Throughout season 1, from the very beginning, we saw Don treating African-Americans with a dignity that we might not suspect. In Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, the opening scene has him listening attentively to a black busboy, who is then treated like dirt by his white boss. He addresses Hollis by name in a building where I’m sure some people don’t even know he has a name. (And if Roger calls Hollis by name, it’s only his sense of entitlement talking; he can know, or pretend not to know, the people
he owns who work for him.)
Contrast Don’s behavior to Peggy and Pete in The Hobo Code, having visible sex without even considering the black janitor they came in with. They came in with him. They know he’s around. But they don’t consider. Because he’s hiding in plain sight. Don wouldn’t make that mistake.
Black people in the world of Sterling Cooper are treated like trash, but Don grew up treated as trash. Not just the generic “white trash,” but the very specific trash of his town; the “whoreson.” He can look eye-to-eye with anyone, of any circumstance, because he’s been there. Oppression is his bread-and-butter (oppression of males that is, Don’s understanding of women is more complex).
The only white janitor we’ve ever seen is Adam, Don’s brother. These farmboys understand themselves to be the bottom of the social ladder. Don is respectful to blacks because he knows they are as human as the Whitman boys. But also, because he is insecure. He knows he could fall back among them, and he is terrified of that fall.
All of the above was written between seasons. I had notes about it sparked by a conversation between Roberta and me, but I never got around to making it a post. Then in Six Month Leave, it all came full circle:
Roger Sterling: You know, BBDO hired a colored kid. What do you think of that?
Don Draper: I think I’m glad I’m not that kid.
Don still thinks he’s the black guy, the low man on the totem pole, the one oppressed and in danger. He’s still scared.
Now here’s a thing. I saved this essay for six months already. We’ve had a busy week at the Basket, so I could save it for another few days, but previews for Episode 10 suggest race will be addressed in it, and I wanted my thoughts up before the next episode proves them right or wrong. So here you are.