SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2014 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Friendship Comes in All Forms
As I walked into the main office of my new apartment complex to gain clarification on the extra fees I was recently charged, I noticed a young Black man standing behind the counter. His skin was the complexion of rich dark chocolate and his hair was thick like wool. He appeared to be professionally dressed, in a collared shirt and slack pants waiting to greet me.
As he and I made eye contact I admired this young Black man; he was easy on the eyes. Once I approached the counter he quickly greeted me in a very thick accent “Welcome in, how can I help you?” I was surprised by his accent so I quickly searched his name tag to see if I could pin point his nationality from his name. His name tag read, ‘James’. James? I thought to myself. With this thick accent there was no way he could have an American name however his outer appearance was similar to African American men I see on a daily bases. I am a young social-able African American woman who makes it a point to know the African American students on campus. James looked just like my brother, or like several male friends of mine: African American, so this is why his accent took me by surprise.
I went on with the conversation expressing my questions and concerns about the fees. As I did this, I searched the corners of my mind to formulate a nationality for him, to place him with others I’ve seen like him. I was unsuccessful…so I quit my searching and came back to the conversation. He gladly started to answer my question, but I was having trouble understanding what he was saying. I kept asking him to repeat certain words, which in turn became very irritating for me because I had to work harder to listen and understand. By this point I was frustrated and no longer wanted him to keep explaining anything to me, so I asked him to get someone else I could speak with about the matter. With a very discouraged look on his face, he sighed and agreed to go get his co-worker that was working in the back office. A White American male came to assist me while James did not return to the front counter. After I got a clear understanding from James’ coworker, I was more at ease with the situation but I began to feel a sense of guilt for getting so frustrated with James. I began to get senselessly frustrated with myself because I couldn’t place him by his accent or nationality. I thought somewhat highly of him prior to uncovering his accent. That revelation showed me something about myself, something that was ugly and needed to be addressed; but that comes later on this journey.
I had to go into the office about a week later to sign paperwork and James happened to be working. As he saw me coming in he walked towards the back and a different co-worker came out and acknowledged me. The difference this time was that James stayed at the front desk but did not speak to me. Another resident walked in a few seconds after me and James went to greet her and was able to help her with what she needed assistance with. He was lively and friendly and went about what he was doing after she walked away. In that moment it dawned on me that our initial interaction wasn’t only frustrating for me but it was disappointing and frustrating for James as well.
The next day I kept thinking about the previous day’s encounter with James as he avoided me purposefully. I began to deal with the ugly revelation I had about myself. Here we are, James and I, in a professional setting, he being the professional and I the resident. His appearance was professional, his tone of voice and word usage was professional, but still I looked down on him for his foreign accent. I was having a personal issue and I transferred my uncertainty onto another person who did not deserve that at all. I was mortified at my behavior and I knew I had to apologize for my blatant discrimination towards James, which stemmed from unfamiliarity and surprise. I knew I didn’t want to be portrayed as this kind of person, so I went back into the office to apologize to James.
As James listened to my apology, he actively worked to understand me. He then asked if it was okay for him to share some of his perspective with me. I was relieved that he wanted to actively engage in conversation so I was happy to have him share:
I’ve been working for this apartment complex/office for about four months. A few weeks ago a very pretty female resident came in with questions about the fees we recently added her because she who moved in after a certain date. She asked me to explain the breakdown for the fees before she made the payment. I explained exactly everything she asked about. She kept asking me to repeat my words as if I wasn’t speaking English or something. This became somewhat frustrating for me but I tried to speak slower so she could hear me clearly. I’ve spoken English since I was born; I speak it everyday of my life. I am very intelligent and I picked up on her frustration with my accent. She began to get visibly upset. She became short in her responses to me and before I knew it she asked to speak to someone else in the office. I was shocked by her upset nature because it was as if she didn’t believe that I was telling her the truth or that I knew what I was talking about. I happen to be popular with the residents around the property because I am friendly, speak to everyone, and I help tenants with their issues. I have learned a lot about the property in the short time I have been here. I just didn’t appreciate her or anyone else being rude to me because I am not American. Whenever I go out people talk to me slowly as if I can’t understand them or as if I have no social knowledge. People seem to become frustrated because I ask question. They get so fixated on the fact that I am from Trinidad and automatically assume my intelligence level is inferior to theirs. People in the US do this to me often. The day I spoke with you, Kristen I realized you were just another American that underestimated me and in America I can’t win with people like you so from then on I made it my business to avoid you.
As James explained this to me I instantly thought back to my experience studying abroad in Florence, Italy. I remembered how discouraging the language barrier had been, and how some were impatient with me because of it. I began to relate with James.
At the end of conversation he told me “Not to worry about it, because we’re okay”. He accepted my apology and from there a wonderful friendship blossomed.
The way I reacted to James the first time I had to interact with him did not make me proud as a human being. For this reason this incident has always stuck with me. I was once a foreigner in another country for a few months and I experienced people being frustrated with me as well as getting upset with myself because I could not make the proper connections with others. That experience was overwhelming and left me feeling discouraged.
America is a melting pot of cultural differences. There are different nationalities of people all coming together with the same mission; However, America favors certain nationalities over others. This has been proven by how difficult entrance into America is which has fueled the ongoing battle surrounding immigration laws. James is from Trinidad and is of African and Spanish decent. In America he is not the kind of person Americans welcome with open arms. I experienced this same attitude while studying abroad in Italy because Italians have a negative view of Africans as well as Americans. Many African’s have migrated to different parts of Italy and are seen as the outsiders, as unknown “foreigners”. Some Italians hold negative views of Americans because of certain American attitudes and values, which are somewhat contradictory to Italians. While I was there I recognized this fact as an American and received negative push back for being African American.
Migrating to a country where there is a lot of push back of one’s ethnic background is difficult to face. James’ outward appearance could mislead someone to believe that he is African American, like I am. So when I made this prejudgment of him before hearing him speak, I had already created a scenario of his and my interactions. I was caught off guard and surprised by our differences and part of that lead to my frustration with the situation.
Just as I assumed James was just a Black American, others do the same. We as people have been conditioned to connect Black Americans to unprivileged persons. Black males have it much worse than Black females. Incidents that have occurred throughout history and recent years prove just this fact. In 1992, with Rodney King, a Black male who was brutally beaten by police officers not of his same race sparked the Los Angeles Riots. This single incident sparked modern-day awareness of police brutally on African American males with racial hatred undertones. Two recent events bring attention to the out of control brutality. In 2012 Trayvon Martin an unarmed 17-year-old Black male was gunned down in Florida by a White male neighborhood watch coordinator who was found not guilty of this race hate crime. Just this year another killing of an unarmed Black male named Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO occurred by another White male police officer that was also not charged for this killing.
James came to this country for a better future not fully aware that coming here he would face much adversity due to history’s timeline of events. That aspect alone doesn’t rest well with my soul and that is why this incident is so important for me to remember. Everyone has a story and it is not okay to look down on another human being or make assumptions. You never know the person you consider largely different could very well be the person who becomes one of your best friends.
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