Notes From the Waste Stream #5: Squash Blossom Necklace

The shop is dim. It feels older than the modern exterior lets on. The cases are full of sparkly and shiny things, all the price tags turned down so (as is usually the case in jewelry shops) you have to ask about any item you see. I wasn’t there to buy, though. I was hoping to find new homes for some of the jewelry I inherited when my mother passed away. Not anything super-expensive, just a few pieces that aren’t to my taste but might suit someone else just perfectly. I’d asked around and someone I trust had recommended this place. I was there with three necklaces and a bracelet, all New Mexican classics, most set with turquoise.

The man sitting at the desk said that the owner wasn’t in, but would return shortly. We made small talk while I waited, idly browsing. A rheumy dog watched from an elevated perch.

I’ve lived in Montgomery for seven years now, and probably one out of every three people I encounter asks me where I’m from, especially if the conversation lasts longer than, say, handing me a purchase or some change. Though I use useful terms like “y’all” and “fixing to,” my accent still gives me away – I’m not Southern. I explained that I was from New Mexico and had lived in town for a few years now.  He said he was relatively new in town himself. We got to talking about how we liked Montgomery. I said some version of what I always say: “Very affordable, nice people.” As I fingered some ornate flatwear, he agreed.

“Too many blacks, though.”

I put down the spoon.

I’ve had more anti-racist training than most. I’ve even had my share of anti-bullying messaging, as I spend a lot of time in grade-school classrooms with signs and posters urging students to be “upstanders” instead of “bystanders.” Even so, I was paralyzed. We hadn’t been talking for five minutes before he felt comfortable enough to lead with overt racism. Was there something about me (my whiteness, presumably) that made him think I’d be similarly prejudiced? Was this just how he operated in the world, his biases aired freely for everyone to see? Like the dim shop full of discarded trinkets, it felt out of place and time.

This is foolish, obviously, because the reality is that few places on Earth are so steeped in racism and its consequences than Montgomery. The only other places I’ve experienced this level of background radiation from the hot glow of historic and persistent racism are South Africa (for obvious reasons) and Qatar (because Doha is basically being built by slave labor). And yes, I know that lots of other places are racist – that’s just counting from where I’ve been.

I think my body language alone was enough for him to veer away from the topic. I should have said something. I should have left. But I didn’t really know who this person was, and was hoping for a smooth transaction once the owner returned. It is hard to explain the emotional turmoil that had brought me to this point. After two years of fretting and moving jewelry from box to box, I had finally worked up the nerve to sell some of my mother’s things. I wasn’t going to be deterred by this guy.

Finally, after some awkward chit-chat about the going price on old china sets (very low) and Waterford crystal (likewise), the owner came in. We sat at her desk, she looked over my things. The man offered various comments and produced a scale. I learned the going price of silver (pretty low at the moment). As one does in this small town, I learned where they lived – just a few blocks away from us. Price estimates flew; I tried to keep track, not getting distracted by the sadness that felt likely to drag me down past the metal rim of her desk to the carpet below.

Just as the owner began to fill out the contract, she felt moved to tell me a story about a time, many years ago, when she bought a house to resell and was choosing among competing bids for purchase.

“I said to the agent, look, I know we’re not supposed to talk about this…what was your address again, sweetheart? Anyway, I asked if any of these offers were from those people who all look the same?”

I had heard this sotto voce racism before – it reminded me of the way league softball players out at Lagoon Park would talk about the black teams.

What she was suggesting, without elaborating and unpacking all of the unstated implications, was that she was asking the real estate agent to to steer the transaction to white people.

I had to leave a copy of my drivers’ license. The man volunteered to make the photocopy. As he disappeared, she explained that this man was her husband, newly moved to town. Both of them newcomers, their racism a ready conversational gambit with me, a stranger and a potential client.

Must everything in Montgomery have a dark and racist element to it? Years ago, when we were new in town, we took the dog to explore Greenwood Cemetery. It’s over by the Ann Street Wal-Mart, and it’s where George and Lurleen Wallace are buried (along with lots of other people, obviously). Just around back, we discovered Lincoln Cemetery. In 2010, it was a terrible and depressing mess – the untended black cemetery around the corner from its shiny white counterpart. This story had a happy ending: The Advertiser ended up raising a fuss, and the cemetery has by all accounts been fixed up after some fundraising and legal wrangling.

The other uncountable stories of racism and its consequences here remain largely undercover and unsolved.

Maybe that’s because we don’t talk about race much here, except in private conversations with people we assume are like-minded. That, and the reprehensible comments section on Or, perhaps more to the point, we talk about race a lot. I have never lived in a place where white people feel compelled to flag someone as black when this seems to have no bearing on the story (“A black fellow, he was real nice, helped me move a box.”). This post is not the place to hash out why race is so hard to talk about or even how to talk about it. It’s just a place to describe the reality: Even as Montgomery becomes more progressive and inclusive, we’re segregated in places beyond churches, schools and cemeteries.

Close to the place I was trying to sell some jewelry, there’s a bar where lobbyists and government types are known to gather – especially when the legislature is in session. A few years ago, I invited one of my friends to have a drink there. She declined, saying, “Every time I go there, I integrate that place.” White privilege means many things, including not noticing when an environment is all-white.

I wish I could say that I took a stand that day – that I grabbed up my jewelry and stalked out. Perhaps I found a teachable moment, delivering a lecture? Nope. I wasn’t any kind of social justice hero. I walked in overwhelmed by the idea that I was about to sell multiple Valentine’s Day gifts from my father to my mother (both dead). I sat there, dazed, as a price was set. I let them photocopy my license after I bargained for a fair price. Then I left. And stewed.

A few weeks later, I’d had it. I decided that the right thing to do was to go and remove my things from this shop. Why should these people, whose views I despised, profit from my family’s hard-won things? Even though my mother was known to have the occasional offensive view about people of color (particularly the “gang-bangers” of New Mexico – the American West has its own unique racist flavors), I could not put her tokens of love in an atmosphere of hate. I readied myself. My plan was to arrive with my contract and secure the items. Once my things were in hand, I would explain why I had decided to take my business elsewhere and leave.

I was not under any illusions that whatever little speech I made would change either their minds or their business practices. Prejudice is deep-seated and extremely hard to uproot. Even targeted re-education over the long term has little effect on folks who cling to views of racial (or gender, or religious, or other) superiority. This is because bias isn’t just a matter of facts (“Actually, not all Asians are smart”); neither is it purely individual (because our beliefs are not entirely our own – they are the product of social relations). Bias is remarkably persistent, as anyone who has been in a conversation about the “good blacks” and the “rest of them” will attest.

I just wanted them to hear a countervailing opinion. I wanted, in short, to be an upstander. Sure, this was a little narcissistic. Anyone who says it isn’t is just kidding themselves. “Upstanding” works as a motivational tactic precisely because it appeals to the ego, to a sense of self as a person who wants to be the kind of person who does the right thing. This turns out to be a lot more complicated than grabbing back some silver and giving a speech.

Having talked myself into righting my previous (and cowardly) wrong, I approached the storefront before closing time. I’d imagined that I’d be alone in the dim shop with their full (if probably dismissive attention) as I symbolically dropped the white progressive anti-racist mic before being buzzed out.

I locked my car and strode toward the door. Another woman crossed in front of me at the last minute and buzzed for entrance. She smiled at me. Under her felt hat and dark wool coat, I could see that she was beautiful, gracefully aging, and black.

Inside, the light carved a swath through the front windows, spotlighting the dust around the cabinets and counters. The owner and her husband were blinded at first, but recognized the woman before me.

“Where have you been? Working hard? We haven’t seen you in so long!” This was the owner, emerging from the back room. Her husband was arranging items in the rack, barely turning around.

“Oh, I’ve been working.” The woman removed her gloves and reached into her purse to remove a much-folded yellow receipt. “I’m here to finish my layaway – I bet y’all thought you’d never see me again.” She had an expression of longing and finality. I think that I have seen that look before, when something you’ve desired is about to be yours. I found myself wrenched with curiosity about the thing she’d waiting for all this time.

“Oh, we knew you’d come back. It’s been more than a year now.” The owner directed this to the waiting woman as she noticed me for the first time. She asked how she could help me. I explained that I was there to pick up items I’d left to consign and had changed my mind. I gave her the contract copy, but explained that there was no hurry – I suggested she should help the woman first.

“No, I can help you now. Just give me a minute.” In the time that ensured, I tried at every opportunity to get behind this layaway transaction in the queue. The jewelry was dumped into my hands, the countersigned agreement photocopied, even my copied drivers’ license rooted out and returned to me.

I did not expect this. I had considered the possibility of another customer, and had thought I could wait a while. But the owner was not about to let me wait – probably because settling up a layaway would be more complicated than my transaction. Or maybe I was watching white privilege in action – I was being served before the other woman, who had come in before me, after all. In any case, when I thought about being in the store with another customer for the “big moral showdown,” I did not think about the shine in their eyes that a final layaway payment brings; the last chunk of a well-earned thing of beauty. I have had object lust. I know what it’s like to imagine the ways that the perfect thing will make your dreams come true.

My jewelry appeared. The contract to sign again, annulling our previous transaction. At every turn, I tried to defer: “Y’all can help this other lady first, that’s okay.” But the owner persisted, even as I asked for the copy of my driver’s license back. So there I was – everything I had asked for, ready to leave. I was taking my business away from them, not allowing these racists to profit from my jewelry. They never asked why.

There were three parties involved in this transaction. Me, of course, the righteously angry person with nothing in particular at stake except my own sense of self. The owners, who a) were comfortable with prejudice-as-ante; b) were relatively big-time jewelry dealers who needed my business so little that they didn’t even ask why I was taking my items away. And then there was the other customer. I knew how I felt about the owners. I was quickly trying to decide how she fit into my planned morality play.

IMG_1353I had two major options. First, I could declaim in front of all parties. Second, I could find some excuse to wait and talk to the owners without the other client present. The second option was basically off the table. They wanted to hustle me out, no matter how much I protested, and I didn’t want to linger amid the dust.

The first option seemed like the braver one anyway. I’d have the opportunity to shame the owners in front of a client, much less a black client, creating awareness and multiplying my impact. It also seemed like the worst option. Who was I to create a scene of racial conflict in front of this woman, perhaps imperiling her layaway payments, perhaps second-guessing her ability to interact with retailers like an adult? Who grows up black in Montgomery (or in the United States, for that matter) without knowing that racism informs all transactions? What if she lost her money? What if she had waited months for her shiny thing only to walk away because I had heard some blowhards say some hateful things? I couldn’t do it in front of her.

I left, the door jangling behind me, with my father’s promises of love to my mother safely in my purse. I made no speech. Now, I suppose I am able to sell this necklace online – safely insulated from the potential prejudices of anonymous buyers. And maybe that’s also what white privilege looks like.


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