Monday, July 27, 2015

James the Racist

Since my last post, I have left Colorado and come back to Georgia a month earlier than expected. I'm sure it's apparent from my last few entries about the Elk Inn, but the summer seasonal job proved to be more infuriating than relaxing. I finally had to make the decision that graduate school is stressful enough and I just wanted a real vacation. I also realized that I wasn't doing one of the most important things I should have been doing this summer: writing.

I am not one to quit jobs easily - especially without a valid excuse like "I'm moving to Georgia for grad school" or "I was offered a great opportunity in Chicago. See ya!" I typed up my resignation letter for the Elk Inn, but kept it in my purse for about four days. I went back and forth between I should do this, I shouldn't do this, It's what's best for me, It's shitty to break your contract. This internal flip-flopping came to an abrupt halt as soon as I met the Elk Inn's newest front desk employee: James.

The first time I worked with James (a little over two weeks before my final day at work) I helped him with a reservation he was trying to make over the phone. He was sitting in the office to the side of the front desk where we have our lockers, storage, and it's basically where the front desk staff can take a moment to sit down outside of the view of guests. James waved me over to him and put down the phone receiver. "I'm trying to make this reservation and the computer won't let me," he said. I had already caught onto the fact that James was not the brightest crayon in the crayon box so I took the mouse and tried to click "reserve" on the computer screen. When that didn't work I looked at the screen and saw that he was trying to book nine people into one room.

"James," I said, "you've told the computer that you want to put nine people into one room."

"Yeah. So?"

"None of our rooms can do that. That's why the computer won't let you do anything."

"Well they're Asian. They can compact." He smirked at me, proud of his joke.

Had James said this to any of my other coworkers they possibly would have laughed or just rolled their eyes. However, I was a flaming-uber-politically-correct-liberal who was finally getting tired of hearing off-coloured jokes that summer.

"That is racist as shit," I snapped at him before shoving him out of the way and changing the reservation on the computer screen. Once the computer realized that it needed two rooms for about four people each it pulled up a slew of options. James picked up the phone and started talking and I stared in horror as I realized that the phone had never been put on hold. The call lasted only a few seconds before whoever was on the other end practically hung-up on James. He looked blankly at the receiver for a moment, as if he couldn't fathom why they suddenly hung-up. Then he turned to me and put on a stereotypical Asian accent, "She say, 'ohhh we so sowy we no stay der.'"

That night, a group of us from the hotel went out to a local bar and James joined us. He had been living in the hotel for a few days until his drug test cleared and this was to be his first night in the dormitory with everyone. Originally from Alaska, James had spent the past seven years on the coast of Florida. He had already experienced some altitude sickness because he didn't know that breathing at 7,000+ ft is different than 7 ft and I wondered if he knew that drinking was different, too. Apparently not because he downed 5-6 pints of Guinness in about two hours and the night ended with me finding him sprawled out on his bare mattress in a puddle of his own vomit. I told him to stand up so that he wouldn't choke to death. He stumbled over to me and pointed at my chest. "Just because I paid your bar tab," he slurred, "doesn't mean you have to act like you care."

It was pretty obvious that James and I were not going to get along. We had worked one shift together and in that short eight hour period he had not only shocked me with incredibly ignorant remarks, but he had also told me that I looked "much older" than 26, and regaled me with the lengthy list of why he hates Chicago (even though he's never been there). With a little over two weeks left at the Elk Inn I was finally no longer flip-flopping between should I stay or should I go? Now it was: I have to leave before I physically harm this person.

James and I worked another eight hour shift together the day after I picked him out of his own vomit. I talked to him only when it was necessary for work and mostly just stood at the front desk, staring out the lobby windows and thinking about what I was going to do during my upcoming trip to Chicago, my trip back across the country, and a mental list of what needed to be done before classes started back up. At one point I heard James talking to one of the other front desk agents, Boris, a guy from Turkey:

"Where are you from?" Boris asked.


"All Americans sound the same to me. I cannot guess."

"Ah-ha, well that's where you're wrong," I could hear James making the same smirk he did when he joked about fitting nine people into one room. "I'm not an American. I'm a foreigner just like you." I turned around slowly. James and Boris were in the side office, sitting in chairs that faced one another. James had his back to me and Boris looked at me questioningly. I tried to give my best "WTF" face and made an A with my arms.

"Alabama?" Boris asked.

"Alaska," James responded.

Boris looked from James to me. "That is in America, no?"

"Not if you ask anyone from Alaska, it's not."

I'm going to take a moment here because I know that Alaska was officially made a state in 1959 and there are still people alive who were born/raised in Alaska before it was an official state and clearly these people may share this opinion. Also, after repeating this story to several people, I have learned that there are those who wish Alaska was a territory and not a state and therefore prefer to identify as Alaskan before saying they are American. As someone with their own confused view of citizenship, I can totally understand that view. However, James is 22 years old (i.e. born 34 years after Alaska was made an official U.S. state) and was completely serious when explaining to Boris that they were equal in their alien status. Boris asked James if he needed a green card, too, but mercifully the phone rang and I answered it so I couldn't listen to the response.

That night, James and I had about three hours to ourselves. I continued to not engage him in conversation because I figured it would lead to nowhere good. James talked at me anytime there were no guests at the front desk. He told me about working for a Papa John's in Florida and how he came to Colorado for a change in scenery, but was thinking of going back to Alaska to work for a coal/gold mine. Somehow that led to him talking about his disdain for school and how he flunked out of his community college because he was "too smart" for the classes.

"I had this one teacher," he said, "that I liked to argue with a lot. She was a U.S. History teacher and she was Black, go figure."

For the first time in nearly an hour I spoke to him. "Why go figure?" He looked at me like he didn't understand my confusion. "Why," I clarified, "did you say 'she was Black, go figure'?"

"Umm...because she was teaching a U.S. History course?" He spoke slowly. Like he was talking to a child.

Even knowing that his mind leans towards racist stereotypes, I couldn't fathom where he was going with this. "Was she from Zimbabwe?" I asked, thinking maybe he found it odd that a non-native American was teaching U.S. History.

"No," he said, "you know how those people are when they talk about U.S. history. All they want to talk about is Civil Rights and the Civil War and, I mean, that stuff just isn't applicable anymore."

I stared at him for what felt like ages. That "stuff" isn't pertinent anymore? "Those people"?! I remembered what he had looked like, less than 24 hours earlier, sprawled out on his mattress covered in puke. For a split second I regretted making him stand up.

I took a deep breath. "That stuff isn't applicable? Have you been watching the news lately? It's not a bunch of unarmed white guys being shot by cops. And what about what happened yesterday? It wasn't a bunch of white people at a church who were gunned down --" (This was the day after the Charleston shooting.)

"Oh please," James cut me off and rolled his eyes. "That has nothing to do with race. Racism doesn't exist in this country! It's all about economics."

I'm pretty sure my rage made me blackout at this moment because I can't remember what James said except that there is no racism in the U.S. and the real problem is that African Americans do not have father figures to look up to. Also, Black people are "catered to" too much in society and giving "too many free passes." As James started to tell me how the string of police shootings could have easily happened to white men, too, I stopped him. "We are done talking about this," I told him. "We are standing at the front desk, there are guests in the lobby, and this is wildly inappropriate to be talking about at work."

"Why? It's just economics."

"No," I said, trying to keep my voice and anger down, "it's definitely not and it's clear that you and I are on two totally different political spectrums. For the sake of our working relationship we are done talking about anything other than work."

"Geez. Why are you getting so worked up?"

I told him he needed to stop talking and the rest of the night was spent with him trying to talk at me about "economics" again. My face was burning and my hands were shaking. I couldn't tell who I was angrier at: him or me. There I was a self proclaimed down-with-the-religious-right-I-will-kick-intolerance-in-the-ass liberal and yet I was letting this guy say the most heinous things without really holding him accountable. Sure, I was making my anger known and called him out on what he was saying, but I still wasn't doing it with the adamant vigor and righteous telling off that I knew he deserved.

The truth is I had never come face-to-face with this kind of blatant racism before. In fact, a lot of what was said around me in Colorado was new: "Indian people smell like curry," "I don't like Muslims," "stupid foreigners," and those were being said by people that I genuinely liked and considered friends. I grew up in the Bible Belt in a state that was one of the last few holdouts for marriage equality; a state that up until 2014 still had a school with a segregated prom; and a state that only dropped the Confederate flag image from its official state flag in 2003 (the more infamous one at least, not the official Confederate National Flag -- sneaky sneaky state of Georgia). Yes, I grew up in state that was certainly more red than blue and yet somehow I had only ever surrounded myself with fellow like-minded liberal people. I had missed having to confront racism head-on (can we say, "white privilege?"). And now here I was standing behind the front desk of a Colorado hotel with someone who was so ignorant as to say "those people" and all I could respond was basically "shut up." In my head I berated myself for being so cowardly and letting myself down. 

A few nights later, James and I had our last significant interaction in which all I could say was, again, "shut up." My roommate and I went out to a local bar because we knew some Irish guys from our hotel would be there. My roommate hit it off with one of the men and I found out the other one used to write for Lonely Planet so I fan-girled all over him while my roomie and Irish #1 left the bar. Irish #2 and I continued to talk about what it takes to be a travel writer when James stumbled over. As usual, James was wasted and he swayed a little as he stood next to the table. I introduced the Irish man as one of our hotel guests hoping that that little bit of information would force James to reign in the asshole-ness. No such luck. James began telling Irish #2 that Ireland had "sold out" for joining the European Union and had "lost their Irishness." Irish #2 was being polite and sipping his beer while James got more and more passionate. The customer service person in me kicked in and I tried to distract James from the poor guest by asking him what he thought about Greece possibly having to leave the E.U. His response was fairly incoherent and his eyelids drooped a little. I heard the word "citizenship" and decided I wanted to poke the bear a bit. I asked, "I heard you telling Boris the other day that you're not an American citizen."

"No I'm not," he spat with each syllable.

"So what about your passport?" This was the guy who originally came to the Elk Inn and told everyone he had never been out of the country and then later told a guest that he had traveled extensively through China, mainland Europe, and Cuba.

"I burned it," he said.

"You burned it?"

"Yeah! I burned that fucker right up. I don't need no government telling me what the fuck to do."

I was sitting sideways on a bar stool using the restaurant's large window as a back. James was standing directly in front of me, swaying so that every now and then he bumped my knees. Irish #2 stood behind James, slowly sipping his beer and staring at this drunken fool with a mix of awe and horror.

"How are you going to travel?" I asked.

"I'm going to hop on a boat. I'm going to be a stowaway."

"That's a great idea post-9/11."

"You know what?" James raised his finger like he was about to make a significant point. "From the moment I met you I knew I was not going to like you."

"Well that feeling was mutual."

"And you know why?"


He swayed and I momentarily worried he was going to vomit on me. "Because from the moment I met you I knew you were one of those fucked up liberal people."

I crossed my arms, "I think it's pretty obvious that you and I are very different."

"You're one of those fucked up liberal people with those fucked up views about feminism and shit and gay rights. That shit is sick, man. It's fucking sick and the government should have no say in trying to force that fucked up shit on the states." He lifted both his hands up and pumped them at me. "If we weren't in public," he said, "I would hit you."

In one swift move Irish #2 downed the rest of his beer, slammed it on the table, and reached his hand out to me. "Shall I walk you back to the hotel?" he asked. I agreed and jumped from the bar stool, knocking James out of the way. Irish #2 and I left without a word to James.

As we walked back, Irish #2 warned me of the dangers women face for being too polite. I agreed and nodded, but what I wanted to do was stop in the middle of the sidewalk, throw my hands into the air, and exclaim, "I get it! I am a spineless coward! I have let this asshole say the worst things possible and I haven't done shit except to blatantly tell him I don't like him and watch him flounder at work. I get that I should be doing more, but being tight-lipped and polite has been so ingrained in me that I just don't know how to."

There was also a part of me that was no longer angry at James. I felt sorry for him. I know this will sound like I'm just saying it out of spite, but this guy was not bright, he was not attractive, and he was just an outright asshole to everyone (I am not alone in my feelings towards this guy). He is twenty-two years old, seemingly friend-less, and has the conservative, twisted, Fox-like views of Donald Trump. Every night he went to a bar by himself and got so wasted that he had to hold himself up against a wall in order to walk. I hated him and I not-so-secretly wanted a mamma elk to trample him, but I felt bad for him. To be so young and full of such ignorant hate -- that is a pretty sad life to lead.

I am still ashamed that I never outright berated or yelled at or sought any sort of justice from James for the things he said. My only real act of defiance was going to the HR Manager and the General Manager of the hotel and telling them everything James had done/said at the front desk (including telling a little old man asking for directions to a church that the Catholic religion was just a "doughnut factory") and his threat to hit me. This, unsurprisingly, did nothing except to make the HR Manager confess that he never liked James and would fire him if it were up to him. Unfortunately, the decision to fire a front desk agent rested in the hands of my supervisor, a man who would let an employee beat up a guest before ever succumbing to a face-to-face confrontation.

I feel like I should end this post on some sort of positive note like "And now I will never let a racist go unpunished!" or "This taught me to be more vocal about what I believe to be right and wrong." While those two things are true, my brief time with James the Racist has actually made me realize that changing what's wrong with our society will take more than just telling someone to "shut up." I know in school we're always taught "every little bit helps," but I honestly never took that to heart when it came to anything major. To me, changing anything really big meant there were protests and marches and banners and yelling and teargas. In fact, when I was little, it was my dream to be teargassed because I believed that that was the only real sign of having tried to make a difference. Instead, nearly three decades into my life, I now understand that our teachers were right: every little bit helps. Sure, berating James and explaining to him why he's wrong and his views are racist will not solve what's broken in our society, but it has the possibility of maybe changing his mind (way, wayyyyyy down the road). And, if anything, it would also just make me feel really really good.