Thursday, May 29, 2008

Racial Profiling

There was a new counter employee in my neighborhood Chick-fil-A. Her black skin was very dark, and she had a very French accent.

"There's a new employee," I told Judi. "She's from Haiti."

Judi rolled her eyes.

"Okay," I said, "maybe she's from St. Martin or St. Barths. Or Martinique or Guadalupe."

Judi gave me a frank look*. "If you lived in St. Martin," she said, "or St Barths, or Martinique or Guadalupe, would you move here?"

Um... no.

* Frank Look: A look that says, "Are you a moron?"

Okay, okay, I know she could have been from any of France's many ex-colonies that speak French. Or even from France itself. It's true that we have way more Haitians around here than, say, Senegalese, but there's no way to say that this counter worker at Chick-fil-A isn't our one local immigrant from Senegal. So much for profiling. But, anyway, I was reminded of a story that happened many, many years ago:

In those days, there was an excellent little mom and pop restaurant in a strip mall near us. Pop worked in the back, cooking and washing dishes. Mom worked the front, waiting and busing tables and taking the money. When he wasn't in school, Teenage Son helped his Mom.

This was a black family, and Mom and Pop spoke English with a touch of an accent. The food was Caribbean: Jerk Chicken and Goat, Oxtail, Peas and Rice, stuff like that. Judi and I ate there often -- the food was terrific -- and I spent a lot of time trying to place Mom's accent and figure out where in the Caribbean they were from. They were definitely immigrants: They had a bumper plate that said "I (heart) the USA" nailed on the wall behind the counter. That was a dead giveaway.

I know, I know, where they were from was none of my business -- that's why I didn't ask outright -- but I was curious, and hey, as long as I'm not rude or prying about it, I have a right to be curious. I think it's in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

So anyway, I tried to figure out the accent. It definitely wasn't Jamaican, though the food was. And it definitely wasn't Haitian or Dominican. I measured it against the accents of various islands, but it didn't seem to fit in anywhere. The best match I thought I could make was Bahamian. The problem was that the restaurant didn't serve the cuisine that I thought of as Bahamian: There was nothing with conch. No baked macaroni and cheese, or potato salad. No stew fish, no johnny cake, and, sadly, no guava duff. I'm not a desert kind of guy, so when I can, I just eat guava duff as the main dish and consider myself a lucky soul. I recommend that, if you have the chance, you do the same.

So anyway, as I said, I tried to figure out the accent. Then one day, I had my opening: Mom, who was very chatty and down to earth, said something about when they "first moved to the States," and I said, with a straight face, "Oh, you aren't from here originally?"

"No," she said, "we are not."

"Where are you from?"

"Oh," she said, "we are from Toronto."

That mysterious accent?


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Great post. I often try to figure out accents as well and have an (undeserved or at least unproven) inordinate amount of confidence in my ability to place Caribbean accents.

This post reminded me of the book Backlash by Susan Faludi. It got a lot of attention when I was in college. I was reading an article about the book, which was in a publication like Newsweek. It was one page with a picture of the author in the middle, which was of a black woman in her late 20's. It blew my mind and I realized that from the writing I had assumed the author was an older white woman. I realized that I constantly had to question my assumptions.

It turns out that another assumption was incorrect - the picture was not of the author, and the author was not a young black woman. In any case its interesting for me to remember it.
good post. i have fun trying to figure out where people are from, too.

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