Saturday, July 26, 2008

Business as Usual

I live in a rural, southern town that was dominated by a black-white racial binary for most of its 100+ years existence. There were a few black business owners when I was young--barbers and stylists, mostly. And there were some middle class blacks who'd made money in the timber industry, as educators, and in other fields, who owned and rented houses or made their way on the police jury and school board, and were considered the "prominent" black citizens.

But most of the storeowners were white. I grew up patronizing establishments whose owners were known to be racist, people who used racial slurs freely, who routinely disparaged people of color, who were rumored to belong to the Klan, who eyed you coldly as you walked around their stores. Some would hire African-Americans in the stores--young boys as bag boys and a few black girls and women as cashiers.

Other fields were similary white--banking and medicine (CNAs, cafeteria workers, and janitors were black, of course), in particular.

The saddest part is that many of us learned to accept it and to think, in a sense, that white ownership and dominance in certain occupations was the way it had to be. Three examples stick out to me right now.

1. When each bank hired one black teller and stuck to that quota until they merged a few years ago, that was just the way it was.

2. The owners of the only store that stays open after 10 p.m. are southeast Asian. While the relationship between the owners and primarily-black customers seems mutually antagonistic, I have seen black customers treat them in a way I've never seen white store owners treated--yelling at the store owners and making threats, for example. I've heard black customers disdainfully call them "A-rabs" and "Julios."

3. The bank has finally hired it's first Latino teller, and he has had to deal with backlash from black and white customers who question his hiring or who initially didn't want to be helped by him.

But, I keep thinking, it's a different day. Slowly, as surely as time progresses, things will here, too.

Not very quickly, however. The teller that I mentioned just passed his citizenship test and his co-workers at the bank held a celebration for him. The local dentist stopped in and offered his enthusiastic approval.

"I wish they'd all do that," he said. And if that isn't stomach-turning enough, turns out that, some time ago, he invited the bank president to a meeting of the local business club.

He wanted to present the case for why the ATMs should be English-only.

He is the only practicing dentist in a town with a majority black population and a growing Latin@ population.

It just makes me sad that two or three decades from now, some resident of my town will still be able to begin a story with, "I grew up patronizing establishments whose owners were known to be racist..."*
*I know this is not distinctive to my town or the South; it just bothers me.


Mathochist said...

I'm tagging you for the six unremarkable quirks meme.

Giftie Etcetera said...

This is still true in my hometown. It's so bad that the only black clients I get are by referal. Thankfully, I have a quite a reputation for working hard for every client, no matter the race, so I am finally (after three years) getting clients from the black community. Before that, they were scared I would ignore them or treat them badly if they walked in the office. And, having heard the other white lawyers in town talk, I was not surprised.

Brian said...

By the time I was old enough to really get what was going on, I'd moved from rural Louisiana to the more suburban Slidell, but the lines of demarcation were just as clearly drawn. I lived on the edge of the "black part of town," and walked through that neighborhood to go to Junior High School. The convenience stores I'd stop for a coke in were owned by African-Americans, but I had white friends who wouldn't go into them with me, not even to play video games. They wanted to go to Time Saver instead, which was, well, whiter.

I haven't lived there since I was 19, though the area I moved to--Tangipahoa Parish, where I lived ten years--was just as divided. I worked for a while in one of the few corporate restaurants in Hammond who had a black member of management, and more than once, when people called looking for her, they assumed she was a cook--not even a member of wait staff. One of the first things she did when she became GM was hire some African-Americans for the floor, and that was shocking to a number of people. Ten years ago, and I doubt the situation has changed very much.

Renee said...

Honestly I don't know how you manage to continue to reside there. Maybe I have just become so used to the quiet racism of Canada. Obvious hostility like that would crush me and leave me with no hope at all for humanity.

elle said...

Obvious hostility like that would crush me

You'd be surprised. Somedays I want to cry and I just feel it all over me. But it also makes you're more resilient and more determined.

elle said...

*you not you're

elle said...

Before that, they were scared I would ignore them or treat them badly if they walked in the office. Mm-hmm, I know that feeling. Sometimes I want to say, my God, just treat me like a person, please.

Thanks, as always, for your insight.

Ten years ago, and I doubt the situation has changed very much. Brian, when I first moved back here, I was surprised things had changed as much as they have... change being seeing black and white co-workers out for lunch together in Ruston and seeing white grandparents with their biracial grandchildren. Honestly, that still shocks the hell out of me here.

Kimberly said...

Being a product of a biracial marriage, my family was on the receiving end of all kinds of stares, etc. But my father was in the military and we moved around a lot. The stares were quite a bit more hostile when we moved to Texas...but I never experienced anything as overt and "commonplace" as some of you have described. I know it exists....but it blows my mind to hear about it in 2008!

Brian said...

One of the most awesome things about living in as racially diverse a place as south Florida is that interracial relationships are so common that they're unremarkable. When people do raise a stink about them, they're the ones who are stared at as though they've sprouted a third head. same goes for same-sex couples as well.

Sadly, south Florida is attached to north Florida, aka south Georgia (or Alabama in the panhandle), and they've got the majorities in the legislature, which means our laws aren't quite as progressive as our people are. We're working on that, though.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...