How I Overcame my Fear of Racism
By Stev Fair
Racism seems to be a hot topic nowadays. Allow me to shed a little light on my personal experience with it. You see, before I was an author, songwriter, and entrepreneur, I was a sales rep in living in Texas.
I was raised in a small diversified suburb outside of Detroit. My parents were incredible parents who raised their children with all the love and support that they could give them.
In 1980, I found myself right in the middle of the greatest recession since the Great Depression. The Auto industry was in the doldrums and had infected every industry sector. The newspaper want ads had practically disappeared. I was a married father of two at the young age 23. The bleak job scenario left me no choice but to seek job opportunities in greener pastures. It seemed like everyone around me was packing up and moving out of Michigan. Many were headed to the booming oil town of Houston, Texas.
I was hesitant to the idea of moving there as the previous year I had visited Galveston, Texas located 50 miles outside of Houston for a job interview with Quaker Oats. I remember finishing the job interview around 5pm and stopping for a quick bite to eat before returning to Houston International to catch my flight home. I will never forget the headlights of my rented mercury cougar as they illuminated the tall billboard a hundred some yards ahead of me just before sunset. The billboard read “WELCOME TO THE HOME OF THE KNIGHTS OF THE KU KLUX KLAN!” The sudden reality that I was in the deepest of the South ran through my mind. I recalled the horrifying tales of the Klan told by several of my African-American uncles and cousins to scare the younger kids. Not only did I hear those stories but also remembered years of instructions and warnings of how to handle myself whenever I traveled to the south to visit my relatives in Atlanta, Georgia.
After running out of every available job option in Michigan, I ran into a guy I knew who had landed a job as a headhunter for Wendy’s. He interviewed me in Detroit and hired me on the spot. I packed my car for the move to Houston to take a job as an assistant manager of one of the many Wendy’s restaurants. My family would follow me after I found an apartment and settled in. The job was not for me and I only lasted three months. It was dangerous work to me. Several restaurants had been robbed, and a McDonald’s manager down the street from my restaurant had been shot dead during a robbery. After one of my high school employees pointed out a bullet hole in the floor of the manager’s office that had been put there during a robbery, I decided to move on. The thought of my boys growing up without their father was just too much for me to bear.
Shortly afterward, I was able to land a job as a computer operator for an oil company where I worked midnights. While working for the oil company, I had experienced several racial “run-ins” with my white boss over talking too much to a white co-worker. There was definitely a stark difference from being around whites where I grew up in Michigan. The school system I attended was incredibly diverse so this openly racial tension was a harsh reality to me. In Texas, I was called the N-Word by whites so many times that I became desensitized to the word.
Since I worked midnight on my computer job, I decided that during the day I would work part-time job as a commissioned Sales Rep for the American Automobile Association better known as “AAA.” I had only minimally worked there for 3–4 months and hadn’t made a sale when I was laid off by the oil company as the oil boom had fizzled out. I found myself in an unemployment line that wrapped around the block. Patience is not one of my virtues and that long line finished it off. As I stood in that line, I told myself, “I’ll sell apples on the street before I stand another minute in this endless line!”
With apple sales looming in my future, I drove over to the AAA office and told Ron Tipp, my sales manager that I was all in and ready to work full-time. With no professional sales training, I failed miserably. As fate would have it, my daughter was also born at this time and I soon had to take my hat in my hand, call my dad and ask for money to pay the rent so my family would have a roof over their heads.
One day a co-worker handed me some sales training tapes from sales guru Tom Hopkins. After devouring Tom’s“How to Master the Art of Selling”sales book, I made a few sales. I also found out that I needed more training in order to make the income my family needed to survive.
At the time I was working in AAA corporate sales. Our plan for generating new revenue was to walk in and call on businesses to sell them on the benefits of enrolling their fleets into the road service program. We were also encouraged to sell individual memberships. The top sales producers at the company would cold-call at least 75–100 businesses on a daily basis.
But what was I doing every day? Sitting in my car and driving around town afraid of getting out of my car. I circled office building after office building until I was dizzy. My fear and anxiety had overwhelmed me for weeks. But, I couldn’t bring myself to call my Dad again for rent money. And what I was so afraid of?
I finally arrived at my tipping point and drove back to the AAA office to meet with Ron. Ron was a white man of Polish decent in his late forties from Minnesota. Tall and skinny, he had a nose that was so long it made Pinocchio’s look like a stub. I sat squirming in a chair across from Ron unable to put into words the fear and anxiety I felt. I couldn’t tell him about the deep personal sub-cultural beliefs that had built up inside of me over my twenty-four years. How could a white man ever understand something so deeply personal about one of his sales reps? Ron just looked on and waited patiently.
Finally, I found the strength to divulge and blurted, “Ron, these people down here won’t buy from me because I’m black!!!”
Ron burst out laughing. I mean laughing to the point of almost tears.
I asked, “What in the hell are you laughing at?” Here I was telling this man how I think racism is some serious crap, and he finds this so funny that he’s almost crying.
Finally, Ron stopped laughing and said, “You know what? When I was your age, I thought no one would buy from me because of my nose!”
Then I broke out laughing! I could see that. I mean his nose was disconcertingly long. I felt sorry for him. Then I started to relax as I realized we all have some self-esteem or fear “short” in our circuitry somewhere that we all have to strive to overcome at some point in our life.
From that important revelation on, I actually had the courage to get out of my car and see these Texas people belly to belly. I walked into a few offices and didn’t make a sale. But that didn’t discourage me.
I walked into the second office and my life forever changed. The CEO of the firm was walking out of the office as I was coming in. I introduced myself and told him what I was doing there.
He startled me as his deep, slow Southern drawl said, “Boy I don’t need a damn thing you got but it’s soooo nice to see a young man like you out here workin’ hard. I’m gonna sign up everyone in my company!”
I thought to myself, “Did he just call me boy?”
But then again, I thought, “He did call me a young man as well. Damn! But he is buying from me BECAUSE I’m Black! He said he didn’t even need AAA.”
I chuckled as I wrote up the many employees at his firm. It was a big payoff and I finally started to realize that most people in America do not care where you come from or what you look like, but that you’re honest, hard-working and have something to help them.
I threw myself into the belly of the racial beast and cut my pro sales teeth in the most racially raw environment I had ever experienced. It might be different down there now, but during the early eighties, I found the racial divide to be vast and deep.
A few days after that life altering event, I walked into another office building, and the owner of the firm came up to greet me in the strangest way. As he walked toward me, he reached into his pocket and grabbed his NAACP card and presented it to me while he shook my hand. “I’m Jewish, and I’ve been in the NAACP for over 30 years!”
I was pleasantly shocked at the way he presented the card to me. Here I hadn’t even spoken a word, and this successful business person is telling me he is a card-carrying member of the NAACP. I laughed to myself as I enrolled everyone in his company because I WAS BLACK! I loved that guy! He was a highly successful businessperson, and before I left his office, I asked him if we could do lunch as I was interested in being around anyone who had built a company from scratch. I was surprised when he said, “Anytime, just call me.” We had lunch several times and remained in contact until I moved back to Michigan.
Shortly afterwards came the scary lessons in overcoming my fear of racism. It was not part of our job requirement to cold call door-to-door in residential areas, but I was beginning to see some nice commission checks, and with three kids, I was hungry to earn some extra income. One particular sunny Saturday, I decided to go door to door in a white neighborhood. I went to a house and knocked on the door. A man came to the door carrying a .357 magnum which he held up in the air as he drawled out, “Get out of my neighborhood BOY!” I was staring into this man’s racial reality.
As I walked down his walkway and started back to my car I thought, “You can’t let him put fear into you that easy!”
I decided to go to the next house and knocked on the door. No one was home. As I walked to the next house a beautiful brunette lady saw my badge as she walked to the door. She swung the door open and in her lovely southern accent said, “Come on in here and have a seat! I meant to call your company! Great timing young man! You want something to drink? It’s hot out there! Are you hungry, did you eat lunch?” She said all of this without breaking the conversation she was having on her cordless phone. She talked on the phone steadily while I wrote up her membership.
I thought, “You almost let a racist bastard scare you away from this super sweet woman and this commission you’re writing up!” Man, I was cutting my teeth for real. Five minutes earlier a man pulled a gun on me because I was black, but his neighbor slings her door wide open to me and even serves me lunch! “I can do this! I can judge each person on their merit or defect! I can’t AFFORD to group everyone together as it could cost me big money!
Soon I rose into the top 100 of all AAA Sales Reps Nationally. My name appeared regularly in the National Sales Newsletter. I thought I had arrived, but my courage was about to get tested in a way that would embolden me forever.
One late, sunny Saturday afternoon, Ron Tipp and I were the only two in the office. Ron received a call asking for a rep to come out to write up a membership. Ron said, “Hey, I have a lead here out near Galveston, it’s about a thirty mile drive. Do you want it?”
I said, “Yeah I’ll go out there.”
The scene was something out of a horror film. It was a dusty forlorn road way out in the country. The address was an old run down former warehouse. I drove up and what did I see? Sixty to seventy motorcycles parked out front of this gloomy building.
I said to myself, “Damn a biker gang!” Then, of course, I thought about the KKK billboard I had seen a couple of years before in Galveston. I sat in my car for at least five minutes contemplating whether or not I was going to enter that building or turn my car around and burn rubber out of there. It seemed like forever, but I didn’t have it in me to go inside. Then reality, as it always does, kicked in. I had a family to feed and the only way they were going to eat and have a roof is if I made myself get out of the car.
I opened the door and slowly made my way to the old, rundown door. Then things got even more ominous. A guy opened the large door to the warehouse and, when he closed it, he slowly locked eight large deadbolts. I watched with wide eyes as he painstakingly locked each one.
When the sound of the last large lock squeezed shut, I thought to myself, “Well boy you’re in it now!” I turned around and saw sixty to seventy big, burly, tattooed, long haired rednecks drinking beer and playing pool. The place had been gutted and transformed into a party hall or whatever else they did in that joint.
I said to myself, “Your limited courage has landed you right where you don’t need to be!”
Finally, the leader walked up to me. He was a good-looking guy about 5’11 and in pretty good shape. He smiled as he walked up and shook my hand. Thank goodness the two of us hit it off! But I still wondered what in the hell does a motorcycle gang need emergency towing for?
The leader said, “I need the AAA bail bond service in case I get into trouble on the road.”
I thought, “Ah ha, this guy gets into much trouble out there.”
Then some guy yells over to him, “Hey man, what’s going on over there?”
The leader yells back, “Oh, I’m joining AAA for the bail bond service.”
The guy said, “Oh man I need that bail bond stuff too!”
Next thing I know I am sitting at the leader’s desk writing up membership after membership and sipping on a beer. I left that place with close to $3500 in cash! I had just earned in one evening about what I made in a month! Those guys were very kind to me. I drank a couple of beers, and when I drove off, I knew I had mastered all of my fear of racism and every other “ism!”
Ten years later I was back in Michigan. By then, I had started a security alarm company. At the time I had twenty-two employees. I had six sales reps that I had personally trained. One of the reps was Al. He was a short white guy who had been a sales rep for a year. We went on several meetings together that year. One day we were having lunch and something made me ask him if he thought I had ever sold to any racist people. His answer astounded me.
He said, “All the time! All the time!” My head flew back as I looked at him with narrowed eyes. He looked for words to explain it after he realized I wanted him to elaborate. “See, you have a way that disarms anyone who thinks like that. For some reason, they don’t sense that type of thing in you. They don’t feel that.”
I said, “Al, you’re correct they don’t feel that fear because it’s not in me. I mastered holstering my judgment on anyone until I find out who they are. I can’t afford to prejudge people. It’s not in me so it never comes up with them. Even if I’m talking with the biggest bigot in the world, I transcend that and find some common ground. I might say something like, hey, did you see the game the other day? How about those Astros? Did you catch any fish the last time you were out? Because I control my thoughts and emotions, I never allow it ever to be about race or culture. We’re all Americans, and that’s all that matters to me. If you have no need for my product or service, then that’s fine, but if I can help you solve a problem you have then I will do it in the most reliable way imaginable. I will treat you fairly. Hard work and fairness are the values all people desire from anyone who does business with them regardless of where you come from or what you look like. Deep in the sub-conscious mind, there is always something that makes people try to understand each other.”
A friend of mine who’s a physicist told me, “Racism is like gravity: it’s everywhere! However, you can’t let it stop you from flying. Look at pilots and astronauts. Gravity should prevent them from flying high, but they fly high ANYWAY!” Good advice not only in race relations but also for life in general.
Copyright © 2016 BY Stev Fair
Stev Fair is the Author of Love Reveals: A Novel