I started this series on my racism as a way to pay attention to how and when I am racist. A couple of recent situations let me see my knee-jerk reactions regarding race – and my ensuing confusion as I sorted through what I thought and felt.
Situation #1: Black Business, White Business
Back in January, I wanted to send flowers to a Savannah friend who was in hospice at home. I checked with my sister to see if she knew a local florist there. She mentioned seeing one on Bull Street.
I found the florist online and made a phone call. The person who answered and took my order was black.
I found myself going into my “old” self, the one who grew up in the Savannah area. (I’m sharing my thoughts and reactions. Realize these thoughts and reactions happened in seconds).
My first thought: Is this a black-owned business?
My second: Is it okay for me to order flowers for delivery from a black-owned business?
I was aware that, back when I was young in the 1960s and 1970s, our family – and our entire white community – shopped with white-owned businesses. There were a few black-owned businesses, but we didn’t shop at their stores.
I think there was an unwritten rule: Do business with people of your own race.
Let me restate that.
That was the unwritten rule – if you were white. If you were black, you had to do a lot of shopping with white-owned businesses. Because most businesses were white-owned.
I was amazed to realize these were the thoughts that ran through my head merely at having a black person take my order for delivery flowers. After I completed my order and ended the phone call, I clicked on the business website and looked at the photos.
Yes, this is a black-owned business.
My confusion: Is it okay to order from a black-owned business?
I know you’re thinking, “OF COURSE it is!”
That’s the answer that came after my knee-jerk response that was conditioned in me during childhood.
My first reaction was concern that I was breaking a “rule” in ordering the flowers from this florist. You see, there’s a big part of me that is a rule follower.
But then my reaction was that I want to support a black-owned business. I want to break a rule partially because I know other white people are still following the old rules.
I knew that my friend in hospice, a white friend, would be happy for me to use this florist – to break that rule.
What ultimately happened from this business transaction was that this florist delivered flowers to my friend’s house two days before she died. Her daughter sent a note saying the flowers were beautiful.
A business did exactly what I wanted and paid for.
And in that one business transaction I got a good look at my own racism and engrained thoughts and reactions.
Situation #2: “But you don’t work here”
Last Sunday I went shopping at a local mall. I very seldom shop there. I went into Belk to look for some pants, and I discovered that there are two Belk stores in this mall.
I was in the Home Goods and Men’s Store (the Women’s Store is in a different place) when I ran into this situation.
I wanted to buy a couple of pillows. I had dropped off one pillow at the counter when I discovered that the women’s clothing store was in another part of the mall. I was going to buy it along with a matching pillow on my way back to the car.
When I arrived back at the counter, the middle-aged white woman who had put the pillow aside for me wasn’t there. No one was. So I leaned on the counter to wait for her to come back.
A young black man, early 20s, came up and said, “I can help you.”
He was dressed in camouflage pants and an olive henley shirt with a fashionably-frayed collar.
And no name tag.
My response to his “I can help you” was “But you don’t work here.”
I was about to add, “You don’t have a name tag” as he said, “Because I don’t have a name tag?”
He went on to explain, “I keep losing them, so they don’t make me wear one.”
My brain was trying to figure this out. I was suspicious. He wasn’t dressed as I thought salespeople dressed.
Remember, I am a 60-year-old white woman who very seldom goes shopping in stores. In my mind, salespeople wear dress pants and button-up shirts. And they wear name tags.
And they’re usually white.
So this handsome young black man, dressed in clothes I thought were too casual for a salesperson, made me suspicious.
Well, he didn’t make me suspicious.
I was suspicious.
Realize, as in my previous situation, my thoughts happened in seconds. I was making a quick assessment about whether he was truly a salesperson.
My logical brain told me he couldn’t log into the register to ring up my purchases if he weren’t a salesperson.
When he scanned the pillows and told me the correct price, my brain said, “He’s a salesperson.”
Everything he did fit what a salesperson would do.
In looking back, I think he worked in a section next to the bedding, probably a department selling young men’s clothing. So he was dressed like his customers would be dressed — young and cool. Not in dress pants and a button-up shirt. Which is certainly not young and cool!
He was paying attention to the adjoining department, making sure that customers didn’t have to stand and wait. He was being exactly what the store would want in an excellent salesperson.
He was friendly to me the whole time. He smiled and was at ease.
He didn’t take offense when I said, “But you don’t work here.”
But I bet he was very aware that my hesitancy was probably at least partially because he was black.
And I’m ashamed to say that that assessment would be correct.
Yes, I think I’d have been suspicious if a young white man had been dressed like that and didn’t have a name tag and had offered to ring up my purchases.
But I think I was more suspicious because he was black.
And that really bothers me.
I don’t want to carry that racist suspicion. It’s too heavy.
But how do I get rid of this deeply-engrained racism?
I’m not sure.
I do know I’m going to continue to watch my thoughts and reactions and make a good attempt to change. To quit seeing skin color and making assumptions. To see people as humans and not as races – or at least not to make negative assumptions based solely on race.
I have a long way to go, I know. My childhood society taught me a lot of racist “rules.”
But that’s why I’m writing this blog series.
It’s my way of looking at my racist reactions and assumptions, of becoming more aware of them.
I’m hoping that awareness will help me let go of those “rules.”
I hoping maybe that, one day, my racist assumptions and those rules will drop away.
That I’ll just see a business instead of a black or a white business.
That I’ll just see a salesperson instead of a black or a white salesperson.
That I’ll see us all as us – not as us and them.