Vibrant Encounter

A friend reports, and I edit, from the front lines of New America:

I’m working for a call center for a cell phone company as a customer service representative. One of my tasks is troubleshooting–identifying problems with equipment or service. Another is basic instruction on how to use our phones or service. As often as not, someone calls in complaining their service or equipment isn’t working, only for me to find they just don’t know how to use the service or phone properly. I field these calls daily and I deal with people all over the country.

I’m like you–at least I think you’ve described yourself like this–a thorough-going racist by the standards of the day, believing things I’m not supposed to even suspect and attributing credence to “false” stereotypes we’re expected to believe have no basis whatsoever in experience (sprung from the brow of, I don’t know, Hitler). And like you, I accept this but also know that in individual encounters I strive to be fair. In fact, I think I overcompensate, as if I’m proving the bastards wrong somehow, as if it would matter if they could see it. Anyway.

I took a call from a woman, a Horn-of-Africa accent, Ethiopian I think (she sounded very much like a mutual friend of ours from there). She had an old flip-phone and didn’t know how to enter text. She began indifferent but then instantly became furious; how am I supposed to enter letters when the keypad only shows numbers, she asked; what set her off was me pointing out each number had three letters assigned. Of course she knew that, how dare I! She did this a couple of more times; “do you see the…” “Yes I see it! I am not stupid!” So I did my thing, walking her through the process (you press the key once for the number, quickly twice or three times to enter one of its designated letters depending on its order, if you recall those barbarous days before smart-phones).

I actually made progress and had her entering text, but her fury would not abate; our equipment is shit (the ancient fifteen-dollar flip phone she activated with our service to save money was so disappointing), our service is shit, etc. You remember when we used to listen to Howard Stern? [was I ever that young?] She was this lady, only much further gone beyond reason:

I wasn’t able to console her, and she just kept getting angrier–despite the fact we were making progress. But we foundered finally on the space key (“lower left corner key” was an outrage all its own, I’m not sure why). Eventually I just stopped helping and started walking her to the door so to speak with some stock lines, ignoring her now and rather enjoying (but maybe imagining) the tone in her voice: she seemed to sense that her mow-down the frail and pale white guy strategy, probably so very effective almost always, wasn’t getting any more respect or humoring; I gave her the stock sign-off line, indulging my own pettiness finally by using a mocking unctuousness that was no doubt lost on her, ignoring the fact that she had no intention of ending the call just yet, and I hung up on her–the last thing I’m supposed to do. I could lose my job for it.

But none of this is what bothered me. The whole time she’s got the television on loud, and I’m straining to hear her rapid-fire, heavily accented speech over it; periodically she steps away from the phone to yell at a man in the background and it’s as if she’s deliberately putting the phone near the TV. And what’s on in this happy homestead taking part in the inverted colonization of America? Some sort of panel discussion of black activists, including the Reverend Sharpton, bitching about white racism. I think I even heard Oprah in there. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did a little of both.

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