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Dear America: People Aren't Racist, They're Tired

Updated on September 30, 2019
Sadie Elledge: Victim of circumstance.
Sadie Elledge: Victim of circumstance. | Source

Dear Sadie:

You seem like a nice girl, and you probably deserved a tip.

Those customers were rude, but they're probably not xenophobic. Not really.

What they probably are is tired. I myself am tired; tired of talking to people on faraway continents that can't find my city on a map. Tired of talking to foreigners when I am under extraordinary stress; repeating something over and over because the rep can't understand me. Trying to understand someone whose English is so bad it barely qualifies as English. Tired of cultures that cannot comprehend my own.

This isn't because I'm close minded. I am well traveled; I even lived overseas for 6 years. I eagerly seek out new cultural experiences. But there are times, like when my computer is acting up, when I just want to communicate with someone in my native language; times when I need to hear my native tongue.

Setting up call centers overseas was a better idea than operating them out of prisons - talking to foreigners is certainly better than unknowingly talking to convicted felons - but sometimes I just want to say my phone number one time, not five. It's nice to be understood the first time.

A few months ago, our family discovered that my elderly uncle's abusive ex girlfriend had signed up for several life insurance policies in his name, appointing herself as beneficiary. This was obviously a big issue, so we called to cancel those policies right away. One conversation, however, stood out.

My mother made the calls because she holds power of attorney over my uncle's affairs; she is also elderly, and hard of hearing. On this one call, she couldn't understand anything the representative was saying, so I asked her to give me the phone. I was amazed; his Indian accent was so thick that even I had trouble understanding him.

I'm pretty good at understanding even the most pigeon of English; I lived in Russia for about 6 years and was active in the vibrant expat community over there. Danes, Swedes, Germans, French, South American, Romanian ... if they spit out something in English, I would make every effort to understand it. Especially since my Russian was far from "native."

But this life insurance rep? I was having real trouble understanding him, and it upset me. I asked where he was, and he honestly answered that he was in India.

"India?!?!" I replied.

I was already frustrated with having to deal with the scheming of my uncle's abusive, thieving ex girlfriend, but to add insult to consternation, the life insurance rep wasn't even in the United States!

And for anyone not understanding why I would be so frustrated about this, lemme spell it out for you: Imagine an elderly woman or man losing their spouse, and having to call the life insurance company so they could get money for the funeral. This elderly person is most likely hard of hearing. And in that moment of extraordinary stress and grief, they call someone they need to talk to and get ... Apu. Only Apu speaks English a lot better and doesn't have such a heavy accent.

I asked the rep how the insurance company could justify operating their only call center in India, and the rep (who was, by the way, very professional and helpful) said he would pass this concern on to a supervisor. Of course, there's a 50/50 chance that never happened, but at least he seemed sincere.

And shipping call centers overseas was only one facet to this gem; not only did these multinational corporations outsource their customer service overseas, they also saturated small American communities with foreigners.

My great-great-great grandfather, Cornelius Dunham, was the first white settler in Crawford County, Iowa. There weren't any native settlements there - it was more of a hunting ground - and that was where the natives suggested Cornelius should settle. Cornelius was always respectful to the natives, being careful not to get involved in any local drama between the tribes, and gave strict orders to never disrespect them, and especially never disturb the burial mounds on his property.

The area remained predominantly white until the late 1990s, when the local packing plants started bringing in Mexicans, both legal and illegal, to work in their plants. At first, these outsiders fit in as well as could be expected; white newcomers were often treated with an equal amount of mistrust and disrespect for the first few years.

But then, these packing plants brought in so many Mexicans that they overran the small community. There were more Hispanic, Spanish-speaking children in the schools than local children. The schools nearly buckled under the responsibility of having to educate all of them. This was by no means an "organic" emigration, where people arrive slowly over many years, allowing people time to acclimate to their new neighbors; but rather this large town was overrun with foreigners within the span of 2-3 years.

You couldn't find an Iowa flag in the local stores, but there were Mexican flags aplenty.

Donna Reed's hometown of Denison, Iowa, is now filled with Taquerias and stores selling sparkly, frou-frou Quinceanera dresses. Phone card and Western Union ads - all of them in Spanish - emblazon many storefronts alongside the old five and dime, medical equipment center and Cronk's cafeteria. The kinks seem to have been worked out.

Although the anxiety and excitement surrounding these new residents seems to have settled down, this emigration also had a dark side; the KKK looked to gain popularity in this community in which it had never gained a foothold.

The infamous receipt.
The infamous receipt. | Source

Unfortunately, Sadie, you are an innocent bystander. It doesn't matter that you were born here. It doesn't matter that you were raised here. What matters is that people have been so overwhelmed for so long that they are nearly at their breaking point.

You probably don't even have to be (half) Mexican. You could be gay or transgender. You could be a breastfeeding mother. You could be Russian. You could be black. You could be ... a liberal. People are looking for an outlet for their anger and unfortunately, you were that outlet. People have a million reasons to be angry, and no way to express it. Those companies who ship all their call centers overseas? Who can you complain to? Those packing plants that almost destroyed small, midwestern communities by bringing in hordes of foreigners? Those small communities don't dare say a thing, or they'll lose all that tax revenue. Corporations have created a situation where there is no way to make them change, and no real people to yell at.

Which, to me, is pretty scary because this anger has no real focus. There are no predictable victims. This is a result of those people in control of our credit cards, student loans, bank accounts, mortgages, car payments and governments not having names or faces. Entities, not people, control everything we do. There is no one person to be mad at. There is no one to complain to.

You didn't deserve that comment, Sadie. Unfortunately, people are looking for someone - anyone - on which to take out their anger. It has little to do with race or xenophobia; by insulting your ethnicity, they were just being opportunistic. I'm not asking you to forgive them, but I am telling you it could get much worse before it gets any better.


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