SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2011       Personal Memory Ethnographies


Bitter Sugar

When I was 16-years-old I was working my first job at Arrowhead Mall, The Sweet Factory, a candy store where you could choose an assortment of candy, bag it up and based off the weight would be the charge. The smell of all the sweet sugary candy in the store is forever embedded in me, a symbol of both freedom and shackles tied in to one. Freedom, because it was my first job! I went out on my own and did something for me, which would earn me money, and put less demand on my parents. I had the freedom to spend or save as much of my paycheck as I wanted. To spend it on whatever I desired. But the shackles came just as quickly. In an instant, I realized what the word “demand” means; the pull of a job, so authoritative, demanding, I felt suddenly shackled by ball and chain. The aroma of candy even now gives me a bittersweet memory of what life as an emerging adult is really like. It was a dose of reality I can almost taste to this day with any sugary scent.

People were scattered everywhere through the mall, like little ants tending to their duties. The combination of their chattering created an intimidating low roar-like sound, as if they could all become one giant monster ready to pounce at any moment. This image became real on many occasions during busy nights. People became bad mannered and ill-tempered, as if I wasn’t human, but a robot behind a cash register.

One night that stands out the most during my 2 years of working for the company was when I was closing with a girl named Angie. She was maybe a year or two older than me, Caucasian as well. The closing procedure consisted of cleaning the bins of candy, inside and out, sweeping spilt candy and mopping the floors. Those were my duties that night. Angie, being a manager had the responsibility to count cash in the drawers from the registers and balance the store wages.

It was near closing time with maybe 5 – 10 minutes to spare, and Angie had decided to close the gates to the store early although technically it was strictly forbidden to close before 9 P.M. But with her authority I didn’t question her decision. To be honest, I too was anxious to leave after enduring a busy day. With one gate closed Angie walked over to close the other and a little girl of African American decent, maybe 7 or 8 years old, asked if she could come in and possibly make a purchase. With Angie being ahead of schedule, she declined the little girl entrance to the store telling her we were closed, and proceeded to close the gate putting a barrier between her and the little girl. In hindsight, the gate symbolically became an emotional barrier.

The father of this little girl had watched from a distance his daughters’ decline of entrance. And I remember clearly as if it were yesterday, the flames that arouse in his eyes; as if he were could burn me with once simple glare.

See, as a child, I remembered all too often being prohibited from things, being rejected and told no. Memories of being a young boy came flooding back as I watched my little girl walk back empty handed. Stories had been passed down through my family- stories of slavery of how my family didn’t have the choice to live a humane life. The Civil Rights Movement overturned the separate but equal segregation era. But by no means was the education equal on any level.

Outdated textbooks, hand me down lesson plans, desks and every day school supplies were nowhere near what the white children had when they went to school. The modern evolutionary perspective my Grammy told me about. How it started in the 1920’s arguing race wasn’t any more of a determinant of intelligence than hair or eye color. Yet even in the 60’s when I was but a child, forty years after scientists had basically determined that we are all simply people, the minorities still had to fight for their rights to be treated equal purely because of the color of our skin.

Thankfully to those who stood strong for our race and our rights, Mrs. Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., we as a civilization have come a long way. Yet, despite the horrific timeline of my people, it’s as if the mindset of racism is still there, a trickle-down effect that can’t be erased.

So there I stood watching this blonde haired, blue eyed girl telling my child no. My first thought without hesitation was, “No? No to what? No to her rights?” I can’t help but to go back to those moments of being rejected, of being called a “nigger” as if being black was a disgrace, and somehow this word should have made me feel ashamed. At that moment, watching my daughter walk back empty handed, I stood there playing tug-o-war with my thoughts and emotions. I wanted so badly to have faith in our society that we had conquered prejudices, but history had taught me otherwise.

The girl who had closed the gates had disappeared to the back of the store.

As I tended to my duties of cleaning, a tall black man approached the most recent closed gate with the same little girl. It was obvious he was her father. With a stern voice he asked, “I watched my daughter try to come in and buy some candy. Is there a problem?” I proceeded to explain that the manager of the night had decided to close early. He then made the statement, “Oh, I thought it was because she was black.” I was dumbfounded. I had already felt sorry that this little girl had been told no even though she should have been allowed to come in, and now to feel accused of being racist, left me heartbroken.

While Angie remained in the back, I opened the gate to the little girl and her father, and told her to “go at it!” When the father went to pay, I refused. It had hurt my heart too much so I refused any type of payment. Generously, the man thanked me and the little girl was obviously in candy heaven, which gave me a little gratification. But among other things, this opened my eyes to see how delicate humans can be. From the father’s perspective, not only did he want to protect his child from having her feelings hurt, but from being discriminated against due to her race.

Being a single father makes it hard enough. Being black just adds to our difficult circumstances. Although my first reaction to seeing my daughters’ face was heart wrenching, which instantly put me into papa bear mode, after everything was said and done, I realized how I reacted was wrong. Yes, the girl in the candy store who told my daughter no, was indeed white. Yet, it wasn’t even her I had addressed it with. I’ll never know that girls’ true reasoning for not allowing my daughter in. However, I realized I needed to think before I react, especially when it comes to my daughter. This way, I don’t pass down the negative historical mentality or trickle effect, so that maybe my daughter will have a more positive outlook of the world she lives in today. Not what happened twenty, fifty, or even hundred years ago. This isn’t erasing the past; this is hopefully creating a better and equal future, by not giving my daughter the ways of reasoning that I have learned.

Being accused of not allowing a little girl in because of her race, at 16 years old, was a harsh lesson to have learned. I had and still do to this day have friends of all different cultures, ethnicities and am more than accepting of all the differences. Moreover, I take every opportunity to learn from individuals, their traditions, stories, rituals and perspectives on life, so that I can broaden my own reality. However, playing devils’ advocate, I see the how the mans’ scars from the past had never really healed and possibly never will. And how could they? It dawned on me in later years, his reaction came not only from his own experiences of being treated differently because he is black, but also because of family re-memories passed down through generations. The thought of the white man being equal to the black man, I now believe, was and still is not the mentality of majority of Americans. History has created this absurdity that has made whites believe they are superior to black people, and I believe to this day that the baggage of this irrational mindset, although getting better, is still haunting our society.

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