Read Part 1 here.
When I realized the ages–and potential political leanings–of the people I would be contacting, I immediately prayed that the autodialer odds would ever be in my favor, allowing me to zip through the list without actually having to hold a conversation with anyone. Despite the fact that it was literally my job to talk to people, I spent nearly every shift at Telefund hoping that no one would pick up the phone. Around 40% of that was about me, an introvert, being very picky about how often I socialized, and with whom. The other 60%, though, was about the fact that I honestly wanted to get paid to do absolutely nothing and/or kiki with my new friends.
The “cool kids” of Telefund–the majority of whom were also Black–mostly worked the 5pm-9pm shifts. By way of a friend who I had met the year prior, at freshman orientation, I gradually found my place among that crowd. My transition from awkward loner to cool kid affiliate was not without difficulty, though, mostly because nearly all of the student callers in that group knew each other before college even began. Either they’d grown up in Detroit, or they were part of a program which took place the summer before their first semester at Michigan: Bridge. For some folks, it was both. If you were Black and neither of those things applied to you, and nobody had really seen you around campus? An abundance of side eyes. I’m certain you can deduce that I received said side eyes.
But the initial side eye, I brought upon myself. On one of our breaks, a group of student callers were having what I now know to be a debate without an expiration date. Though I had no dog in the fight, I chimed in–snarkily, of course–and said something like “How are yall sophomores in college and still arguing about whose high school was better?”
A grave mistake.
The Renaissance and Cass Tech grads briefly suspended their shade exchange to look at me quizzically. After what felt like at least 45 seconds, but was probably a smooth 3, one of them said: “Why you mad? You went to King or some shit?”
Before I had a chance to come up with a witty retort, another person chimed in: “She probably went to Finney. Shit, I’d be mad too.”
The entire group erupted into laughter. Sufficiently embarrassed, all I could muster was: “Umm…neither. I moved a lot, so I went to three high schools, and none of them were in Detroit. I actually graduated in Nebraska.”
“Oop! So where are you from, originally?”
Unintentionally in unison, a few of the people in the group repeated my hometown in a “valley girl” voice clearly meant to mimic mine: “Rochester Hillllllllllls.”
My friend from orientation–a Renaissance graduate–could see that I wasn’t quite cut for this workplace version of The Dozens, and got everyone to ease up. The relief was temporary, though; everyone continued to crack jokes, at every shift. But honestly, getting to the point that I could handle incessant jokes–about my voice, my hometown, and the fact that I lived in an uppity women’s dorm with Friday teas and male visitation hours, to name a few–and also clap back a bit, became my “in” to the group. We bonded over shared academic interests; Michigan football; mutual hatred for The Ladder; and general annoyance with the rudeness of most of the people we called.
Suffice it to say that my conversation with “Ms. Owl” would have made for quite the bonding experience that night, if I hadn’t been so upset after speaking to her.
For the first few hours of my shift, things went exactly as I wanted. Part of the finesse of doing calls from 5-9 pm was that from at least 5-6, most people were driving home from work. Add to that the fact that in 2006, home phones were way more of a thing than cell phones, and another facet of the finesse was that we were often calling phones that could not be answered. From 6-8ish, it got a little more dicey. You might get folks on the phone, but you also might avoid a pickup because dinner was being prepared, or eaten.
The odds had been in my favor from 5-8 pm. With the sounds of repeated dialing, ringing, and hanging up as my background music, I’d done little more than play snake on my shiny new Motorola RAZR; talk trash with my friends; and eat the free pizza our managers had brought up for break. Then, my dreams of a perfect shift–where “perfect” meant I hadn’t had to talk to anyone–were dashed.
The ever-lengthening snake on my phone screen crashed into a wall, and I held in a stream of profanities as I launched into The Script.
“Hi! Is this Ms. Owl?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Hi Ms. Owl, I’m Brittney, a student here at Michigan, and I’m calling from Telefund. We’re reaching out to our alumni base. Do you have a moment for me to make sure we have the correct contact information for you?”
The “let me update your address and whatnot” part of the script was meant to be a finesse which kept people on the phone, but it usually ended up inciting anger when people realized it was being used as a gentle segue into asking for an obscene amount of money. Ms. Owl was no different.
“Thank you so much for that information, Ms. Owl! While I have you on the line, I was wondering if I could have your support for the University’s general fund. It’s an especially huge help to out-of-state students like myself, who have increased costs of attendance. Would you be willing to commit to a donation of $500, to support–”
Ms. Owl stopped me dead in my “Spare any change, my good sista?” tracks. (If you caught that reference, you real.)
“I’m not willing to commit to any donation, ok? Not while that Mary Sue Coleman is saying she supports affirmative action. Just terrible.”
Biting the side of my tongue, I inhaled deeply, adjusted my headset, and prepared to eloquently move down The Ladder without cursing out someone’s granny.
“I understand your frustration, Ms. Owl. This is a very politically charged time. But no matter where we stand on the issues, I think we can agree that all students need our suppor–”
Foiled again. I couldn’t even get to a dollar amount that time. And then, it began:
“All students? No. No they don’t. Those ones who shouldn’t even be there, they don’t need support. You’ve got all these Black kids, La-TEE-no kids, ok, getting in with low GPAs and ACT scores, taking the spots of qualified white students. It’s not right.”
Just as I was about to interject, the kicker came.
“You oughta be grateful that no one took your spot.”
The previous pieces of this conversation are paraphrased because…well it’s been 12 years. Like, what do you want from me; come on. But that line? Burned into my brain. Because in that moment, it completely dawned on me that she was speaking so freely–and so ignorantly–because she thought I was white.
Current me might have trolled her, agreeing with her piss-poorly-informed logic, and feigning investment in the plight of the white woman in America. Then I would have calmly revealed my Blackness, stellar high school GPA, and poppin ACT score, before hanging up right in her stupid face.
I was not current me, though. I was 19-year-old me. And 19-year-old me was far more sensitive, and far less versed in the art of the diplomatic drag.
So, still in shock from the audacity of her statements, I simply hung up. Rather than restarting the autodialer, I quietly took off my headset and packed up my things. My nostrils dramatically flaring–half because I was taking deep breaths to keep calm, and half because I was holding back tears–I made my way to the sketchy elevator for the last time. Because I was DONE done, ok.
I didn’t stop to ask if the managers had been screening the call. I didn’t stop to talk trash with my friends. And because young, immature, and goofy, I didn’t ever formally quit; I just stopped requesting shifts. Another thing I didn’t do–and for that, I am grateful–was write down Ms. Owl’s number, so that I could call back later and let her have it. I was certainly tempted, though.
But I chilled, in part because one of the things my father would constantly tell us growing up was that “One of the best responses to racism, is excellence.” And so, despite quite a bit of hell, high water, and hardship along the way, I graduated not once, but twice, from one of the best universities in the world, Craig.
The epitome of Black excellence.
And what is Ms. Owl doing? A few possibilities:
A) Nothing, because she has gone on to glory.
B) Aging like an avocado.
C) Reading this blog with the font on her screen sitting at a solid 64, and a disapproving frown on her face.
In my ideal world, the answer is C. In which case…
Hey sis! On a scale of Lay’s Original to Dead Sea, how salty are you that I’m typing this while sitting across from my diplomaS? Drop your answer in the comments. 😉