Secret Negroes are on the front lines of customer service and we are well aware of how differently we are treated based on your perceptions.

-Andrew Keahey

by Andrew Keahey

“I’m so glad I’m talking to you. That colored boy was not helpful.”

That “colored boy” was me. I had been the lone person sitting behind the desk when this man with a swastika pin on his camouflage hat came in wanting a deal on a cell phone. His wife stood by his side, never contributing to the conversation while he condescended to me over a period of about a half an hour. Even so, she managed to look at me as if I was something she’d stepped in.

Since I wouldn’t give him a phone for free, he left agitated. I suppose I would be, too, if I had gone into a business establishment expecting something free, and had been thwarted by how things work in the real world.

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I worked in a tiny store by myself in the unwelcoming town of Springfield, Ohio, where I sold AT&T cell phones and cell phone plans. I did so with no selling experience at all, which worked out well, because hardly anyone ever came in.

When they did come, it was always interesting. There were good experiences and there were bad, just like anything; but when the customers were bad, they were terrible.

This particular swastika-clad gentleman was definitely one of those. You see, after our delightful little visit (during which I felt we’d grown quite close), he decided to call back and complain about me. I had been the only employee he saw the entire time he was in my store that day, but this fun-loving Ohio nazi wasn’t going to let something like that hold him back. He didn’t like my “attitude” and dammit, he was going to let someone know about it.

I recognized his voice on the phone instantly. That same lazy drawl, impaired by light beer and shaped by what I can only assume was something beyond traditional meth. His words whistled through the spaces where teeth should have been, and he had no idea that he was talking to the same person he had already interacted with face-to-face.

When you don’t talk like what white guys think black guys talk like, the world is your oyster in the noble profession of phone support. This is how he ended up complaining about me, to me.

“I’m so glad I’m talking to you. That colored boy was not helpful.”

Sorry to Bother You is an upcoming codeswitch comedy in which Lakeith Stanfield portrays a telemarketer who realizes the stark difference in the way he is treated by people on the phone when he uses a different voice. In the recently released trailer, his officemate leans over and whispers to him, “Use your white voice.” Stanfield is then ushered into an absurd series of experiences that I feel are a reflection of my own life as a Customer Service Agent and the reality of many Black folks in this line of work.

I’ve worked in phone support for the last decade, and it’s always the same story. No matter what you’re supporting, you always have the same kinds of people calling, you’re always giving the same kinds of answers, and you always get the same kinds of responses.

It’s tedious work that’s easy to get and easier still to get sick of in a short amount of time. If it’s something that you’re thinking about pursuing, all you really need is the ability to Google things (And go for smaller companies; the ones that still have something to lose if they treat their customers like garbage, otherwise you’re going to get screaming at a lot, which gets old extremely quickly). Other than that, the only thing you really need is a voice that sounds moderately caucasian.

There’s a delightful combination of inherent racism, implicit bias, and unfair media portrayals at play here. People who talk like us are depicted as being lazy employees with bad attitudes and sporting four-inch nails, only interested in getting you off the phone so that they can get back to a personal call on the other line. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and because it’s such a prevalent image in our society, it tangibly affects the jobs and lives of real people.

In order to gain continued success in the industry, the easiest answer to all the micro-aggressive questions from Becky and Chad is to raise the pitch of our voices and over-pronounce every letter that a word has to offer. Suddenly, things are going much smoother. Helen knows from that first second of your scripted greeting that you’ve got her best interests at heart. Brent knows that you’re going to do everything you can to drop those late charges off his cable bill. It’s playing the least fun game in the world on “easy” mode.

Like the call center veteran in Sorry to Bother You, my colleagues and I call it, “Putting on your white voice.” It’s a mask that we have to wear if we don’t want every call to be a battle. Trust us when we say that when you have what you think of as a good customer service call, we feel the same way. It’s a rare breath of fresh air for us, and we hardly ever get to breathe this fresh when you know we’re Black.

RELATED: “I’m is talking right”: How the stigma around Black language holds us back from liberation

To the “I’d like to speak to the manager” customers: Beware. To you supervisor-seekers: Beware. When you call in to make complaints about your internet service or the unhelpful “colored boy” you once spoke with, you could actually be talking to Secret Negroes.

 

Secret Negroes are on the front lines of customer service and we are well aware of how differently we are treated based on your perceptions of us. And when you can’t see us with your eyes, y’all start getting bold. I’m just writing this to keep you on your toes. You’re starting to slip, white people.

I hope that I was able to address some of your concerns today. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us, and we’ll be happy to tell you exactly what you can do with those questions of yours. Thank you for calling, and have a great day.


Andrew Keahey is a horror enthusiast and writer currently based in Austin, Texas. He’s been watching horror movies since he was far too young, and primarily writes essays, short fiction, and poetry

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