Hi Dawn/Hi Shirley: Maddening Racism on Mad Men

In the first episode of Mad Men, we witnessed Peggy and Joan experience not so subtle sexism in response to their efforts to maintain and grow the business.

In the second episode, the palpable “ism” was racism.

Two African American secretaries, Dawn and Shirley, play pivotal roles in this episode. Of course, they were not referred to as African American at the time.

Each greets the other by calling her by her own name (“Hi Dawn”/”Hi Shirley”). The unexplained but clear message: their bosses confuse them even though they look no more alike than Don and Roger do.

Poking fun at their bosses soon turns to being bullied by and discriminated against by them. Let’s start with Shirley.

Shirley receives flowers from her fiancee. Peggy thinks they are from Ted and takes them for herself. When Shirley confronts Peggy with the truth, Peggy lashes out at Shirley and tell her  to “grow up.”

Peggy’s behavior was horrific. Alone in her own office, Peggy seems appropriately disappointed in herself.

Would this have happened if Shirley were white? Perhaps. Would it have played out the same way? Perhaps not.

Dawn works for Lou. Lou expresses his dismay at Dawn for inconveniencing him when she is shopping for a gift for his wife.

Dawn confronts Lou. Lou’s response: move her to the reception desk.

Bert sees Dawn at the receptionist desk. Worried about race-based “customer-preference,” Bert effectively tells Joan to move Dawn and replace her with a white receptionist.

No codes here. Blatant racism.

Amidst these Title VII breaches, two good things happens. Jim recognizes Joan’s business acumen and contributions and offers her an office upstairs so she can focus on her accounts. But, as a partner, should not she have been there already?

When Joan moves, Dawn moves into her office. It seems that Dawn is the new Joan and the office and promotion delight her.

All this occurs without Don at the office. He remains on paid leave. However, he remains somewhat connected to the office, we learn earlier in the episode, as Dawn delivers papers from work to him.

For Don, the seminal scene is when his daughter Sally tells him she needs a note for missing school. When Don asks Sally what the  note should say, Sally responds “Just tell the truth.”

After telling his partners and children the truth last season about his background, Don Draper returns to his pattern of concealing the truth. Before this episode, neither Megan (absent from the episode and his daily life) nor Sally knew that he is not working. Now, Sally knows.

Perhaps Don could be truthful about his past because it was just that. But to acknowledge the present is too painful so he doesn’t.

Reality has a way of catching up with Dick Whitman. The question is only how.