Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Each time the phone rings

I get the craziest calls as a newspaper reporter. Usually, I try to answer the question if I can, direct them to someone else if I can't or talk them down from the ledge if necessary.

Ma'am, I don't know where they're holding tryouts for the Old-Tyme baseball league, but I'll connect you to the reporter who wrote the story...

I understand what you're telling me, sir, but just because the newspaper boy throws the paper in your begonias does not mean our publication has a personal vendetta against you...

So, let me get this straight: your father walked into the day care at St. Mary's in a dinosaur outfit and urinated on your daughter, after the other children had already beaten her up and the teacher was just standing there? I'm going to give you the number for the police because if that did happen, you might want to file a restraining order...

One thing I've learned in dealing with these callers is how to keep my cool when they blow a gasket or begin cursing me out. I was thankful for those skills the other day when a call came in around 5:30 p.m.

He was looking for information about the proposed casino in my town. What, he wondered, were the questions the Governor had about the constitutionality of it all. I scoured the archives for the answer and while I searched, we chatted.

You used to cover another part of Rhode Island, right? I remember seeing your bylines in other places. Yes, I covered the Blackstone Valley section.
So you like it? How long have you been there? I like it. I've been here about a year now.
You sound pretty young - 24? No, 22.
Wow, you're really young. So you've been out of school for how long? Going on two years.

I find the information he's looking for and recite a few graphs from the articles. He tells me the reason he needs the information: he's a radio talkshow host and wants to talk about the issue on his show.

You have a great laugh and tone. You should consider radio, you have the voice for it. Thanks. I'll keep that in mind if I ever tire of writing.
You'll probably make more money, I know print people don't make beans. I make enough to survive.

We talk about how I like Rhode Island and where I went to school. We trade jokes about my home state when he mentions how his hubcaps get stolen every time he goes to Detroit. He tells me stories about his excursions into Whole Foods and the people he meets there. Then, the conversation turned.

You sound attractive, and slim, - are you? Um, I suppose so.
So how would I recognize you in Whole Foods? I'd be the one with the byline.
What nationality are you? I'm African-American.
Really? I would have never guessed it. You don't have a black accent.

My neck rolls as I sit up straight in my seat. In my head, a flurry of curses and self-righteousness consume my thoughts. It feels like I've been slapped and called every racial slur beneath the sun. The epithets ring in my ears.

I take a deep breath and remain calm.

Unfortunately, in Rhode Island, I've learned conversations turn from friendly to borderline racist in the blink of an eye. I try not to get offended, and instead, chalk it up to the fact that people of color are few and far in between in the state - let alone at my newspaper.

I haven't gotten upset at anyone who's made racist statements to me. Honestly, I don't want to give them any grounds to demand I be disciplined by a supervisor. I don't raise my voice. I don't curse or insult them back. I use questions, not statements, to talk to them. I let the person continue to dig themselves into a hole until they realize how silly their statements are because I, the black person standing before them, defy all of the facts they think they know about black people.

"What does a black accent sound like?" I say to the caller, almost with concern that someone believes accents have colors.

Well, I rent properties in Worcester, and I can always tell if the person who is calling is African-American. You don't sound like that. Maybe it's because you're educated, but I would have never known you were black.

I'm quiet as he continues to explain his reasoning.

Well I guess I won't see you in Whole Foods! African-Americans don't shop there. It's too expensive. I interject that, indeed, black friends of mine in Providence routinely shop at Whole Foods and midway through my statement, I realized I didn't need to prove myself or my race to this guy.

"Well, I'm glad I was able to help you out with the information about the casino," I reply. "You have a nice day."

I hang up the phone, but the sounds continue to ring in my ears.

Posted by T Dot at 6:25 AM | link

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insane. you should have interjected a little more homie.

Posted by Blogger POPS @ 9:47 PM, September 20, 2006 #

I gotta give you props for keeping it professional Buford cause you know me. And you know I would've been looking for another job after speaking with homeboy. But just one question...WHAT THE FUCK DOES A BLACK ACCENT SOUND LIKE??!! Does it involve my speech being slurred from the sunflower and watermelon seeds in my mouth? Does it mean you can't hear me because it sounds like I've got a chicken bone in my mouth as I talk?? I mean granted some of us don't speak The King's English with the greatest of ease, but don't act surprised when I open my mouth and say actual complete sentences instead of clicks and whistles. I thought living in the south was bad...

Posted by Blogger Jarrod @ 6:50 AM, September 22, 2006 #

restraint is a wonderful thing to have, be grateful you have it. It definitely would've been dial tone time about sounding black.

Posted by Blogger Chris @ 10:44 AM, September 22, 2006 #

So why the hell is this fool talkin' bout who he meeting in Whole Foods. First, get a REAL life and maybe you would be around more non-whites. ASS!!! And I woulda checked his ass real quick. And you can stay calm, cause I just say, "You know you really should stop talking right now."

Posted by Blogger Vdizzle @ 4:16 PM, September 23, 2006 #

Wow. Reminds me of conversations people had with one of our (black) interns here where several folks called her to complain about niggers taking over the city.

Way to handle that fool with class.

Posted by Anonymous Dakarai @ 11:35 PM, September 24, 2006 #
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