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Through My Eyes: Racist retail

By Nicole Brumley

During the summer I landed my first job in retail. I remember showing up to the interview ready to convince the manager that even though I had little experience, my journalism major had given me the skills I needed to be good in sales. The interview went well and I got the job. About three months into working at the store, I was promoted to key holder and everything seemed to be going great until August hit.

It was Caribana weekend and I, being of Jamaican descent, especially liked it when customers would tell me about their plans to enjoy the Caribbean vibe pulsing through downtown. After speaking with a few friends and customers about the parade, I even considered attending myself – a little Soca music, dancing, a few drinks? Why not? But for now, I was stuck at work.

I walked into the office for my break when my assistant manager, Phillip, said “You’ll never believe what Richard said to me.”

Richard was the manager of the store and naturally, I took the bait to listen to what I thought was going to be ‘harmless’ office gossip.

Phillip said Richard complained to him earlier that day in private that business was slow because the slaves were partying.

As soon as I heard the word, I stopped. “The slaves are partying?” I had to make sure he wasn’t mistaken and that somehow we hadn’t went back in time to the 1600’s.

The word kept echoing in my mind, getting louder and louder each time and I could feel my temper rising.

I found myself in the washroom, gripping my phone with tears streaming down my face as I tried to explain to my mother how my employer, a white man, thought it was funny to brand Caribbean people as slaves.

Never in my life had I been exposed to such overt racism disguised as a joke. As I returned to work I tried to act normal but my thoughts were racing.

Am I doing his slave work? Am I overreacting? Should I just walk out? How am I going to address this?

When I got home, I typed up my resignation letter, officially giving my two weeks’ notice without mentioning anything about the incident.

As word spread around the office, one of my co-workers decided to confront Richard about his comment and suggested that he make an apology. Being the only Caribbean worker on staff, that nudge led Richard straight to me.

He approached me in office to give what I thought was going to be a sincere apology. I was wrong.

Richard instead told me that he was sorry that I happened to “overhear” his conversation.

I politely refused his ‘apology’ and explained the difference between being sorry that you said something and being sorry that something was overheard. I could tell by his attitude that I had done something wrong. I had challenged his way of thinking and that was seemingly unacceptable.

He let me know that humour is subjective and that he and his friends make racist jokes all the time and that was “acceptable” in his social circle.

After repeating that he wasn’t going to apologize for his “private joke,” Richard said, “Well you’re on your way out, right? You won’t have to work here much longer.”

At the end of our conversation, he gave me the option of leaving the job early or finishing my last two weeks. Initially I had agreed to stay, but as his words replayed in my mind I realized his only concern was filling his daily shifts.  

I emailed him that night saying tomorrow would be my last day.

I opened the store the next morning feeling a bit lighter, but as I thought about getting through the day, my anxiety worsened.

At around 2 o’clock, I was at the counter helping a customer when Richard stormed up to me. Obviously upset by my email, he told me that I needed to “tone down the sensitivity meter.” He then demanded that I clock out immediately and give up my name tag and key. I was being kicked out for standing up for myself.

What was especially shocking to me was seeing my co-workers watch Richard treat me this way without saying a word. It was easier to stay silent.

He motioned me to step outside and continued to tell me how I, the employee he recently promoted for good performance, now had an attitude problem.

I knew nothing I could say to him would make him realize he was wrong.

When I got home, my co-workers texted me words of encouragement, expressing their disgust at the situation. I appreciated their support, but it felt a little late.

I realize now that sometimes we will have to fight our battles alone. It’s always easier to stay silent, but in a world filled with ‘Richards,’ we really shouldn’t be.

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