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That Conversation Went South

| Working | April 6, 2017

(After being hired I’m sent to a two-week training in another city with other new hires from the surrounding region. During introductions we say where we are from since most of us are transplants. I am from Oklahoma and am a 21-year-old white female (relevant) and another new hire is a middle-aged (black) man who relocated to Los Angeles from New Orleans after Katrina. Once we are done the trainer stands up.)

Trainer: “Okay, apparently I need to make this clear now since we have people from the South. This is the Southwest. We don’t tolerate people saying ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’. We aren’t formal like that. We wear flip flops to meetings! So don’t go dressing up too nice!”

(We had been given a very clear outline of expected dress code — eg. slacks, button-ups, etc.)

Trainer: “Just remember; this isn’t the South and we don’t DO things like you think is okay.”

(Coworker and I exchange uncomfortable glances at being singled out but don’t say anything. Throughout the week whenever she calls on me she will then interrupt me and declare she can’t understand what I said because of my ‘accent’. I don’t think anything much about it until a few days later when we are on break again and the gentleman from LA and I are having a passionate conversation about food and who has the best BBQ between our home states.)

Trainer: *to me* “Excuse me! You shouldn’t say that to him! He lost his home in a terrible flood, and you are bragging that your food is better than his! You can’t be talking like that to someone who has overcome so much as a black man! It is that kind of insensitivity that I can’t stand from you Southerners! It’s so racist!”

Coworker: “No.”

Trainer: “What?”

Coworker: “No, it isn’t racist to talk about food. BBQ in the South is almost a religion, I’m sitting here having a normal conversation with this young lady about something we both care about and she’s the first person I’ve talked to since moving here who actually knows what they are talking about. And I don’t care to have my business about why I moved or the ‘tragedy’—” *he made the finger quotes* “—of losing my home a subject of discussion!”

Trainer: “Well, I think it’s a conversation that isn’t appropriate and it is making people uncomfortable…”

Coworker #2: *also a black man* “Well, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. You’ve got a class with two black men, an Asian, and a Muslim, and not one of us is uncomfortable about a conversation about BBQ!”

(The trainer then cut the break short and returned to class but didn’t say a word to me about my accent the rest of the time. Later Coworker #2 stopped me when we were leaving and let me know that both he and Coworker #1 had spoken to the trainer’s supervisor and that they didn’t think I would be bothered again. I wasn’t and neither were they. I was very grateful to both gentlemen; a combination of youth, inexperience, and social anxiety had left me speechless during all of it which made me feel like an idiot. I brought doughnuts the next day as a thank you and drinks later that night where we all called each other ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ with each toast!)

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