Race, Nationality, and Geography

images-1Rochelle and I were talking about race, geography and nationality.  It began when she referred to some co-workers at the home for the disabled, where she had recently worked, as “those Africans.”  I asked where they were from and she said they were from Jamaica.  “Why don’t you call them Jamaicans?” I asked.   “I just call all of them Africans,” was her answer.  It was time for the interview to be over, but I brought the subject back up a week later at the next interview.  It seemed a good topic to cover on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  Rochelle is 29, but she had been watching the news, and she did remember some of her history from school.  She vaguely knew what had happened 50 years ago, and why it was important.

“So, why do you call Jamaicans Africans?” I again asked.  “And what do you call your own race?” I added.  “Well, they have an accent, so I, we, just call them Africans.  I call myself Black,” said Rochelle.  I had a map of the world and we discussed where the countries were and a bit about the slave trade and colonialism.  “Why don’t you call yourself African-American?” I asked. I did explain that I was sometimes confused as to what to call what long ago was referred to as “the Negro race.”  Rochelle didn’t have an answer but did tell me how her 5-year-old son had recently discovered that some people called him black.  “I’m not black; I’m brown,” he had told his mother.  “He was thinking of the color of crayons,” she told me.  “He had just learned his colors in pre-school and now he was trying to figure out how he could possibly be black,” she laughed.  “Now he is confused.”  The map was on the table, so I asked what she called Asians.  “I call them all Chinese,” said Rochelle with a laugh.  There are a lot of Vietnamese where we live, and I asked if she even called Vietnamese people Chinese.  “I call them all Chinese because they have slanted eyes.  And I call all people who speak Spanish, Spanish, even if they can’t speak Spanish, like Bobbie.”  Bobbie had been a co-worker.  She has no accent and could be a mix of several nationalities or ethnic groups.  “She gets mad when I call her Spanish,” Rochelle told me, “but she’s Spanish.”  I asked Rochelle if maybe she didn’t like to be called “African-American” because she is an American and she doesn’t even know anybody in her family who has ever left Texas, let alone visited Africa.  “Yes,” she said, “I’m not African.  I’m American.  But I am Black.”

Rochelle has never been out of the state she was born in.  Geography is not something she knows a lot about.  When we were looking at the map of the world and talking about where different people who now live in the United States had come from, she seemed very interested.  “So if you don’t like being called African-American, the Jamaicans probably don’t like being called Africans, either, and the Vietnamese don’t like being called Chinese,” I suggested.  “Well, it is easier,” Rochelle said.  “I would like to travel somewhere else, though,” she told me.  “Maybe Louisiana.”  I remember after hurricane Katrina, Rochelle had only bad things to say about the refugees from Louisiana who came to our town.  People from Louisiana had a different accent from the ones that prevail in Texas; they did their hair differently; and they dressed differently.  The Black refugees were also often darker skinned.  “Yes, they are just different,” Rochelle had told me when we were working together back then.  I had told her she was prejudiced.  “People are often prejudiced when they don’t really know much about different cultures,” I had said.  Rochelle and I had talked about this now and again over the last eight years or so.  It was not a new topic for us, but in this interview we talked more in depth.

Our discussions on race will continue, but one thing we both were sure of when we finished the day’s interview: Rochelle’s 5 year old son was certainly correct.  He was not black.  He was brown.  The United States thinks of itself as a melting pot, and Binney and Smith, makers of Crayolas, had to discontinue the crayon color “flesh” from its mix a long time ago.  It was quite popular in the 1950’s and a real reflection of the times.  With luck, Rochelle will be following the Crayola company’s lead, and modernizing her terminology, as well.  It’s not that language creates racism, but it can certainly reinforce it and perpetuate interethnic insensitivity, even on the part of people who have suffered from both, themselves.


The Back to School Stresses of Poverty

UnknownMost parents look forward to school starting as the summer winds down.  Most children look forward to it, as well.  Summer was long; the working parents had to find some way to care for the children; children who had been eligible for free meals at school now had to be fed at home; and most kids started missing their school friends.  But, though everyone seems to look forward to the start of school year, there are major expenses that come with it, as well.  Not only may new clothes be needed, but now parents seem required to supply quite a lot of the school supplies out of their own pockets.  My sister Jessie and I remember that our parents were required to buy almost no school supplies.  Sure, we needed binders then, not backpacks, but that’s all we remember our parents needed to purchase.  Maybe our town or our time was different; I don’t know, but now, in the city I live in, back-to-school supplies are a significant expense.  Rochelle is stressed out because of it.  The cost of supplies for three children is significant.

“I don’t get paid until Thursday,” she told me on the phone. “I was wondering if I could have an advance on my interview money?”  My anthropologist sister, Jessie, pays her for the interviews she does with me, and Rochelle was to receive more money in a week.  “I need to buy school supplies, but I just had to buy two tires,” she explained when we discussed the problem.  School was starting in less than a week.  Rochelle was looking for organizations that provided free school supplies for her children, but this year she also had to buy school uniforms for Kalinda, who was beginning middle school.   Any expense beyond the basic ones puts Rochelle into financial trouble.  The car tires had put her over the edge.   Two weeks earlier she had mentioned to me that she was “out of money.”  The apartment had wanted payment on a late water bill and also charged her late fees, another unexpected expense she hadn’t been prepared for.  I agreed to advance her the interview money this time.  It would only be for a few days.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about how we have talked about planning for the future,” Rochelle told me in our interview later that day.  “Next summer I need to get the kids into some sort of camp or something.  They can’t just be watching T.V. at their grandmother’s and eating all summer long,” she said.  “And I still need to write a resume.”  This was the first time I had ever heard her talk about future needs and plans.  I agreed.  Free summer camps are available, but research and advance planning will be required if that is to happen by next summer.  Rochelle is enjoying her new job, but she wants to advance.  She has always wanted to work for the state of Texas and has noticed that all state jobs want applicants to e-mail a resume.  A resume on hand would enable Rochelle to apply for an available position if she finds one.  She may want to stay with the grocery store if she can advance, but she now wants some options.  “I’m getting older,” she told me, “I have to think about the future.”  I also suggested a savings account of sorts.  “If you started taking a water bottle to work instead of buying water, you could put that money into a savings account and it would add up over a year’s time,” I said.  “Yeah, that would be easy,” Rochelle agreed.  It was a modest suggestion, but she liked it.

School starts in two days, but Rochelle and I hadn’t even discussed upcoming child care solutions during this interview.  She thinks the two younger children will be able to stay at their school until 6:00, if she gets in line early enough when the sign up happens next week.  But, though we have been talking about the problem for a few months, she is not sure how care will be provided for Kalinda, who will be going to middle school. “I’ll figure something out,” she said.  I handed her a list of programs I thought were available at that school.  We had talked about it before, but Kalinda was not eligible for some of the programs.  Childcare, work schedules, school supplies, these are all stressors most parents face, but with the additional stress of poverty they can become overwhelming.  Rochelle will get through this situation, but I still cross my fingers.  So does she.


Creating Job Loyalty

images-2“You are always so bonded to your workplace,” said my sister, Jessie, in about 1982 or so.  I had started working for Foley’s Department Store at their Houston headquarters after receiving my M.B.A from The University of Texas that prior December.  I thought that was an odd comment.  I loved my job, had a great manager and mentor, plus it was fun and challenging .  My previous job had been managing two pet stores that were owned by men who were also supportive of me.  I only left that position because I had been there ten years, there was no longer a future for learning, and so it was time to move on.   I went to graduate school and was hired by Foley’s.

In those years, though owned by the old Federated Department Stores, Foley’s was still a local chain.  “The” state wide chain of department stores that oozed a Texas ambiance.  Macy’s tried to enter the market but fairly soon closed most of their stores.  A Texas store understood the market, and Macy’s buyers and other executives didn’t.  The C.E.O.s during my tenure at Foley’s were all Texans.  Well-versed Texans with lots of retail background:  Laskery Meyer and then John Utsey.  I remember looking forward to the “Christmas Visit” that John Utsey always made.  Sure, we in the stores freaked out a bit, but Mr. Utsey walked through the stores and said “Merry Christmas” to the salespeople and managers.  I’m sure he may have talked a bit of shop with the store manager, but we had all worked very hard and “Good job and Merry Christmas” being said by the C.E.O. made it all seem worthwhile.  The last time I may have heard that was in 1987.  I left the company in 1988 when it changed into The May Company, and everything I had loved seemed to change.  I no longer felt my skills counted, nor did I seem valued.  I went back in 2001 and stayed until retirement in 2010, but I was just putting in time.  I was no longer bonded to my company.

Rochelle, a person I have been interviewing for the last year, and whom I posted about last week on the Macy’s Alumni site, has worked for a large, privately held grocery store for only three months, and at her newly opened store for only three weeks.  “I have more good news,” she told me last week.  “My manager gave me a letter and it was from the head of the company.  He told me what a great job I was doing.”  I told her that was wonderful and immediately assumed it was a form letter.  “I’ll bring it to the next interview,” she said.  “I think I want to frame it.  This is special.”  I told her to bring it and I would get it framed properly for her.

“Here it is,” she said when she came for her weekly interview.  This was not a form letter.  This was a personal letter from the C.E.O of the grocery store, and it said,  “Attached is a photograph of you with one of my favorite friends.  Thanks for taking such good care of him when he was in your store recently.  Although I have not yet visited your store, I hear great things about it.  Thank you for taking such special care of our customers.  All the best.”  It was signed by the head of this major Texas grocery store chain.  Enclosed was a photograph of Rochelle and the customer.  He is a 95-year-old man who was with his son and buying beer “for the first time in twenty years,” Rochelle was told.  The son took the photograph and sent it and a note to the C.E.O.  When Rochelle checked out the 95 year old man at her register, she made sure to ask for his driver’s license. “ He absolutely loved that,” she said while laughing.

This is what builds company loyalty more than anything.  A personal touch and the recognition of a job well done.  It seems to have vanished as companies have merged   into the behemoths they are today.  John Utsey and Lasker Meyer, the C.E.O.s I knew at Foley’s, are now long gone.  Foley’s became Macy’s.  It is rare that hard work is recognized by such a letter except, occasionally, by a customer.  I know I stopped being loyal and bonded to my company when the mergers and buyouts started happening in the late 1980s.  As the companies grew larger, the commitment to the employees left as well.  Rochelle is lucky to be working for a company that seems to understand good management practices.  She is still new in the job.  Her life is difficult, but I know that right now she is filled with pride in her work and good feelings toward the grocery store she works for.   Building loyalty should be a huge company goal, and it is really so simple.  As simple as “thank you,” “good job,” “Merry Christmas,” or a personal letter from high up the chain of command.

I do a weekly blog about my interviews with Rochelle called “Rochelle’s World:  the life of a single Black mother in the culture of poverty.”  She is paid for the interviews by my sister, Jessie, an anthropology professor.  Last week’s and this week’s topic, however, relate directly to my experience working for Foley’s/Macy’s as well as to Rochelle’s experience in retail.  I thought it relevant so have posted it directly to the Macy’s Alumni site as well as to the blog.


Praise and a Raise

images-1“I’ve got good news this time,” said Rochelle when I answered the phone.  She usually calls me on Friday, when she gets her work schedule, to set up our interview time for the following week.  Her days off change, so the interview days sometimes change as well.  She sounded happy and bursting to tell me her good news.  “I got a raise, and I’ve only been working at the grocery store for a couple of months,” she told me.  She was very excited.

Rochelle has been working two jobs since she was hired part-time at the grocery store about three months ago.  Recently, however, she has been working full-time hours at the grocery store because the new store she was hired for finally had their grand opening.  Rochelle has been thinking of quitting at the home for the disabled, where she has worked for the past year.  She did give them a two week notice when she was hired by the grocery store, but she stayed on as a substitute employee.  The job at the home is very stressful and pays very little.  There is little professionalism shown by the management, and employee problems are seldom addressed.  “I”m not going back,”  she told me in this week’s interview, after describing some problems she had working there this week.  I suggested she not burn her bridges yet.

“I got rated an excellent on everything,” Rochelle said.  She was talking about the 90 day review her grocery store manager had just given her.  Many companies give their employees a review after 90 days in order to encourage positive performance and to show where some improvement can occur.  “Well, I do need to scan the merchandise a little faster, but everything else was rated excellent.  And she (the manager) asked me what my goals with the company were.  I told her I would like to move up.  I told her I had worked eight years at the department store, and though I had great reviews, there was no way to move up,” said Rochelle.  “I told her I didn’t want to be in that position again.”

“My manager said she liked me and liked my answers.  She told me she wanted me to do well and knew I could.  I was almost crying,”  Rochelle told me, and now she was crying on the phone.  “I was almost crying, and my manager’s eyes were glistening, and then she hugged me,” Rochelle continued.  It had been a long time since she had experienced such positive and supportive response in a job.  In fact she has rarely experienced it in any aspect of her life.  “Then my manager gave me a raise!!  I’ve only worked in my store for two weeks,” she said.  She was emotionally overwhelmed.  “I knew you would want to know,” she said.  I told her I was very proud of her.  “I’ll see you next Wednesday,” said Rochelle, “and I’ll bring the review with me so you can see it.”

Praise and a raise can do a lot for a person.  Rochelle was a very happy person when she phoned me, and she was glad she was working at her new job.  Compared to her old job, the pay is better, the atmosphere is better, and most of all, the prospects are better.  You don’t get rich as a supermarket cashier, but this store pays a living wage and treats its employees well.

Academic Success in the Culture of Poverty

Damion HackettThis is the anthropologist sister, Jessie, again.  After last week’s post about the educational difficulties Rochelle’s children face, I’ve been preoccupied by the problem.  I think a lot about education, because that’s what I do for a living: I’m a faculty member in anthropology at a large, public university.  The university I teach at is not particularly distinguished, but it is oriented toward research, and its students are overwhelmingly middle class and white.  For most of them, going to college was not a hard won triumph; it was merely the expected next step after high school.  It is exciting for them not because they are looking forward to exploring new ideas, but because they are getting away from home and living on their own, without parental constraints.  The content of their courses is not particularly interesting to most of them, but they know that their incomes and life choices depend in large measure upon having graduated from college.  So they’re going to do it.

But getting into college, let alone graduating from college, depends on a lot more than the popular American myth of success through hard work and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.  It’s not just hard work.  It’s not just good teachers.  It’s not even just parents who care.  It’s a whole constellation of social, cultural, and economic factors that provide an atmosphere in which children are able to prosper academically.

Take a look at the apartment Rochelle and her children live in.  It’s in good repair and safe.  It has adequate furniture, a computer, and the environment is stable.  Rochelle has worked very hard to provide this home for her children, and it is in stark contrast to the environment in which she grew up.  Her children aren’t moved from household to household, left with relatives for indeterminate periods of time, and ignored or taunted by their caregivers, who fail to feed them regularly.  They aren’t left alone to fend for themselves, and they’ve never watched a house burn down with their cousins dying inside.  So to Rochelle, the fact that her apartment is strewn with clothing and toys, has no regular spot for the children to do their homework, and no adequate lighting is not even noticeable.  Her children’s situation is such an improvement over her own as a child that its shortcomings are invisible to her.

Kalinda the eldest child, is now 11, and has been diagnosed by the school system as a “slow learner.”  She does not strike the casual acquaintance as “slow” in normal conversation.  But she is certainly not academic.  She has been teased in school, partly because she is overweight and partly because she has been labeled a “slow learner.”  None of this makes school or what goes on there very enjoyable for her.  Although she has recently had the services of a school appointed tutor, as well as a “Big Sister,” who takes her on various outings, there has been little continuity or intensive support for her academic difficulties.  Rochelle works full time and is frustrated and annoyed that Kalinda has difficulties with arithmetic that she never had, herself.  So, despite some real attempts at intervention, there is no systematic approach to the problem.  By contrast, I remember my own daughter, now 29, having problems with arithmetic in second grade.  Her teacher let us know about the problem, and I swung into action.  My mother and one of my sisters had had serious problems with mathematics that lasted a lifetime, and I didn’t want my daughter to be handicapped by math fear.  I made flash cards, and we worked on them every day.  Once a week we went out to a fast food fish restaurant (my daughter’s favorite at the time), where we reviewed the week’s work and celebrated with fish and chips.  It worked, and Leah ended up in the advanced mathematics program.  But that kind of intervention depends on a parent with the time, the experience, and the conviction that educational obstacles can be overcome.  It was luck, not virtue or intelligence, that resulted in Leah’s mathematical turnaround.  She (and I) had been born into a fortunate slot in life.

Kalinda is having trouble learning arithmetic, but so did my mother and my sister, both of them members of Phi Beta Kappa.  In fact, my sister used to call me at the end of the semester for help in figuring out her students’ final grades–she didn’t really understand percentages, despite her PhD.  No one ever thought she was “slow.”  No one ever believed she was a lost educational cause.  Of course, my sister is white and middle class.  Kalinda is not remotely slow at learning aspects of her culture that make more sense to her.  She likes to wear sparkly, “sexy” clothes, and strikes “sexy” poses for photographs, though she is only eleven.  She recognizes the approval her sexy aunt, the exotic dancer, receives from the family, and clearly wants to emulate her.  No one in Rochelle’s family is academically or professionally successful.  There are no role models for Kalinda in that realm of life.  Certainly, teachers tell Kalinda and her fellow students that they need to do well in school so that they will ultimately do well in life, but how meaningful is that for Kalinda and students like her?  Rochelle knows the same thing: her children need to do well in school so that they will do well in life.  But whom does Rochelle know for whom that has been true?  Literally no one, I suspect.  Education may truly be the key to prosperity, the door to the path out of poverty.  But what is the key to the key?  What is the door to the door?  For most people living in the culture of poverty, discussions about the value of education seem mostly like empty words, aimed at someone else.  Of course, there are remarkable people who come from Rochelle’s world and through education succeed in escaping into the middle class.  But the numbers are far smaller than affluent elites like to believe.  Like all cultural systems, the culture of poverty reproduces itself generation after generation.  Serious commitment to social and economic intervention is the only way to interrupt this pattern.