Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Carolina Culture Shock

It sure is culture shock moving from Michigan to South Carolina. One of the biggest shocks is the blatant racism that I've noticed. In Michigan racism is something that is there, but more muted perhaps. Here it punches one in the face. Some examples: 

The sales lady I first had to deal with here came to see me in my office often. Tall, white, gray haired distinguished old lady type. As we trade the usual sales call chit chat, she asks where Im going to buy a home. When I answer that Im moving to Lexington County she tells me something odd. “Oh good, there’s not a lot of THIS there” and she points to the white skin on the back of her left hand knowingly. 

I was shocked.

“Do you mean skin cancer?” I said, pretending ignorance, and hoping she would get the point. “On no, the OTHER” she replies, “You know, undesirables”. Because her hand is a milky white, not a nasty black. And that makes her better than, oh, just a hell of a lot of folks, mostly starting blacks, probably Mexicans, and certainly Jews (who she also complained about to me). 

Now what the hell was she thinking? Im a Yankee and she is a salesperson, shouldn’t her better sense tell her better? Shouldn’t she be more careful, professional and have Southern Charm? Guess it’s so prevalent that she just never considered that I as a white person would be disgusted by her. Guess that type of ugly racism must raise her net sales, so she just assumed I was 'down with the sickness'. 

I was so surprised I never challenged her, and I wish I would have. 

Instead I bought a framed Martin Luther King Jr poster the next day and hung it behind my desk. I noticed a lot of sales people doing the same thing I do when I sell, looking around my office for clues to who I am. And many noticed old Martin on the wall, some commented, and all of them understood what that meant. 

But the painting crew didn’t see my office, so as they were painting our warehouse, I happened to hear one of them yelling to his coworker about the “whores and n******” that he was mad at. I stopped him, almost in a rage, and asked him his name and who he worked for. He told me with perfect confidence what company he was from and his name, then I told him to please put down what he was doing and leave. He was stunned, the very thought that another white man would suggest that what he had said was wrong was clearly perplexing to him. He started to argue with me, I raised my voice, set my jaw and told him to get out. 

Turns out he worked for his father, a very country man in a hunting camouflaged baseball cap who arrived not long after, and fired him, apologizing to me the whole time. But I still got the feeling that the only issue was that I had complained. Later, in talking to my black employees about the situation they made it clear that it was no big deal. It had been happening before I saw it, and they had raised no complaint. “That’s just how they were raised,” said one, “I don’t pay them no attention.” I would be hard put to imagine any of my black union worker friends in Detroit saying that. But then some blacks here have confessed privately to me that northern blacks are uppity, and they don’t pay them no attention either. 

But they know what restaurants not to eat at. 

Not at Malice’s BBQ: I have changed the name because I don’t want this guy suing me, but if you are from South Carolina you will know the chain immediatly. There is a restaurant chain here that specializes in BBQ. I ate there once and was kinda surprised that here in SC, a 50/50 white and black state, there weren’t any black folks in the restaurant or in the kitchen. Guess they aren’t big on the brothers. That was weird, until I started noticing the pictures on the wall. Like a General Lee (may his beard perpetually grow long or whatever, please don’t lynch me) picture with an inscription about how the South would have won if Lee had been at one battle or another. And the table of racist crap by the door, with books about the South and Confederacy in general. 

As an avid military history enthusiast, I can understand the interest in the “War of Northern Aggression” and all, but racist hiring practices, and muted hostility that makes all the black folks I know here not want to go to that restaurant…well I guess it’s the South. 

Blacks here get to deal with all sorts of reminders, daily. 

Rebel flag: Here in South Carolina, the rebel flag hangs prominently in front of the state capitol. My first day researching Columbia South Carolina with my wife, we arrived at the state house for a peaceful Sunday afternoon walk. To my amusement we happened to park behind a camouflaged pickup truck with Sons of the Confederacy license plates. I pointed it out to my wife with a grin and we had a good joke. It so happened that we ran into the owner later, as we were questioning different folks about the area. Rather than giving us meaningful information, the guy gave us details of where not to move so as not to encounter the “n******”. This while stroking his Nathan Bedford Forrest beard (may it also perpetually grow long, or whatever). 

As an avid military history enthusiast who grew up in Georgia, I completely understand the feeling the stars and bars inspire in the hearts of white folks. In fact, when I was 14, I had a jean jacket with a big rebel flag on the back of it, and I loved it. For me it stood for standing up against the man, the government, taxes, and being rebellious in general. But as I matured, I had black friends, and came to understand that it also stood for a hateful oppression, a cruel indicator or wrongs that should belong in another century, akin to the swastika. 

There is some sort of controversy about the NCAA not allowing certain college sports events until the flag comes down, but fly it still does. Because it is necessary to piss off and piss on the black folks who see it so commonly. 

Then there are the hiring practices. Listen oh ye temporary agencies, and hear. When I tell you to send me warehouse employees, I do not solely mean black men. You really can mix it up a bit, even throw some women in there. And when I ask for office employees, I don’t need just white women. I’ve tried hard to overcome that, as a hiring manager, but it takes constant work compared to the hiring practices in Detroit

That brings up the whole SIR thing: I mean everyone says sir and ma'am to some degree here, but with some of the folks that work for me it’s almost ubiquitous. “Oh yes sir, Mr James” I must hear 15 times a day, despite my protest that Im just James. “Oh yes Mr James, whatever you say!” and a little polite laugh. In Detroit I think many of my black friends would choke before they would pay me such obsequiousness (and you guys are reading this, correct me if Im wrong). Darn sure the white folks here rarely say such things to me. 

But with the Plantations still here, it’s not hard to understand. It’s not something that can really be understood up north I think. It took a lot of aimless driving through the country down here, and a lot of interviews collecting information from prospective employees and their resumes before I began to understand the reality out in the South Carolina countryside. 

Plantations still exist here. Old giant white country houses with big white pillars, surrounded by fields of cotton, or groves of walnuts. The same white families still live in many of them that did 200 years ago, having been passed down through the ages since time immemorial. The towns built up around them still have mainly poor minority residents whose families still mostly live there in that same town, and can trace their heritage back a handful of generations to when they were slaves. And they still work on those same plantations, now called farms, and they still make pitiful tiny wages. 

Oh I can hear the cynic saying let them find some gainful employment. And how will they find this gainful employment when the primary employment is agricultural, and the illegal immigrants will work for half the minimum wage? And there just aren’t factories in the South Carolina countryside. 

So the cynic says let them get a job in the city! With what transportation? There isn’t any public transportation when you are an hour away from a city. Then let them buy a car! With what money? Certainly not a car whose reliability and gas efficiency is such that it doesn’t break down and lose you your job for no call no show, and cost you an arm and a leg just to fuel once a week. 

I have seen one after the other of their resumes, they were trying to buy a car, got a job in town, the car broke down, they lost the job and are back to square one. They work part time half the year on the plantation farm for pitiful wages and no health care, and seem to never get ahead. It gets piled on them from birth that they are never going to be able to leave the plantation, never going to be able to succeed, and if you hear it enough it becomes true, and tiresome. And somehow it doesn’t change, generation after generation. When I drive through those country miles I see how little it’s changed since 200 years ago. 

As I shine a light on it I see how complicated it all is. There is no way to change generations of feelings overnight, but as we all become aware hopefully we can begin our own personal changes. Did you know a black guy was dragged behind a pickup truck not so long ago, making national news? Or that South Carolina State Troopers yell things like "You better run, n-----, because I'm fixing to kill you," (go to YouTube to see it if you don’t believe me) because even though they are on camera they aren’t thinking, just reacting naturally. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh. 

Therefore, let us all search our hearts. Answers lie within, if truth has not been extinguished. A candle will not burn where there is no fresh air. Many other Yankees are moving here from the Rust Belt, and confess to me that they never understood racism claims in the Northern progressive towns they lived in where affirmative action and interracial marriages were common. But they are seeing it clearly down here, an unwelcome education. 

Perhaps this new influx of thoughts will provide the fresh air that will make the candle burn anew.






believer_rita said...

I am in no way about to defend the white southern racist, just defending the white Yankees who move down here and have to put up with reverse discrimination.

So, on the other side of your coin, there is just as much discrimination from the black folks that live here in SC.
Their world may be progressing a little, but many still hold onto their hatred of the whites that have been passed down the generations.

Before moving down from Detroit myself, as a white woman, I had never experienced discrimination, until working in a hospital here in Columbia, SC. As a black male co-worker looked me up and down, only to say "you must be another rich white girl." I explained to him that I grew up being a poor farmers grand daughter, who has been on her own since 17, never asked for help or received any, and managed to get a college degree, on my own, and I have earned everything I have, by myself.

He let off me for awhile, and then had the audacity to tell me that I "would never let a guy that looked like him in my neighborhood" I kindly told him of my black pastor at a multi racial church,(Detroit World Outreach) how I was baptized by a black couple, and my pre-marital counselors were black.....yeah, he responded with "you only went there to tick off your mama and daddy", and then continued to say that "you probably think that pastor was stealing money" This guy later made comments about "white people being stupid and racist, and that's why they won't vote for Obama"

In a way, this experience has helped put into perspective, what victims of racism go through, but my family has no roots in that part of history, and I happen to believe that heaven isn't going to be all white. I don't deserve to receive those kind of comments.

This experience, along with other episodes of reverse discrimination I see on a day to day basis where I work, has sadly given me a bitterness in my heart that I had never before experienced. And despite the weather and economy, I would gladly move back to Detroit.

If I had made those comments to him, I would be classified as a racist, and he could get the NAACP after my employer for not firing me.
He still has his job, and if there were any repercussions from him, he was to be fired. Guess what, there were, he blamed the wrong person, gave her a hard time, and she did nothing.... because southern ladies I have found cry about their issues, but won't stick up for she denied it when asked, (not wanting to get involved) but she will still sit in her office and complain about the guy, because she has felt his racist wrath before as well. So, this guy still has his job, and me the victim of racism, is taking it in the rear at work for doing the right thing and sticking up for herself....yeah, I am not making very many friends here....guess I am supposed to just cry about my problems instead of try to fix them to you know, fit in with the southern ladies........WRONG!

I see the oppression and discrimination from the white folks here. But why give a good hearted, hard working white girl crap for not being a part of it? Perhaps it angered him that I was not discriminative, and he was, and he just can't imagine a world where white people aren't all racist...because then he would no longer have an excuse for his anger and hatred.

Anonymous said...

Bravo Rita,
Don't let the hatred of others cause you to become hardened though. I know your christian heart is forgiveness. in the end when you re in front of Christ, it's YOUR heart not his that Jesus will look at. Let him worry about his speck in his eye and you serch your own heart sweety. YOU ARE LOVE!!!

Tosha said...

Wow, I don't know what to say. I don't think I could tolerate that type of environment for long.