Last Thursday I was busy working and there came a knock at the front door. The dogs, always interested in newcomers, bounded to the door and barked dutifully, as I made my way to open the door to see who had knocked. Our three little dogs would not hurt a fly, but enjoy barking at strangers, and the three of them barking together makes them sound larger than they really are.
I opened the door to find a young African-American man standing there, and at first he backed away, until I assured him there was no danger whatsoever. He looked at me wide-eyed, holding what looked like an order form in one hand, and a briefcase in the other. Then he said, “I hope they don’t like dark meat.” Still trying to quiet the dogs fully, I looked at him quizzically, unsure if I’d heard him correctly. He went on to say, “I’ve been working on my tan a lot this year, as you can see.” I frowned then; was he expecting me to laugh at this?
I was not going to buy anything from anyone that day, and needed to get back to work, so I cut the conversation short and excused myself, but after I closed the door and thought about it for a minute, I began to feel miffed. Why did he do that? Did he think making jokes about his skin color would make a sale to a Caucasian woman more likely? Was there a stereotype that he thought I could identify with?
The use of humor, and sometimes even self-deprecating humor, can be a powerful sales tool, but this fellow had it all wrong. I found his attempt at racial humor offensive, as it reminded me of the early days of African-American actors conforming to demeaning stereotypes in order to get a movie role. It’s embarrassing now to watch some of those early roles, and worse, watching people like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in “Babes on Broadway” and even Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in “Holiday Inn” in blackface makeup, doing their best to make us howl with laughter at the black stereotype of the day, rolling their eyes, making exaggerated movements and speaking in a way that would surely make African Americans cringe these days. Perhaps the black actors were cringing then between takes as well, but were doing what they had to do to make a living at that time.
I had the urge then to open the door and shout after him, “Why would you do that? Don’t belittle yourself, and me, by making racial jokes that way! And especially don’t do that to make a sale!” But of course it was too late. Who knows, perhaps he wouldn’t have agreed with me and been surprised at my taking offense. Perhaps he was like so many of the young people who come to our door almost daily with something to sell, inexperienced and not well trained in making a sales presentation. Perhaps he didn’t care what he had to say to keep the conversation going and hopefully make a sale, but he SHOULD care.
Anyway, it just seemed out of character, as I live in a racially-mixed neighborhood and though there has been friction in other parts of town from time to time, everyone has gotten along well here and there have been no tensions, at least not that I’m aware of. I am well aware, however, particularly because of having worked in President Obama’s campaign as a Democrat in an area heavily populated by Republicans, that racism is still alive and well, regrettably. I just didn’t expect to find an example of it on my doorstep last Thursday.