Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Enduring Assumption of Black Servitude

Recently, my friend John and I were discussing a problem that we keep having. We both have extremely busy schedules Monday through Friday so we find ourselves confined to running around shopping and doing errands on the weekends. From time to time, we’ll venture into Sam’s Club or Costco to pick some things up. Without fail, whether we’re by ourselves or with our families, someone will approach us and ask us if we work there. This might sound somewhat innocuous if not two things: we’re both black and every single person who’s asked us the question is white.

Before you accuse me of playing the oft-referred to “race card” (and I’ll be submitting a lengthy commentary regarding whites who disingenuously accuse blacks of doing just that in a future post) keep in mind that neither John nor I were wearing blue or red vests, name tags or any other identification that might lead one to believe we were employed by these companies. Neither were we assisting any other customers or giving anyone directions. Generally, we were wearing some standard combination of blue jeans and a shirt and, dutifully playing the role of consumers ourselves when we’ve been approached.

I’ve come up with two reasons why this continues to happen.

1) It is the result of an assumption of dominance – on the part of the white people who ask this question – or, at the very least, the belief that a customer/servant relationship automatically exists between whites and blacks and/or

2) Of the roughly 37 million black people living in this country, the only ones with whom these whites generally interact are usually operating in a service capacity.

I simply can’t explain it any other way. I cannot imagine a scenario in which a clean-cut, middle class, thirty-something white man and his equally middle-class white buddy walk into a Costco, occasionally with family in tow, and repeatedly have someone ask for their help finding the diapers or the plasma televisions. The postulation of supremacy is so clear in this that it has progressed from being slightly amusing to annoying to downright insulting. John and I are both reasonable men. But when someone asks us to help them with a purchase what we’re beginning to hear now is, “Pardon me, boy. Since you can’t possibly be here to make a purchase would you be so kind as to do your job and help me out?”

Of course, not many whites would equate the assumptions that lead to these retail interactions with racism. The overwhelming majority of white people with whom I’ve interacted not only do not grasp the concept of institutionalized racism, they apparently can not acknowledge the presence of racism at all outside of a white sheet and hood (more on this later also). But like it or not, racism is exactly what this amounts to. Consider this. These help-seekers unknowingly concede that in this country there exists a permanent black underclass whose continued presence they not only benefit from, but seek to exploit. After all, it’s convenient to have a Negro around to help with the bags or take your order or shine your shoes. And since we’re generally viewed as a collective “other” rather than as individuals, it makes perfect sense for them to randomly assign this status to any black person beside whom they happen to be standing when they’re doing their weekend shopping.

As for John and I, we’re considering wearing t-shirts that read, “Believe it or not, we’re actually here to buy some shit!”



At 12:03 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in complete agreement with Andre on this one. Whites are completely oblivious as to how offensive this is. To elaborate on Andre's write up I'll offer more vivid details into one of our MANY ordeals we've encountered together. Granted, the particular story he touched on occurred at Costco during the holiday season however, that does not excuse the audacity of the people involved and the fact that expected us to serve them. Mind you, Andre was dressed similarly to a store employee since Costco's dress code is jeans/fully casual. However, I was just getting off work and dressed in full business casual attire, including dress shoes. If I was mistaken to be an employee I should have at the very least been considered management and not a loader or cashier. Also, neither Andre or myself were wearing our employee nametag or identifying blue vest. (I apologize for the sarcasm)

Anyway, Andre and I stood in the aisle waiting our turn to be helped and I witnessed the first white person approach Andre and ask for help assuming that he worked there. Okay, he let it roll of his back, honest mistake right? I left Andre in order to get a cart since we decided to load his T.V. on our own. It was at this point that ANOTHER white person approached us and motioned that their T.V. was ready to be loaded in another location. "Excuse me? Sorry, this is for our T.V., we do not work here." "You'll have to get your own" As you can imagine, we're becoming a little perturbed at this point. After further discussion I found out that Andre was approached twice for T.V. model information and loading assistance while I was searching for the cart.

The last and final straw that broke the camel's back was when we were attempting to escape the onslaught of "massas" lying in wait. After loading Andre's SUV with the new T.V. I decided to take the cart back to the loading area. As I was snaking through the cars on my way back to Andre's truck I was stopped by two white women. One of them stated directly, "Great, you're here to help." I said, "Sorry Miss, I don't work here, however, I'll assist you." So I began helping with loading a Christmas tree. The next thing I hear is her friend barking orders at me and "overseeing" my progress. Her most annoying statement was "Be careful, that's genuine wool carpet in there." As if to say that I'd better not damage the carpet in her $70k Range Rover or else.... After I was finished carefully loading Ms. Daisy's merchandise I was extremely annoyed at this point. The lady who owned the truck thanked me. The overseer did not. As I climbed into Andre's truck he stated to me "Wow John, that was really nice of you to help those women out."..... My response was less than jovial and I told him about the exchange with the women and how one of them assumed I was incompetent in loading a box into her vehicle. Keep in mind, it was she that asked me for help. Andre and I discussed it and it really soured our mood. This, my friends is just ONE of many occurrences of the enduring assumption of black servitude that exists. I could share even more first hand tales with you. It's amazing how desensitized we've become to this treatment.

At 11:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Assumption of Black servitude

I don’t know what has gotten into White people. We grow em the same way up here. I had similar experiences at Costco and other stores before wising up. I noticed that when I didn’t wear any headgear (hat,cap, Doo rag) I was constantly being bothered while shopping (BBWS – brothers bothered while shopping.) So, although “wearing t-shirts that read, “believe it or not, we’re actually here to buy some shit” sounds like a great idea, it won’t eliminate the problem with BBWS.

Here is recipe that works: Get one of those newly designed, limited edition, Baseball caps by Jake Burton called the “59fifty” (Cost-$125 bucks) or any hat, cap. With the bib forward, lower cap onto head. Using right hand, slowly rotate cap clockwise until right thump touches left ear, then stop! Your cap should be setting just right and in the exact position mines was when it told White shoppers - Stop! I don't work here and don’t ask me shit!

Hyattsville, Maryland


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