When i first came to this country I quickly realized that I had three very obvious advantages over many of my fellow immigrants: I’m white , educated, and I can speak English. I learned this in a very graphic and poignant way.
While I was trying to break into advertising in New York, I took whatever jobs I could to pay the bills, secure in the knowledge that I was definitely going to break into advertising at some point.
One of the jobs I took was doing corporate moves. Moving files from a building in the lower 20s in Manhattan to a new building in lower Manhattan on Hudson Street. The same building that Saatchis and Cliff Freeman were housed.
My co-workers were all either Jamaican or Puerto Rican. We were all in our early 20s. The pay was good. But the job was finite. The sooner it was done, the sooner we were out of a job. I was the only white guy on the job.
We got paid every Friday. And we would all immediately cash our checks. One Friday, my co-workers asked me if I’d like to come with them uptown to buy clothes and Big Daddy Kane and Shabba Ranks records on our lunch hour. I agreed. So we stepped out on the street and I immediately hailed a cab for us. My co-workers looked at me like i was superman. And it took me a while to realize why. These young African-Americans simply could not hail a cab in their own city. Young African-American men had great difficulty getting a cab to stop for them in New York in 1990. I couldn’t believe it.
I was Mr. Popular. I had a magic power as far as they were concerned.
I was similarly amazed when we would go shopping for clothes. Sales assistants would eagerly solicit my custom, while my colleagues were viewed with suspicion that they were thieves. Yet we all had exactly the same amount of cash in our pockets.
It was depressing. Yet they accepted it as part of their lives. And they lived in one of the more allegedly enlightened parts of the country.
Even more depressing was the reality that the boss of the job, a well-meaning Italian-American, kept me on the job longer than some African-Americans who had been there prior to my hiring. He meant well but it was embarrassing to me. And even worse was the ready acceptance of my co-workers. They weren’t surprised. It was just yet more racism.
As we’ve posted before, our experience with the Budweiser Wassup! campaign led us to believe that racism is literally dying out. And that Obama would win. The presidential election has borne this out.
I look back with gratitude on my time working with those guys. I got to see and experience a side of America that most white people never saw. I got to feel the sting of racism vicariously. And it was weird and not cool.
Hopefully the election of Barack Obama is the final nail in the coffin of something that was a stain on our national character.