By: Danica Samuel
There are far too many stereotypes of black women behind the counter of a customer service job. You know, the one who gives everyone a hard time just because... she's black. Many of these stereotypes are perpetuated in movies, sitcoms and Internet memes.
I've observed several big companies try to break these stereotypes by putting black female faces on billboards and in TV ads, but I don't think they're working. With two years employed as the only black female teller at a bank, I've experienced judgement from every race, even my own. It's almost as if people can't fathom that a black woman can be great at her job and do it with a smile.
My ethnicity defines my personality
I've been asked, "Where are you from?" more times at the bank than at any other workplace. The query is almost always followed by an individual's shock of how kind, efficient, or great my service was. In their mind, there's no way a black girl from [insert black country here] can be so nice at customer service.
My Yugoslavian rooted name seemed to bother many customers. I've had people tell me my name isn't pronounced the way it is, and that my name is "different" for a black girl. I paid close attention to my co-workers' conversations and asked them if they got any of those same questions or remarks, but they always laughed saying, "It's just you." I refused to believe it was just me receiving 21 questions about my ethnicity, but it was something that was part of my every day encounters.
On one occasion I wasn't able to meet a customer's needs and he automatically kept questioning if I was Jamaican. Another customer assumed I was Nigerian because I was wearing a head tie (that I bought from Urban Outfitters). But nothing beat the customer who held up the line, insisting I tell him what African country I was from. When he couldn't nail it, he released a sigh of frustration and said, "Well, I know you couldn't possibly be from the Caribbean." I couldn't tell whether it was an insult or compliment.
When customers asked me where I was from, I replied saying, "Earth." It never bothered me after that, but it certainly bothered them. It left an empty space in their judgmental puzzle piece.
The other black person and I are connected
I lost count of the number of times customers mistook the "other black worker" for me. Some even went so far as to inquire if we were related. Besides our common black skin, there wasn't anything that really tied the two of us together. I must add, this other co-worker of mine was old enough to be my mom, but that didn't stop silly customers from calling me her name, or confusing their interactions with her and me.
I realized that this annoying issue transcends every workplace when I saw The Globe and Mail do the same nonsense to Traci Melchor and Tracy Moore. And let's not forget the Samuel L. Jackson situation, when he was mistaken for Laurence Fishburne.
When they weren't confusing our identities, some customers assumed that the only reason I had the job was because of my older black co-worker. Am I not capable of obtaining a job through my credentials? Did I have to get another black sista to "hook it up" for me?
But the one comment that burned my soul was when one customer said to this older black co-worker of mine, "You have some competition now." She laughed and told me that I am the competition, making light out of the situation. Why would we be competing? Is this what black people do in workplace environments? Now I'm confused -- do we hook each other up, or do we compete?
I won't like you because you're black
During those two years as a bank teller I've never seen so many black folk dodge me like a bullet. I'm not quite sure what the exact reasoning is for their avoidance, but I've drawn my own conclusions of the different types of black customers I encountered.
1. The black customer that stares me down to see my interaction with other customers. They do this to check if I fail or pass the assumptions they've made about me.
2. The black customer who avoids me serving them at all costs. They don't want to completely say "I don't want you to serve me," so they use body language- they become very fidgety in hopes that someone will call them before I do. Often times they use a phone call to delay them if they're next up in line.
3. The black customers (mostly females) who assume I'm rude, so they come with an attitude. Of course, they could just be a rude customer, but when I see their interactions with my co-worker on another day, it's completely different.
4. The black customers (mostly men) who put me to the test, to see if I do fulfill their assumptions. If I don't pass the test, it's a pathway into "I knew you were rude..." This has happened.
5. Black female customers and their back handed compliments. "Aren't you cold in that... it's nice though," "It must be easy to get a job here... should I apply?"
I can't say exactly how these different customers expected me to act, but seeing the look on their faces when it was the opposite was a pleasure. Nonetheless, some still keep up their hard exteriors because I had the audacity to defy their pre-conceived ideas about me.
Oh, and when things couldn't get more offensive, one of my co-workers thought it was okay to call me Michelle... as in Michelle Obama. Just so there's a visual...
Danica Samuel on the left, Michelle Obama on the right.
I don't even hope for change, because if someone can tell me I remind them of Michelle Obama; change? No, I can't.
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