Thursday, November 15, 2007

The intersection of Racism, Sexism, and Commerce...

Lauren, of Faux Real Tho, had an... interesting experience at a gas station recently. This post reminded me of some of my own experiences living and working in a college town.

I used to work retail at one of the largest bookstore chains in the United States. No, I won't mention names on here. *cough, cough* Excuse, me. Anyway, over the course of my time working at the bookstore, and living near two major colleges, I found myself in situations not entirely unlike the one Lauren describes.

It's interesting to me, because the attendant was treating Lauren the way that I expect most sexist asshole clerks treat other men. This is how it usually went for me: I'm standing in line waiting to make a purchase, and the woman in front of me catches the clerk's attention. He watches her as she leaves, and I'm waiting to make my purchase. Clerk takes my purchase and rings it through and starts talking to me like we're old friends- "Daaamn, she was hot. (insert comment about her chest or ass). I'd totally hit that in a heartbeat, right?" The exact words change, but the idea remains the same- the clerk thinks that the customer is hot, and wants to make it clear to me. And, of course, because I'm a guy, he expects that I'll agree with and appreciate the remark.

I suspect that a lot of other men have been there.

Of course, it's not just register jockeys that make grossly inappropriate, sexist, racist remarks. When I was working at the bookstore, the customers would frequently make horrible comments to me, both about other customers and about my fellow employees. Even if you take the blatantly creepy people out of the equation- the guy who would position himself so that he could see up women's skirts when they rode the escalator, the guy who'd take pornography into the children's section and leave it there, etc- there were plenty of people who were just huge assholes.

Two incidents stick out at me. The first was a group of teenage boys who were hanging out in our store all day. They were annoying, but not really doing anything particularly troublesome, until they discovered that they could look down women's shirts if they leaned over the railing looking down into the middle of the store (where the escalators were). I realized this is what they were doing when they began making very loud comments about a woman's chest and cat-calling her.

In the middle of my store.
At 4:30 in the afternoon.
On a weekend.

Before I could get to them, another employee (Hi, Nat!) dressed them down and, I believe, kicked them out. But, this is a busy store at one of the busiest times of the week, and these guys didn't think they were doing anything wrong by sexually harassing our customers. That's a big problem.

The other incident was a case of racism. I was covering the music department for a break, and we were listening to something- Shivaree, maybe? I don't remember now- but something like that. A customer came back, and asked what cd was in, and I figured he was thinking about buying it (whatever it was, I thought it was listenable), so I told him and started to tell him what I knew about whatever group it was. He cut me off with something like "well, it's really terrible. It's just awful. The worst thing you've ever played in here, hands down." Then he walked away.

Ten minutes or so later, another employee came back and we were going over a display chart, when this same guy comes back over. "I just wanted to let you know again, this is the worst thing you've played in here" he says. I look at him and tell him that I'll let my manager know, and before I can say anything else, and to my shock, he says "It sounds like one of those Jap groups or something. They'd play them when I was over in Vietnam last year, and they all sound the same- singing in Japanese or Chinese or whatever crazy language they speak over there."

It went downhill from there.

I got lucky, and a manager was nearby, so I called her over and told her she needed to deal with him, because if I had to listen to him anymore, I was going to say something that would get me fired, and she ended up asking him to leave.

Moments like that leave me feeling both dirty and confused. I feel like there's something really wrong when people can say and do things like that without hesitation. It's bad enough that they're sexist, racist assholes, but that they don't even feel like there's anything wrong with what they're doing is just mind-blowing. Is there so little social sanction against these things that someone feels completely comfortable saying and doing these things in a busy retail establishment?

The other problem is, of course, how to respond. It's a question I've asked about other things, too- how do you respond to someone who says or does something like that. Particularly, if you're the employee in the situation, what do you do? If you're the customer, you can tell the clerk where to shove it, and take your business away, or get a manager and complain. As an employee, though, you're more limited (unless you don't care about losing your job, of course).

Anyone else want to share a weird/creepy/troubling experience they had, and how they handled it?


The Snobographer said...

To answer your question, "Is there so little social sanction against these things that someone feels completely comfortable saying and doing these things in a busy retail establishment?"
Um, yeah! Objectifying and demeaning women is practically an international pastime.

I was just fired from a job on which my two male immediate supervisors spent practically every moment of every day spouting off sexist and homophobic stereotypes. I tend to deal with conflict in a passive-aggressive manner, for better or worse, so I'd say things to them about it without really saying anything about it. Like mentioning how stupid and small-mind sexists and homophobics were, just casually in passing-like. One of those supervisors passed on to his supervisor that I was a "problem." I probably should have just gone to the HR department about it.

EG said...

Can I tell you about a creepy experience I had in my local comic book shop back in Phillie?

I loved this place--it's one of the few things I miss about that town. It was near me, and one of clerks, well, the only female clerk, was a black woman about my age, and we'd talk a lot whenever I went in--usually about what it was like to often be the only women in a comic book store, or making fun of the completely impossible breasts drawn by artists who had clearly never seen a woman, or movies, or whatever. I'm gonna call her...Nina, because that's nothing like her name. So, I go in on Wednesday, and I'm waiting on line, and I get into a conversation with the white guy in front of me. He's a little geeky, but hey, we're all in a comic book shop, right? There's not one of us who isn't geeky.

So, he asks that geek question of "What era would you live in if you could live any time?" and I give my stock answer of "Look, I'm a woman, so as far as I'm concerned, the second half of the 20th century is as good as it gets for me. I like it when I am." And he says "Yeah, I can tell, you don't want to be chattel. But Nina there...she wants to be owned."

I was so stunned. Which is no excuse for the fact that I was stunned right into just giving typical feminine signals that I did not approve, breaking eye contact, stopping the conversation...I said "Dude. That's not OK to say that." And he said "Oh, well, Nina knows I'm just kidding, ha ha ha!" And Nina, who's up to her ass in customers, sort of looks over and shrugs, does a half-smile, but what the hell else is she going to do? She's working, he's a customer, she can't tell him to haul is racist ass out the door. He really didn't seem to see that it's simply not acceptable for a white man to joke about owning a black woman.

And I didn't know what to do, really. I was stunned. And I didn't know the deal--were he and Nina good friends? Would I just embarrass her if I made a scene? And who was I to take a stand if Nina wasn't going to--isn't there something, well, distasteful about a white person riding in unsolicited as though she's the great white savior? But Nina wasn't free to speak up, was she, because she was working? So I've never settled in my mind what to do, what was the right thing to do.

The next week I went back, and the guy had left me a book about one of my favorite movie stars (it was a long line--we'd talked about him before that exchange) along with his phone number. Nina asked me if I was going to call him and I said "Nah. I really didn't like some of things he said...left a bad taste in my mouth. Kinda creepy, you know." She nodded, so I think she knew what I meant but...I still wonder what I should have done at the time.

Sorry for the long post.

jeff said...

First off, Roy, thanks for the post.

"And, of course, because I'm a guy, he expects that I'll agree with and appreciate the remark."
I think it often goes further than the expectation of agreement and appreciation; men who make remarks like that to other men do it partly in an attempt to bond with other men and partly to police the masculinity of other men, even if they're not conscious of doing so. If you don't respond in the affirmative, you are subject to direct policing of your own masculinity ("What're you, a fag?").

In addition, this happens more 'subtly' all the time, often with a glance--waiting at the train station is when I notice it most. Standing near another guy, a beautiful woman walks by, and the guy first looks at her, and then looks at me--not only for confirmation in his 'taste' in women, but for confirmation of his masculinity. It's pretty deeply ingrained in the way men relate in our culture.

Rachel said...

the guy who'd take pornography into the children's section and leave it there

Excuse me? Am I the only one whose day just got a lot worse from reading that? How can you just mention this in passing and dismiss it as "blatantly creepy"?

EG said...

Rachel, I bet if you work in a bookstore, it happens so often that you just barely raise eyebrows after a while.

You wanna hear another creepy story? I was in a big bookstore a few months back, when I saw a baby, say 6-9 months old in a stroller, being taken care of by her dad. I had time to kill and the kid was cute and I vibe well with babies so I walked over to say hello and play with the baby and chat with the dad. Everything was quite lovely, till I stood up to go, said good-bye to the baby girl and her dad, and realized that he was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of the famous Hustler covers showing a naked woman going through a meat-grinder on it.

I think my jaw dropped. All I could think was "Dude. You have a daughter."

The Snobographer said...

eg, Rachel: these are examples why child rearing should be outlawed until everyone gets their heads on straight.
I actually read this post just after browsing around the "Manufactured Contempt" site regarding Larry Flynt and seeing some Chester the Molester cartoons.
My opinion of humanity sometimes isn't even high enough that I can muster a comment on it.