I think the first time I struggled to comprehend racism, or at least an accusation of racism was in high school. I worked in a Christian bookstore. Working in a Christian bookstore means you field a lot of odd ducks, with weird complaints. These complaints range from playing demonic rock music like Michael W. Smith to wanting to know why we would carry anything outside of a King James Version of the Bible. To say that Christian bookstores attract some kinds of crazy is an understatement.
But one complaint caught me off guard. The store’s music section was racist. This… startled me. At first, it struck me as a silly complaint without merit. Until the customer pointed something out. It was not, actually, that we had a section called Black Gospel. That was a designation that was tied to the fact that, at the time the use of Gospel as a descriptor for Christian music was happening. As the Gospel Music Choirs were largely tied to African American Churches, the additional descriptor didn’t initial cause problems.
What had happened over the years is our music section became segregated. We had alternative music, pop, metal and Black Gospel. Guess where every single Black musician was to be found. Leon Patillo and Philip Bailey were clearly pop music. Where did we put them? They were in the Black Gospel section, of course. If you were too look through the other music categories? All white artists. Eventually, we did add a rap section, which was filled with White rappers as well.
I kid about that last part. The rap section was actually pretty diverse. We figured if you had baggy pants or wore a baseball cap backwards? Must be a hippity hop rapper.
But seriously, I fumbled around the situation… at the time I was a very conservative, and bristled at such an accusation of racism as “playing the race card”. Thankfully, I was smart enough to not say something so supremely insensitive and stupid to the customer. Because…she was right. I thought about it… and as the music section guy at the store, decided it was time to fix things. I wanted that section to be the best in the entire store. I wanted people to always feel like this was a store where we understood their musical “needs”. I got more versed in artists I was not familiar with to make sure I was placing them in the right section. This helped beyond the Gospel section to make the entire department better. It made me a better employee and more knowledgeable.
But most of all? It challenged me to look outside my own perspective regarding race a little more. Not unlike my friend who gave me a description of a character to draw and was caught off guard… he was black and the character was black in his head… and I drew a blonde white guy. It opened my eyes a little more. And for I that, thank you customer I whose name I never knew.