Saturday, February 17, 2007

More tales of race and retail

To understand the first and why it amused and appalled me at the same time, you must know that I was in college radio. During my time at WORB in Farmington Hills, Michigan, I was eventually given the title of music director in charge of programming. I recruited the music and set the program schedule. As such, I gave myself the plum position of Friday night DJ. Basically, I would get stoned and go into the studio and play music for an hour. My playlist spanned the globe and genres. After the hour was up I would announce the songs and artists. It wasn't that I didn't like the sound of my voice nor was it that I was too baked to speak on the air. Rather, for me, it was all about the music. Yea, I was that guy.

My station manager was Jon Moshier. He's still in radio as his myspace page will attest. Jon was always trying to get me to talk more on the air. He would come into the studio sometimes and beg me to put him on the other microphone. What would ensue was conversation that typically introduced the tunes and then made fun of whatever was amusing us that week. We were merciless with our faculty advisor, Elvis, Robert Tilton (televangelist), and more. One of our favorite characters to play was the uptight, stick in the rear white guy who was trying to be hip but would casually toss off racial slurs (believe me, I saw this a lot in college). The line that would always crack Jon up: "I like that African music. They are very colorful characters." I always used a very high pitched, nasal voice when I used that character and Jon would admonish the character whenever he picked himself up off of the floor. And vice versa.

One day I'm working in one of the Renton stores. Renton is a blue collar neighborhood on the Eastside from Seattle. It's population is a rich mix of races and cultures. A customer brings his bottle to the counter. Now, I don't know why this guy presumed that I'd agree or get along with his comments or positions, but apparently he did (maybe it's the shaved head). He was standing behind an elderly black man who was a semi-regular customer. The black man and I were joking about something and having a good laugh. The white customer gets to the counter. As I ring him up, a line forms behind him and he says to me, "You must get a lot of that in here."

Me, confused but curious: "A lot of what?"

Customer: "People like that."

Me, still confused: "Like what?"

Customer, leaning slightly towards me, but not lowering his voice: "You must get a lot of colorful characters in here." He winks as he says this.

For the first time since he came in I take a good look at this man. He is a pastry, trim guy with brown hair and a 1970s nerdy haircut with sideburns and glasses. He is wearing a white coat, striped dress shirt, brown belt and tan pants. He looks like he walks with a stick up his butt. His limbs are pulled tight together towards the center of his body. In essence, this customer epitomizes the same guy that Jon and I used to make fun of. And he's got the tight voice! And, naturally, the words.

I turned to look at the line. Another elderly black man was the next customer. This man is staring at the white guy in complete disbelief. The black man's eyes are wide open and his jaw has dropped. He turns to me as if to say, "What the f---?!?" I shrug and turn back to the customer.

"I'm sorry. I didn't catch that."

Customer: "I say, you must get some mighty colorful customers in here."

Me, suppressing disbelief and laughter: "We certainly get a cross section of humanity."

Satisfied, the white customer smiles, gives me a short hand wave, says his goodbye and leaves. The black man behind him, also a regular, asks me what that was all about. "We certainly get a cross section of humanity in here" I say and we both shake our heads.

The thing that's particularly amusing to me, aside from the fact that he embodied a character I used to play on radio, was that this guy probably didn't even understand that he was making a racist remark. To observe him saying it I didn't get the feeling that he was trying to be racist at all. He was remarking on the cross section of humanity as well. He was just doing it in an inadvertently inappropriate way. I could be wrong, of course, but that's how my radio character would have been - ignorant of the racism implicit in his remarks and probably flabbergasted if it were ever pointed out to him.

A couple of days later I was working in the Woodinville store. Woodinville is also an east side suburb of Seattle. It's more rural than Renton. It's also wealthier than Renton and has a population that is overwhelmingly white, much like the Seattle area in general, compared to Renton (or Detroit, for that matter). A customer walked into the store. He's a black man, probably in his 30s. He grabs his bottle and makes his way to the counter. We're the only ones in the store. I ring him through and tell him the price.

Customer: "Aren't you gonna ask me for my ID?" I noted a mildly aggressive tone in his voice.

Me: "No. Why? I think it's safe to say that you're over 30." Thirty is the age limit that we're supposed to ask for IDs.

Customer: "Because the other day you asked me for my ID and I didn't have it on me."

Me: "Ohhh, you're mistaken. See, I worked in Renton the past couple of days. You must mean A----." The co-worker in question shares a shaved head with me, but other than that we look nothing alike. I'm taller and clean shaven. He's got a barrel chest and a beard.

Customer: "I'm sorry but you all look alike to me."

Now, at this point, I'm astonished. The phrase just cracks me up. I completely lose it in front of the customer, which is very unlike me. What's even better is that the customer didn't realize the implications of what he was saying to me until I lost it. Here was a black man using a classic racist line at two white clerks. Yet, he didn't mean for it to come out that way. It just did.

Customer: "Shit. I'm sorry. I'm awfully tired."

Me: "No offense taken. Take care of yourself and have a good night."

Two cases where race raised it's head, but was most likely unbeknown to the people who said it. Hard to say that for sure, but I'm betting that was the truth. One man uses a line that only existed in my imagination, the other uses a line that exists in 70s comedies. They were both classic and if they hadn't come within days of each other, they probably wouldn't have made such a large impression upon me.

1 comment:

Scott said...

It's funny there is a near identical awkwardness of people with an, er, insular, background trying to be culturally sensitive and interested. They're never quite sure what they should say to express the mundane observation.

I worked in a mini-mart before I started my Navy career. There were quite a few customers who lived nearby and liked to talk. One of them was a tall well built and good looking black fella. I knew he was risking a bit, but I chuckled anyway when he told me he was gay. I explained it hit me that he couldn't win, being in two of the most popular groups for stigmatizing. Luckily by then he knew me well enough that he couldn't help laughing himself at my skewed view of society. We remained friends until I moved out of the area.