Roger tells of a spectacularly blatant bit of racial and class prejudice:
It was the early 1980s, and I was moving to a new apartment in Albany. In those days, I had to actually GO to New York Telephone and Niagara Mohawk, the power company at the time, to get my services connected. So, I took my lunch hour from FantaCo, the comic store I worked at the time, to arrange these things.
My New York Tel experience was great. These flirty, attractive women were trying to upsell me for services I didn’t want, or need, and didn’t buy. Still, it put me in quite the good mood.
Then I went to NiMo, and talked with this woman at length about getting my gas and electricity. I filled out the form, and she went over it. A previous ZIP Code I lived in was 12309, with included a well-to-do suburb of Schenectady called Niskayuna, though in fact I was living in the part of Schenectady adjacent to it.
“THAT’S a very expensive neighborhood,” she said, sounding as though she didn’t believe me. I replied, “um-hmm.”
“And who are you to live in a very expensive neighborhood?” Even though he didn’t. Stereotype by ZIP code! (Think “90210.”) Which may explain “um-hmm”: he saw it coming.
Inevitably, of course, it did:
We get to the part of the process where we arrange to have the service started. I was moving only three blocks from work, off Lark Street. I suggested that the service person call me at work, and I could run over and be at my apartment in five minutes.
She countered: “Why don’t you leave the door unlocked? You don’t have anything of value anyway.”
Dayum, girl. Could you possibly be any more hateful?
I was angry. No, I was livid. I was enraged. Yet, I found the place in my voice to say, “Actually, I DO have things of value.” Eventually, and unhappily, she capitulated to my request.
A couple of days later, Roger recovered his cool enough to send a letter to the utility, which was properly contrite. But suppose he hadn’t?
Now I COULD have lost my cool at the NiMo office. I would have felt totally justified. The problem is that I would have come across as a crazy black man, who just went OFF for no apparent reason.
She’d never have said that to a white guy, and if she had and he’d gone off, managers would be summoned and collars would be cooled, and the word “crazy” would have never been mentioned.
Now this happened thirty-odd years ago. Are things better today? I wouldn’t bet on it: customer service seems to be at a low ebb these days, and anyone who thinks racism is dead is simply not paying attention.