SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Sarah White

Culture Shock in Birmingham

In September of 2004, I was in a long-distance (though serious) relationship with an Army Sergeant of German decent who had recently relocated from North Carolina to Georgia.  On his way to purchase an engagement ring for me, he lost control of his vehicle, rolled it, and is believed to have died instantly.  Upon hearing the news, I immediately booked a flight to Birmingham, Alabama and made a rental car reservation to drive across the border to the town where funeral services were to be.  Kristin, one of my wonderful friends, offered to accompany me so that I would not be grieving and traveling alone.

We landed in Birmingham the next day – a beautiful and green city that neither of us had ever been to, but neither of us was enjoying it due to the circumstances of our visit.  We asked the nice gentleman at the rental car location where we could get a quick lunch before heading to Georgia.  He informed us that just over the freeway there were a lot of restaurants, some of which we might recognize from Phoenix.  We drove around only to find a handful of Southern food chains that we were not familiar with.  Since I wasn’t in the mood to try something new, I was excited when we saw a KFC ahead on the right-hand side of the road.  As we were entering the parking lot, Kristin noticed that another KFC was only a block away on the left-hand side of the road.  Although we thought that was strange, we proceeded to enter the location that we were already at. 

When we initially walked in, there were a few cars in the drive-thru, but no other customers inside beside ourselves. It was a visually appealing restaurant.  The large windows were noticeable, as they surrounded the dining area on three sides.  I was appreciative of these windows because we could easily see the green Alabama country through them.  We could also see the second KFC across the street. The interior of the restaurant was very clean.  In fact, one of the most noticeable scents was the disinfectant cleaner often used in elementary school cafeterias.  Other scents that were noticeable was the smell of chicken, bread, and unmistakably, liver.

We ordered our lunch, and chose chicken rather than the liver option. It was noisy inside the restaurant.  Employees and customers were speaking with each other, we could hear the clanking of metal utensils behind the counter, and we heard the sizzling and popping of cooking foods.  I also observed that the diet Pepsi from the fountain tasted very bad. While standing near the counter and waiting for our meal, at least half-dozen customers entered the restaurant and ordered.  Every one of them received their meal before we did.  I was thinking very poorly of this establishment already, as the woman who took our order was extremely rude.  Kristin pulled me aside when she realized that we were the only “white” people there, including the employees and customers in the drive-thru. All of the employees were black and most were women. It hadn’t occurred to me that we were in the minority, the only light-skinned people in an all-black establishment.  The familiar restaurant suddenly became very unfamiliar to us. While the Technicolor world was visible outside, inside the restaurant was starkly black and white. Being the confrontational person that Kristin is, she began complaining to the employees that our food was taking so much longer than other customers’ orders.  Her efforts went unnoticed, as even more customers entered the restaurant, ordered, and received their meal. 

“It was my second day on the job at this KFC in Birmingham
when these two white girls walked in. Were they blind? 
Couldn’t they see that everyone around them was dark? 
They must have been tourists because if the knew the city, they
would have known to go across the street to the white location.
I took their order, but didn’t put it in right away because if they
were smart, they would have left.  They just stood to the
side while I helped many other customers.  Then the dark-haired
one got an attitude.  Girlfriend was from New York or something. 
She waltzed right over to me and started complaining that
they hadn’t gotten their lunch yet.  So I thought,
“fine, I guess they aren’t leaving” and I got their food for
them after I took care of everyone else in the restaurant. 
Should have gotten a tip for dealing with them,
but all I got was a “thank you.”  They sat down and ate quickly. 
They must have figured out that they didn’t belong. 
After they left, we all stood around laughing at how stupid white tourists can be.”

We eventually got our lunch, ate, and promptly exited the restaurant.  As we drove past the second KFC, Kristin noticed that the three visible customers outside the location were white. Apparently in the city of Birmingham, there are “white” restaurants, and there are “black” restaurants. The discrepancy in viewpoint between my friend and I and the black employees illustrates that the employees knew we didn’t belong there whereas we had no idea.  We were just two hungry girls looking for lunch in an unknown city.  We simply had gone to the wrong location.

    Historically, such segregation was once evident across the US.  Legalized segregation in public places and institutions began in the 1880’s and were known as the Jim Crow Laws.  These laws were effective nationwide through World War II, and up until the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  These laws officially ended the segregation between blacks and whites.  However, as my incident discloses, the Jim Crow Laws can still be seen in the southeast today.

    I had pushed this memory out of my mind.  I have chosen to forget that terrible period of my life.  Upon this rememory, the incident became meaningful for a few reasons.  (1) It represents my previous racial blindness.  I never even thought that I wouldn’t belong in a public place.  (2) I realize now how segregated the United States used to be, and how tragic it is that there is still such obvious segregation in places like Alabama.


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