SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Amy Denson

Undeserved Prejudice?

In 1994, I was nineteen years old and lived in Atlanta GA.  I worked for a family restaurant chain as a manager in various stores throughout the city.  I was sent into new stores or re-modeled stores to train employees. I remember one store in particular because I was the only “white” person that worked there. This store was located in a predominately “black” neighborhood, and all of the employees in the store were black.  This did not particularly bother me, or the employees for that matter but it did become a problem with certain customers.

It did not take me long to realize that when it came to customer problems my presence, as the manager, generally only made the problem worse.  Apparently, the fact that I was a young white girl was very offensive to some black people. This took me by surprise, to say the least. I had never been exposed to prejudice on this level.  I was young and grew up in a fairly sheltered environment, and the hate that I could produce in my black customers was beyond my understanding.  It almost became a joke between the employees and me that I was the worst solution to any angry customer, and they tried hard to not need my help handling problems.  I had an assistant manager named Charles who often ended up calming down the distressed customers.

When I was about seventeen years old, I worked for a restaurant chain as an assistant dining room manager.  For a while I worked mainly with one particular manager (we worked the same shifts together), and I remember that time well because I had more responsibilities when I worked with her.  She was the only white person that I worked with, and usually the only white person in the whole restaurant. She got along well with most of the staff, but often the black customers would clash with her.  More often than not if there was a problem with a black customer, I could easily smooth things over, whereas she made the situation worse, no matter what she said or did .

There is one particular incident that I will never forget.  I was working a night shift, and a group of about ten middle aged black men and women came in around 11:00 PM.  Within a short period of time one of them had a problem that quickly escalated into something the employee needed help with.  Thee customers were eating off a late night breakfast buffet and apparently they were eating the bacon faster than we were cooking it.  I went to speak with the group and they hated me on sight. They were talking loudly and it was overpowering to me. When I tried to speak to the group about their problem they yelled at me in a very aggressive manner. This was frustrating because they did not hear me or even consider what I had to say.  The black women showed no signs of adult conversation; right from the start they were confrontational with me.  I knew that they hated me, because of the way that they spoke down to me.  They were insulting, pushy and demanding, and it made me mad.  Everything I said made the situation worse and within seconds they were grabbing their stuff and refusing to pay.

A large group of black people began having problems early in their meal so my manager went to talk to them.  This quickly made things worse; the black women in the group hated her on sight.  They yelled at her and called her names and told me to get that “white cracker” away from them.  I think this made her mad because then she insisted that they pay and leave.
 Had the problem been something large I would have offered to comp their check, but it had not been, it had been a small, trivial issue that got blown way out of proportion. When I told them that they were still responsible for paying for what they had eaten, a few of the people got very angry and were on the verge of violent.  I was the problem at this point, they were calling me every racial slur that they could come up with and the whole time I kept thinking “what does my skin color have to do with you paying your bill”.  By the time it was all over I had almost been in a physical fight with more than one of the women and at least one of the men, my life had been repeatedly threatened, and I had been called every name in the book.  An employee called the police in fear of my life, but once the people knew the police were on their way, they quickly left without paying.
They refused to pay and we ended up having to call the police to get them to leave.  I thought that they were going to kill her.  It ended up being kind of funny in the end because she just could not understand why she offended some people so badly.

 This was one of the most shocking events in my life.  This incident happened to me when I was quite a bit younger, and I was without a doubt a lot more naive than I am now.  I knew that racism existed and I hated everything about it, but I had no deeper understanding than that.  This situation has stuck with me because I believe that I truly felt racism as a black person does and I do not believe that many white people ever feel that.  I only felt this for a brief moment so I do not claim to understand how it feels to be black, but it did change me, and I have always wanted to learn more about racism and try to understand it better.  This incident opened my eyes to racism and discrimination, and has made me aware of the hate people feel.  Most white people probably do not know what it is like to have people hate them for their skin color, whereas most black people experience it all the time.

Looking back now I can understand the situation much better.  I am a history major and have focused a lot of attention on the South, and now understand that it will be a long time before racism dies.  Many black people hate white people for what was done to them.  I used to view the past as, it wasn’t me, don’t blame me for what someone else did, but now I see it differently. What happened to them was so horrible and affected them so deeply; it has changed the black race forever. This is going to take hundreds of years to undo, if even then.
I see now that I was offensive to these our customers.  No, it was not my fault, but it was not their fault either.  My ignorance about the dynamics of race relations may have been the most offensive part about it, and this may have been what outraged them the most.  I believe this unique situation has given me the opportunity to be on the opposite side of a very complicated and hard to understand part of American culture.

 Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage