I came to live in the US some 25 years ago, in the earnest belief that there would be no racism in my new country; I believed that this America was the greatest and most free place on earth. Clearly my impression stemmed from the context of an apartheid South Africa and an America subscribing to economic sanctions and boycotts in an attempt to bring the Apartheid regime to its knees. To me that spoke volumes.
Enter Melanie, six year Civil Rights South African Attorney, into a racist free America, Los Angeles, 1985— five years before the release of Nelson Mandela. There was nothing more unlikely than the release of Mandela, nothing less likely than a “New South Africa” and least likely an all inclusive constitution and Bill of Rights that would seek to protect all South Africans regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. That was the context of my arrival; preconceived and unlikely.
Relieved to find work, after having paid some hard labor dues as all good immigrants do, I found a job as Director of Legal Affairs for a Property Development Company in downtown Los Angeles.
My boss, stationed in his Beverley Hills enclave, so that he could snort ”goodness knows what” while directing his downtown employees via speakerphone, asked me to hire a new receptionist for the office. Having placed our ad in the classifieds (no internet at the time) he told me that he did not want me to hire a “black person.” BOMBS AWAY! I was absolutely astounded. Flabbergasted! “This is America where there is no racism,” my naive little mind endeavored to remind me.
Having left South Africa with the few dollars allowed by currency control regulations for a new life abroad, I was desperate for this job. My first job was a $5.00 an hour restaurant hostess job – I could not even qualify to wait tables as I had no prior experience and law degrees did not help.
So when I got my important job, albeit the lowest salary in the history of important jobs, I was determined to prove myself and ‘do my time,’ pending the American dream! Never before had I been asked to discriminate in this way. Even though I had lived in South Africa I believed I had escaped the confines of the system in my own personal way even at its worst, however now realizing that at least delineation by law, makes the parameters of one’s existence reliable and clear. “But here in America? How do I do that? What is going on? There is no racism here!”
Saddled with this confounding burden, and so far from the person inside of me; I questioned myself: “do I leave my precious yet disgusting job or do I find a way around this situation?” Here is where my “in the now” persona coupled with own desperation merged, as if one. I decided I would see all applicants for the job, regardless of my mandate and then deal with the choices after I found the best applicants. That would be it! I would simply let it all unfold. This was a perfect solution as far as I was concerned—a procrastinator such as myself – “don’t deal now!”
So the interviews commenced. I do not recall how many candidates I interviewed, it was a decent amount. I started the process by choosing the most suitably experienced from the resumes and then called the candidates in for interviews. Mere months in the USA, I had no idea that names could denote race and so retrospectively I know for sure that any form of consciousness around name profiling simply could not have happened.
I narrowed the process down to top three candidates and then spent time making my decision relieved that none were ‘black,’ thereby extinguishing the need to even face the problem my boss had potentially bestowed upon me.
I hired a very personable, well qualified young lady for the job. Her demeanor and qualifications were exactly what would work in our set-up. Darlene (her real name) was perfect–she had a great outward appearance, and was really smart and I truly enjoyed her company. Darlene was indeed perfect for the job and she enjoyed a good speakerphone relationship with the boss who seemed pleased with her work.
About three months into her hire the boss decided to bless us with his physical appearance. “Melanie, I thought I told you not to hire a black person!” I was puzzled, Darlene was not black!
I soon learned a few things. I learned that black in South Africa and black in America did not always involve the same physical characterizations. In apartheid South Africa there were racial classifications ascribed by law and they were: Black, Colored, Indian and White, and these were indeed significant distinctions in South Africa. Retrospectively if I were to place Darlene into a South African racial category she would probably have been classified as “colored” but never “black,” and she would have had to reside in a different area than a black person. So in my mind she was simply not black!
Well as time went by, Darlene and I struck up a friendship where we used to confide in each other; she would tell me how her boyfriend drove a Porsche and was constantly being pulled over by the LAPD because people of his color were not expected to show up in fancy vehicles. As it turned out, Darlene’s boyfriend happened to be the now celebrated actor/rapper, ‘ICE-T.’ The two of them were subject to awful racism in their leasing of apartments and through other forms of racial profiling. Helping them sparked my interest in Fair Housing and my now position as VP on the Board of Fair Housing of Marin.
Darlene was a great employee and was even promoted in her tenure. As ICE-T became more famous, she left the company to mother their baby. I left after one year as I had refused to participate in the boss’s —shall I say – “anti-tenant” behavior. I left with no job and no way to survive– but clearly made my way.
As we enter this milieu of profound racial consciousness, here in the US kids are being thrown out of clubs and pools, others are dragging effigies behind vehicles, hate crimes prevail, our President is a target of the most profound racism and I can only wonder what will it take for this insidious behavior to finally change?
After I wrote this I went online looking for links and look at what I found: an interview with Darlene –who probably does not know my side of her hiring story. She describes how she found her way in LA as a youngster and about her relationship with ICE-T.
I had no idea of the irony that the one who I believed was most qualified, had indeed faked her resume – until I read this article interview (Rap Pages – September 1999) about Darlene – who became the famous GF of ICE-T.
“Ice was still struggling to get signed in the music biz, and there was no real income coming in, so Darlene went out to find a job…Though Darlene was still very much excited about L.A., things began to get tougher. (“I had to get a job because ICE was pursuing his music and, of course, his friends were still out there doing their thing that he stopped doing. There wasn’t any big money at the time, so for him to be doing the music and his friends still making money, it was hard for him. He was totally doing his thing legit and it was hard. I was behind him. I was in love with him. I was excited and thrilled to be here, so I went out and got a job and started going to night school at Hollywood High.”) Family and friends were skeptical of Darlene living with a man in big, bad Los Angeles, but she was out to prove that she had evolved beyond the small-town confinement. Since she was already capable of typing 78 words per minute, Darlene, then 20, created a fake resume and landed a job as a receptionist at Sassoony Developing, a company responsible for constructing mini-malls around the metro L.A. area. “I loved that place because they gave me so much respect. I was the youngest person there and started off as a receptionist. I eventually moved up after a year when the nice lady who hired me (yours truly!) made me a secretary. Then I got to hire my own person for the receptionist position. It felt so good. I was excited, like, ‘I’m moving up big time…”
So all said and done I wonder 25 years later, while South Africa is now known as the rainbow Country, where diversity is a blessing and the one Country that has LGBT rights embedded in its Constitution, what has changed in America—are we content with the unbearable easiness of racism… should we sit back and let it be?
Melanie is a renowned LGBT activist and Personal Advocate. Founder of Private Courts Inc., she is the Political Editor for the popular LGBT Magazine-style News/blog www.lezgetreal.com. She serves as an appointed Commissioner on the Marin County Human Rights Commission as well as Vice President on the Board of fair Housing of Marin.