Friday, September 19, 2008

Brush With Bigotry

A few weeks back I had a mild taste of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of racial discrimination.

My car had a flat tire, so I took it in to get fixed. The first shop I took it to couldn't help me. They told me that although the tire was flat because of a nail, its tread was too worn for them to repair it; and they couldn't replace it because they didn't have a replacement in stock. They suggested I check a used tire store.

So I went to the nearest place that I expected would sell used tires- El Dorado Tires on 450 N and Main in Clearfield. El Dorado is run by, and caters to, Latinos. It looks like a shop you would see in latin america, with the name of the store, and the products it sells, hand-painted in bright colors onto the exterior of the building rather than displayed with a conventional sign.

I pulled into the parking lot and carried my tire up to the garage. There were about five or six guys in there. Some were working, some were watching, all were Latino. But I couldn't tell for sure which ones were employees because none of them were wearing uniforms. So I stood there and waited for someone to come talk to me- ask me what I needed. No one did.

I may have waited five minutes, or it might have only been two. The uncomfortableness of standing there with five guys repeatedly glancing at me, but none of them approaching me, made it feel like hours. And a niggling little feeling started creeping up in the back of my mind- were these guys deliberately ignoring me because I was white?

Eventually I convinced myself that, rather than ignoring me because they didn't like me, they must have had some sort of policy against talking to customers in the garage area. So I set my tire down and went into the office. One of the guys from the garage entered the office the same time I did. He started explaining to the girl behind the counter about some parts he needed her to order. When he was done he went back into the garage and the girl asked if she could help me. I told her that I needed a new tire. When I finished telling her what I needed she said something- in Spanish- to another man who had come in from the garage. (My Spanish is ok, but I couldn't tell what she said to him.)

My past experiences at auto shops suggested that at this point the man that the girl behind the counter had spoken to would ask me for a little more information about what I needed. He didn't. Instead, he went back into the garage- not out front to where I had left my tire, just straight back to the garage. Nevertheless, I assumed that the exchange he had had with the girl meant that he was going to take care of my tire, so I sat down on the couch.

He came back into the office several more times. Each time he spoke to customers- in Spanish- who had come in after me. Each time this happened I couldn't help but wonder whether he was attending to the requests of these new customers before taking care of my tire. After all, why was he, the mechanic, attending to them, rather than the girl behind the counter? Was he just blowing me off? Were they putting the newly arrived customers ahead of me because these customers were fellow Latinos and the business of fellow Latinos was valued more than mine? Was I going to have to wait to have my tire worked on until there was no work to do for the Latino customers?

This was frustrating, and the frustration was beginning to make me feel angry. Then I realized something. I could leave the store and take my tire elsewhere. To any number of other shops, where all the employees would likely be Caucasian and certainly would be fluent in English. In any case, I'd be able to get a clear idea of whether the shop would be able to provide the service I needed, just like at the first shop. There would be no wondering, no speculating as to whether I was being ignored or mistreated because of my race or my ethnic appearance or the language I spoke. I didn't need to stick around at this tire shop and accept the way they were treating me.

But what if the roles were reversed? What if, instead of being a member of the ethnic and linguistic majority who was patronizing a business run by an ethnic and linguistic minority, I were in the minority and were attempting to get my tire fixed at a shop run by an ethnic majority who didn't speak my language and didn't share my same cultural background? How would it feel if I knew that the disrespect I was perceiving in the way they were treating me would be repeated at every other shop I could find? How would I feel if I knew that any time I went to a place of business, not just to get a flat tire replaced, but for any kind of service, or to buy anything else, this is how I could expect to be treated?

That line of reasoning replaced the smoldering heat of anger in my heart with something else- sorrow. The sorrow washed over me and left me feeling like I'd had the wind knocked out of me. After all, this would likely be a one-time experience for me. But for much of our country's history this kind of experience was a constant part of life for many people. For them, there were no "other shops". They didn't have the assurance of knowing that they could simply walk out and go somewhere else if a business decided to treat them with disrespect because of their race.

Wait a minute- it's dumb for me to be talking about this like it doesn't happen anymore. Even though it's true that someone being discriminated against like I thought I was most likely would be able to walk out and find a similar business that didn't treat them disrespectfully, that doesn't change the fact that there are people who have no qualms about openly displaying exactly the kind of bigotry I’ve described. And I suspect that it doesn't make it any less hurtful or maddening for those on the receiving end.

You might be wondering what I ended up doing about not being helped.

I got fed up. I left the office and went outside to get my tire. But it wasn't where I had left it. I asked some of the guys milling around outside if they knew what had happened to it. No one seemed to know. So I went back inside the office, feeling frustrated and angry again. But it wasn't long before the guy from the garage came back into the office and told me, in broken English, and with a smile on his face, that he had repaired my tire- he was happy to show me where it had been punctured by a nail. I thanked him and paid for the repair. Then I left.

I felt foolish for having assumed that I had been ignored. I also felt grateful for having had an experience that gave me a brief glimpse of what it feels like to be discriminated against based on my race.

Yes, it’s true that what had happened wasn’t discrimination at all- just a matter of miscommunication- but it doesn’t change what I perceived to be happening. Our emotions don’t always come from what’s real; they’re fueled by what we believe to be real, which are often two different things.

I hope I’ll remember the way I felt when I thought I was being discriminated against- the anger, the sense of injustice. I hope that it will make me more aware of the biases that I harbor, however unintentionally, and the consequences that letting them dictate my actions can have. And I hope that it will spur me to be more conscientious in treating others with dignity and respect.

Oh, and if you need to get a flat tire repaired, don’t hesitate to take it to El Dorado Tires. They’ll fix it for cheap, and you can brush up on your Spanish while you’re there.

1 comment:

Kami said...

Leo once appled for a job at a movie theater where they made him take a simple addition and subtraction math test. They told him he failed it but wouldn't let him see the test again. He shrugged it off despite being in advanced calculus at ASU at the time. His uncle (who's white) said it was probably just because he was Latino. Leo says that's the only experience he's had like that. Although he's referred to as "Escobar" constantly.

On the other hand his mom was pulled over the other day and the cop was asking her what her immigration status was...she wouldn't answer. (I tried to point out that her behavior was decidedly suspicious but she didn't believe me.) Anyway, once the cop saw her driver's license--so she's obviously legally her--he was nice to her. She claims it's because it says she's "white" on her driver's license. Hello. Like her appearance and thick accent wouldn't give away that she's Latino from another country??!?!? Anyway, I think it's because the cop thought she was illegal. It was weird to hear her version of it though, because then I didn't tell her mine because I'm white and would she just think I was protecting my own, etc? Anyway, crazy.