Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dear African Employee at the Big Box Store (Epistolary Wednesday, August 20)

Africa, 1925 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2007 Gabriel, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
Dear African Employee at the Big Box Store,

Before you take offense: I do in fact know you are not from just “Africa.” I know what country and what country borders your country. I’m being vague to protect you, knowing your job could be in jeopardy. After all, how many Ghanaian* men work at the local Sam’s Club*? They’d catch you in a heartbeat and question the appropriateness of your educated tirade about the Klu Klux Klan and “Republicans” turning away Guatemalan refugee children at our borders while shoppers came by for free samples.

I’ve seen you before, handing out salsa and chips, but last week was the first time I thought to turn and talk to you. You said, “Nice to see you” as if you remembered me and my brood of hungry children who've wandered these aisles many times before. So I stopped and asked where you were from. You’ve been here nineteen years, you said; you came for school (majored in communications), but there were no jobs to be found when you were done. You’d wanted to be a teacher. I wondered if your accent made job-finding difficult here, but I did not wonder this aloud. Now here you are, working at a big box store, with a communications degree; you want to go back to your home country soon, to find work more suited to your mind.

You’re delighted to hear that I have visited a country neighboring your homeland, and that leads us to talk of Africa's colonialism, imperialistic powers pitting one indigenous people group against another—neighbor against neighbor—all over: Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania. The Portuguese, in 500 years, produced only one doctor in Mozambique, you tell me, evidence of the failings of imperialism.  And then you say that what the U.S. did in the 50s, 60s, and 70s to countries around the world is now having a horrific impact on those countries' own economies, nations dependent upon exported product to the U.S. Bananas, cocoa, chocolate, quinoa—all crops exported at a high cost to the natives. But Nicaragua, you say, Nicaragua is doing just fine because they turned America down.

I don’t know if you’ve gotten all your facts right, but I do know that you’ve paid more attention than I have, watching Al Jazeera, tuning into unsanitized news sources I wouldn't even know how to find. What I do know is that I find myself suddenly weepy in the aisle next to the olive oil and the tunafish as we trade stories about the French in Rwanda pitting Hutu and Tutsi against one another, neighbor turning on neighbor. 

Walmart Broadens Product Assortment and Reintroduces Items with "It's Back!" Tags from Flickr via Wylio
© 2011 Walmart, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
Your growing up years were so different than mine. Your vision of the world. You say you can tell when an American has been outside the United States because their vision isn't so small, so constricted, and you praise mine for its scope. But, I feel tired with talk these days because all of this "awareness" and all of this "dialogue" doesn't change the fact that extremist groups are hunting and terrorizing, that white policemen shoot black boys on their way to Grandma's house, that those born into impoverished and illiterate families often stay there. War happens. Refugees are denied access to help because systemic, bone-deep racism, hatreds, fears, and greed govern the social and economic dynamics of entire countries that have the power to bind up their wounds. And all of it takes place at the same time I'm shopping in an air-conditioned food co-op or a giant chain store filled with crates of wrapped and brightly packaged servings of guacamole and clementines and string cheese. It goes on while I'm picking up my veggies from the local farmer's drop site, while I'm doing my couch-to-5K program on the treadmill and watching reruns of The Office. It's not fair. It's never fair. And all I feel is survivor-guilt, colonialist-guilt, middle-class, white guilt. 

Maybe talk feels cheap because the problems I once fantasized it could solve are problems with solutions still out of reach. Maybe, man, we need to lower our standards for "talk." Maybe it's enough that we can both stand here in the thick of Corporate America and acknowledge the ironies and the sufferings--you with the communications degree and the hairnet handing out cups of popcorn for Big Business as you save to return to your homeland and me, a white girl from Iowa whose fortune found her education and employment and a husband with a good job and a family that lives on a cul de sac surrounded by above-ground swimming pools and brightly colored play structures. If talk is good for this articulation of cognitive dissonance, maybe we're at the top of our game.

*These identifying details have been changed.

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