The Constant Pressures of Working in a Racist Environment

end-racism

By: Daniel Hodgman

Often times I look at the environment in which I was raised and the environments in which I’ve taken part in throughout my life. I look for contributing factors related to behavior, I try to study examples of nature verses nurture and I assess correlations between overall behavior and normalcy of individuals within a certain institution. I do this to not only understand regional differences, but also to learn more about myself and what I am still yet to learn.

As someone who has lived 21 years in Michigan, and now one full year in Florida, I can safely say that I’ve grown mentally for the better. I would like to think that I’ve matured – although that’s not always the case – because of this change of scenery and change in lifestyle. In essence, one of the more important things that I’ve come to realize is that region and locality play a huge role in the behavior of those in certain areas, and that the dynamic between regions is a bigger shift in culture than I originally thought.

Down here in Jacksonville I work at an antique mall, usually as a salesperson, so I can help pay for the remainder of my college. It’s a quaint place, although it’s not small (nearly 40,000 sq. feet), and it’s a tight-knit community. The vendors for the most part know each other and wave, frequent customers chat up the staff and the salespeople are all unique in their own sort of way. As a mall, we sell anything from antique furniture and household items, to collectables like comics, cards and jewelry. The registers are up-front near the door, and across the desks are big showcases with high-end items like rings, gold, sterling silver and antique bracelets and coins. It is here where most of the sales happen, and it is here where most of the prejudice and racism comes into play.

On Tuesday I came into work around 10am and was thrown into a hellhole of a situation. There were vendors at the back door that needed letting in, there were customers already asking for help, my radio wasn’t working and I had a splitting migraine coming on. After helping some vendors at the back, I walked up to the front to check on some items I had saved for a customer. It was here where the owner of the mall/my boss came up to me and asked for a favor.

“Yes ma’am, what can I do?” I said, still tired from the couple hours of sleep I was working on, and still wet from the rain outside at the back door.

“I need you to watch that guy over there,” she said. “I need you to watch him.”

“Who? That guy? I’ve seen him before, he’s a regular.”

“Yes I know,” she responded coldly, “but Shawn has an uneasy feeling about him around the jewelry.”

I tried answering her politely, but with firmness in my voice, letting her know that I wasn’t for this. “I’ve worked with this guy before, and he’s nice. He bought some stuff and we talked, and, yes ma’am…”

After getting “the look” from my boss, I headed around the counter to talk with a customer whom I’ve worked with before, and who was a completely nice guy.

So why was my boss so adamant about keeping an eye on him?

It’s because he was black. In fact, he was a middle-aged black male, about 5’10” with tennis shoes, gym shorts and a black t-shirt. He had a thick beard. He was from Connecticut.

I went up to him just to talk. We caught up from the last time he came in, he explained that he was waiting for his next paycheck, and told me that he was looking for an engagement ring for his soon-to-be fiance. After picking up the ring he was interested in, I put it on hold for him until he could come back with his paycheck, and we bid adieu. When he walked out of the door to his car, a wave of anger rushed over me.

I briskly walked to my boss’ office and explained things. I told her, just like before, that I already knew the guy and that he was looking for a ring for his girlfriend. I told her he was coming back later to pay for it. I told her that I don’t judge people who are deemed “suspicious” because of the color of their skin, but rather by their behavior. I told her I will be happy to follow or track anyone who’s acting strange in the mall, but I will not follow anyone simply because of their skin color or cultural background.

At this my boss simply said, “yes I know hun, but you know Shawn, he always gets nervous simply because a customer is black.”

After this she laughed, as if what she just said wasn’t the least bit disgusting. The fact that she already knew the guy was fine, that she knew that I knew he was fine and that she knew Shawn simply wanted to follow black males makes her just has terrible as Shawn himself. If you’re the boss, you clearly have authority to override someone else’s decision to do anything, and yet you stood back and let it happen. I know you sign my paychecks, but you are just as racist as anyone else in this place.

That said, this isn’t even close to the first time where I had encountered racial profiling from my boss and fellow staff members. THAT VERY SAME DAY, a call came in from a man who was in the mall last Wednesday. He called to complain that someone was following and harassing them throughout the store while he and his family walked around. He called to complain about racial profiling. He was a black male.

A couple of months ago I was helping a man look for old farm tools and bottles. We had gathered some items for him to purchase, and after paying for his tools, he stopped at the showcases just to look at everything we had. Shawn grabbed me and pulled me into the sales office.

“You watch him,” he said. “Just watch him.”

The man was black.

Although I could keep telling more examples of racial profiling against black customers in this store, that isn’t the only racism that’s taking place. In fact, some of the racism is targeted towards me.

As an Asian-American Korean adoptee I feel pretty blessed. I grew up in a wonderful town with incredible people, and each and everyday I think about this and am grateful. See, growing up in East Lansing, Michigan, I was blessed with a multicultural and diverse environment. I very rarely faced any racial backlash (most of it was just kids being kids), and I can only recount one time where I truly feared for my safety because of my identity (freshman year of college, two drunk white males cussed me out and threw beer bottles at me, because they thought I was to blame for jobs going overseas). In East Lansing, 99% of the time I was just another person on life’s adventure, and people saw me for who I was, good or bad, and for my character.

Living in Florida however, is a bit different.

A lot of the time, the ignorance that’s directed towards me is harmless. People often times ask me how I can speak such fluid English; they ask me if I know any Asian languages, and then continually test me by speaking them; they ask me where I’m from, and when I say Michigan, they say “no, like where are you FROM?”; and in one instance, one of my co-workers was explaining “Asian eyes” every time he got stoned: “you know, like, when you’re high, your eyes go from normal to Asian eyes.” Yeah sure, I guess.

With that, I’ve come to learn that I face racial stereotyping in a weird way.

Because I’m Asian-American, and because I can speak English, people see me differently. Sometimes, they don’t even see me as Asian, but rather white. This in itself doesn’t make sense, but what happens because of this is even more confusing to me. Since some people at the mall see me this way, they will openly toss around words like “chinaman” and “oriental”. People I work with will sometimes refer to me as oriental or chinaman, because in their eyes they don’t think it’s offensive, and because in their eyes it seems like they’re talking to just another white guy.

I’ve encountered several customers who have referred to me as “chinaman” or “that one oriental guy” or “one of those.” I had a customer come up to me and ask if Ray (another Asian who works at the mall) was my father because we were “both chinamen working at the mall.” During a celebratory sales late night event, an old lady came up to me and asked me if I had her keys. I told her that I didn’t, and she responded with, “oh, well someone told me a chinaman had them.” As she walked out the door I shouted to her: “hey ma’am! Have a great night, and oh, I’m Korean-American, not Chinese.” Her response? “Whatever.”

Whether it’s one of my bosses asking me to racially profile a customer because of the color of their skin, or staff members and customers spitting racial ignorance my way, I’m starting to feel the pressures of working and earning money in such a filthy environment. I have people I work with who continually call President Obama “that nigger” or oriental pieces “my people’s work.” I deal with staff members who openly hate LGBT because “they don’t get it.” I help customers who are still in the 1940s mindset, and even further back, the 1860s mindset with Confederate stickers on their bumpers and window stickers that read “step back or I will shoot.” And as much as I’d like to quit and take another job, it’ll be the same, because I’ve worked different jobs down here with the same results.

How do you continue to work in an environment that is deemed unsafe for the mind? How do you explain to someone that, “yes I love working here and meeting everyone, but the racism is unbelievable?” How do you explain this white staff throwing around words like “nigger”, “spick” and “chinaman” like it’s nothing? Is it simply the environment, and the processed results that come from it? Furthermore, is it the culture, that for so long has thrived under a certain prerequisite that’s to blame? If there’s anything close to a concrete answer, it may be something like this:

Racism and prejudice aren’t things someone is born with. It’s not a biological trait like red hair, or having a certain sexual preference. Rather, it’s something that’s ingrained in the mind; racism is taught. And although racism is everywhere, some regions handle it differently. The truth is, different parts of the country and the world shouldn’t be handling it different ways. Every part of this world should handle racism the same, and that’s to disallow it. We as a whole community need to further our understanding on how regional differences handle racism and also disengage those who continually use it. If you see something, speak out, make your voice known; let them know that what they’re doing is unethical. If something happens to you, stand strong and bow down to no one. I know for a fact I’ll have your back.

If we can’t even focus on the troubles that go on everyday around the world, simply turning a blind eye, then we are part of the problem. Melding minds and changing the world for our generation and for those ahead of us is a challenge, but it’s a challenge that’s always worth taking head-on. If we continue to slip through the cracks now, then generations to come will slip as well, and the cyclical nature of racism around the world will continue to feast on us, just like we’ve been feasting on ourselves.

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