So if you’re wondering why my output on the blog has been so light lately (you probably aren’t), I’ve been trying to use this summer after finishing my Master’s as a time to gather myself and prepare everything financially for my big move to the big city to actually start my career. I tried to find temporary summer employment to pay my rent here and save up for the deposit in the fall, and chanced upon a chance to work for a lobbying and canvassing group here (not saying the name but here’s a hint: President Obama worked for the same organization) run mostly by students. I heard talk about the offices of the organization and similar ones being exploitative to the young college students it recruits, not training them properly and using recruitment and compensation tactics that were shady at best, but I needed the cash, and more importantly I needed something to do. Until the fall, I’m effectively unemployed and out of school for literally the first time in my life since I was old enough to work. That’s tough. I don’t even know HOW to be unemployed.
So I decided to do it. After a day of pretty meh training and learning a script I had to say at every door, I found myself going door-to-door canvassing folks to raise money and membership in a non-profit organization here in the state. So began the worst month or so in my life. If you don’t raise the quota amount of money every day, you get docked pay. And we’re out for 5 hours or so every day in the heat walking 6 mile or so swaths of turf to knock on doors. They expect about 10-15% of all people canvassed to actually contribute money, and about a third of all people to be home or not slam the door in your face. So you have to knock on over a hundred doors on an average day to raise the quota, and a lot of that is even based on luck. No benefits, no days off or paid holidays (we had to work Memorial Day). And you could be fired at any time for not meeting whatever requirements there were. Sheesh.
And I ran into the biggest problem of them all. The nice White folks in the wealthy neighborhoods we canvassed were not comfortable AT ALL with a Black guy coming to their doors, let alone coming to their doors asking for any kind of money. If you have any doubts about racism existing in this country, especially among the wealthy, go ask people for ANYTHING door-to-door as a Black man or shadow a Black man doing it. Hell, if Ed McMahon were Black and giving out all those Clearing House giant million dollar checks to white folks in the 90s, he probably would have been shot.
Everything bad that could have happened to me pretty much happened. I was called a nigger by respected citizens of our community three times. As a canvasser, you expect rejection, but not only were doors slammed in my face, I was chased by dogs with the complicity of owners and cursed out quite a few times just for ringing doorbells. As I walked by, people who in these nice neighborhoods kept house and garage doors open, closed them frantically. The people who did talk to me did so mostly through screen doors or glass doors. Husbands called their wives back in after discovering my identity. Even many long-giving members shut the door on me before I could explain that I was a part of the organization they were also part of. All of this happened while I walked around in broad daylight in bright shirts proclaiming my organization and shorts. Far from wearing a hoodie at night. This happened day after day. The cops were called on me about twice as much as the other canvassers (about once a day), and I was routinely harassed by them despite them having no grounds to do so. At one house, a man called me a nigger, rushed out to greet me with a large stick in his hands, and told me to not even walk on his side of the street. On my last day, I was reported to the police as a suspicious person, harassed by the police for 45 minutes before being allowed to continue working, and accused of looking through people’s windows to see if I could steal their stuff. Seriously.
I’m the first to tell you that racism is alive and well, but this was even an eye-opening experience for me. I spend most of my time in pretty cosmopolitan and relatively diverse settings where people are used to seeing at least one Black person now and then and don’t seem to be overly threatened by me if I’m doing the right things. These neighborhoods were different. I canvassed about 5 Black folks (all women) total out of the thousands of houses I went to. Two of those women were married to white men. Black men weren’t seen around there at all and it showed. I genuinely felt for my safety, especially (ironically) in the shadow of the Neighborhood Watch signs that were so prevalent in these neighborhoods. It was honestly chilling, the fact that so many folks could fear and dislike me, someone they’ve never met, just because of my skin color and in spite of everything I did to appear harmless. It doesn’t matter. If you need a primer on the social climate that even allows a story like Trayvon Martin’s to exist, do this job for a while. You’ll see.
In the end, we’ve talked about it before, but this experience drove it home personally how serious of a problem it is just to be a Black man in the wrong area at the wrong time. These weren’t rednecks or backwards people. They were literati, often involved in science and business. They weren’t staunch Conservatives, in fact the zip codes I was in split fairly evenly between Democrat and Republican. They were often on the wealthier end of things, but that came with high levels of education. In general, they weren’t the type of people you’d expect to be hostile to and fearful of a Black man and harbor pretty stupid insecurities. But this is how it is now. In a world where yet another boy has been killed simply for walking outside and being Black, the unknown suspicions of certain members of the majority give us cause for fear, much as the blatant white sheets of the KKK did in the past. All it takes is one person to think you are suspicious and/or dangerous enough. I won’t overly dramatize my story by saying I experienced this or felt it, but it definitely made me think. What can we do short of erasing our skin to convince people that we belong?