masculinization the most whenever I interact with them, and it’s not a pleasant feeling because I know that I represent generations of mistreatment that Black people have come to expect from people who look like me. I’m affected by these dynamics on individual and emotional levels, and work hard to reframe them as structural phenomena instead of personal attacks.
I felt a lot of tension with a Black manager named Chris that manifested whenever one of us would try to make eye contact, for either I or he would avert our gaze, which would bring up feelings of shame, anger, and confusion within me — feeling ashamed of my whiteness, angry that he didn’t see me as an ally, and confused about what I could or should do to ease the tension. It was as though our racial differences were the elephant in the room that kept obscuring our humanity from each other, for all I could see in him was Blackness and all he could probably see in me was whiteness. I was also scared that he saw my queerness, which is dangerous to reveal in a workplace where the word “fag” is used as a casual insult to denigrate any man who isn’t “hard enough” (no homo, bro?). I get into a tangled web of insecurities when experiencing tension with Black people because I cannot distinguish between justifiable and valid distrust toward me as a white male-bodied person and prejudice toward me as a queer person.
Chris managed the section of the warehouse I was working in for a few months, and I was always the first he sent home, which significantly impacted my financial security because I was getting an average of two hours of work a day. I don’t want to call this reverse racism because this isn’t what it was due to the fact that his structural power over me is confined to the warehouse, but when I leave the warehouse I enter a world where the cards are stacked in my favor and against his survival. I can feel histories of abuse informing each of our behaviors, and experienced a lot of grief in relation to not knowing what to do about it until an exchange wherein I know I upset Chris by acting out my whiteness.
One of the new package handlers had dropped a package that spilled kitty litter onto the floor; he didn’t know what to do about it so he asked me and I told him to let a manager know. He didn’t do it, however, and the spill remained there, so I let Chris know about the spill and went back to where I was standing in anticipation of oncoming packages whose flow had ceased for the past 20 minutes. Chris grabbed cleaning supplies and left them next to the spill as I stared off into space and felt him looking at my idleness. Shame overwhelmed me as I recognized that I was expecting him to clean up the mess while I stood there doing nothing. I nevertheless kept my back turned to him as he walked past me more quickly than usual while an image of a Black mammy cleaning up her master’s mess popped into my head and exacerbated my shame paralysis. Chris returned moments later and tersely told me to go home. I grinned and happily went home because I was thoroughly exhausted after five days of labor, but the encounter lingered painfully within me for the rest of the weekend.
I kept thinking about how quickly Chris has walked past me and the terseness with which he sent me home. I felt stupid, ashamed, and started to hate myself for not offering to pick up the mess even though I had reported it and had nothing else to do during that time. I couldn’t get the mammy image out of my head, smiling before her grinning master’s depravity. My self-pity and flagellation deepened as I realized that I not only participated in a racist act, but also a sexist one by presuming via the mammy image that he was going to play the feminized role of a Black servant cleaning up a mess that I had taken responsibility for reporting. I thought about how many Black people have been abused and taken advantage of by my white ancestors and felt terrible for having participated in a similar behavior, however benign it may have been in comparison to the violence of my ancestry. I also thought about how racism itself is a white person’s mess that we nevertheless expect Black people to clean up, which amplified and deepened my shameful despair in relation to my failures as an activist. I was overwhelmed by so many layers of shame and guilt about what happened that I started feeling depressed and helpless.
I then became defensive by remembering how we had been instructed to tell management about all spills, which introduced anger because I was now perceiving myself as a victim who got punished for following the rules. I was telling myself that the spill was dangerous and that I didn’t want to get hurt — yeah, that’s why I didn’t pick it up, it’s not because I was being racist! This didn’t feel right either, however, and I vacillated between depression and anger throughout the weekend while continually imagining getting into an argument with Chris about the incident the next time I came back to work.
It wasn’t until the night before I went back to work that I realized there was a simple solution to my distress: I needed to put aside my prideful victimization and apologize to Chris. I felt more scared of him now, however, and worried that he was going to somehow retaliate against me, so I called upon the universe for courage and an opportunity to apologize. The universe responded very clearly, for Chris emerged from the manager’s office as soon as I clocked in for my next shift, and we ended up walking together on the way toward our part of the warehouse.
I timidly turned toward him and said, “Chris, I want to apologize for not picking up the mess I told you about on Saturday.” His face erupted into a genuine smile and he said “You’re good!” I felt the tension between us start to melt away as I continued apologizing. “I’m sorry. I was in my head and so exhausted that I wasn’t thinking clearly, and should have cleaned it up because I wasn’t busy…” Chris laughed and told me again that I was good, but I kept talking: “In fact, I’m not even my real self here, I don’t go by this name anywhere else, it’s my birth name and…” His smile started fading and laughter subsiding as I realized I was both victimizing myself again and in danger out outing myself, so I stopped talking as we reached our destination and began the shift. I haven’t felt much tension between us since then, and we are able to maintain eye contact without aversion.
Working as a package handler for FedEx has been one of the most important experiences of my life, for I now realize how thoroughly queer and white I am. I’m not proud of being white and better understand why thanks to what the white men in the warehouse taught me with their behaviors, as well as how I initially responded to the incident with Chris. I am certainly proud of being queer, however, for my queerness is what allows me to question the socialization processes that I would have otherwise taken for granted as normal and healthy. The intersection of my whiteness and queerness is what allows me to simultaneously exist as a participant, observer, and critical evaluator of white masculinity, which I find to be as much of a gift as it is a burden. Being presumptively included among the Aryan brotherhood is one of my life’s greatest privileges and challenges, and as I move on from the warehouse and into a PhD program I will continue to use my positionality to help generate greater self-awareness and accountability within white communities, for I know that the warehouse is only a symbol of broader American social phenomena, and that white people of all positionalities have a lot of work to do that is much more difficult than package handling for FedEx.