Why you should care

Because there are plenty of small steps in long journeys.

I enjoyed helping Mrs. H. She had boosted my confidence during my first week, after she called me handsome. Handsome and dapper, she called me. It didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, though. She put me at ease.

Unlike the client Sue gave me a demonstration with, as I shadowed her for my new role as a business banker for one of the nation’s biggest banks. The role was a step down from my previous job as a financial adviser at an elite wealth management firm in Washington, D.C. Now, here I was in Belmont, Massachusetts, and after two months of searching, and with literally less than $30 in my account, I was ecstatic to land this gig.

“It is lower than what you are qualified for,” the recruiter had said, ”and although it is kind of a pay cut, you have a great opportunity for growth, bonuses and commissions in addition to your salary.…” She sounded like she expected me to reject the offer.

But this was my lifesaver. I could finally pay my overdue bills. With my MBA, accounting degree and more than three years’ hands-on experience in the industry, I had thought I would be a shoo-in for the elite firms. At least that’s what I was told before I left Washington. And after getting rejected for jobs following 15 interviews, I finally had a salary again. So, damn right I was treating this like a CEO-type, groundbreaking career move: I was on a roll, and nothing could stop me.

“Hmm … but don’t you feel awkward, when you’re coming to work and you’re the only Black face in the area?”

Consequently, I was unruffled during my first week when, as Sue was training me by having me sit in on a live transaction with clients, John, a red-bearded, bespectacled client, said, “A Nigerian at the bank, are we safe?”

Perhaps I should have been impressed that he could recognize where I was from based on the name displayed conspicuously on the name tag fixed to my suit, just above my heart. But I wasn’t. Instead, I smiled, without making eye contact. Unperturbed, John continued.

“So what brings you from Chocolate City to this lily-white town?”

“Just looking for newer opportunities, a change of city … and I have heard so many great things about Boston. Plus, I really loved the movie The Departed.”

“Hmm … but don’t you feel awkward, when you’re coming to work and you’re the only Black face in the area?”

“Really, until you just mentioned it, I wasn’t even aware of that. I mean, I don’t walk around holding a mirror up to my face, like ‘I am Black and they’re all white.’’’

John chuckled and, for the first time, I could see a twinkle in his eyes. And then, “Very confident. I like that.”

Afterward, Sue, an Asian-American, whose fiancé was Black, teased me, “I think he fancies you!”

westlaw photo

The author at work, rest and play.

Source Courtesy of Olurotimi Osha

“Well, he should have been nicer then. I don’t fancy him.” But Mrs. H had come just before him, and been much nicer to me. She’d been my lucky charm. Mrs. H was an octogenarian and immediately acted maternally toward me, as she introduced me to most of the regular faces milling about the bank lobby. Belmont, the wealthy community, where former Gov. Mitt Romney lived, was a tight-knit community, where everyone smiled, and everyone, usually, was pleasant to each other.

Then, after two months of helping Mrs. H, who always looked so cheerful and enthusiastic that it appeared her raison d’être was to unite everyone, told me “the” story. She was a Holocaust survivor. Although I hadn’t paid attention before, now I noticed the telltale numbers on her arm. And then she said something that puzzled me, as her story brought tears to my eyes, “You know, the Germans are so efficient.”

There was no malice in her voice as she related her part in one of the worst crimes against humanity. She receives a regular check from Germany, which I monitored on her behalf. I thought I may have even detected a hint of admiration for the “people.” Not for the Nazis, of course.

Discrimination and ethnic and religious bigotry are not to be taken lightly. Genocide has occurred in places where people once treated victims well. The Holocaust occurred in a nation where Jews had thrived — where their neighbors had once smiled at them, and been outwardly pleasant and friendly.

As Mrs. H got up from her chair to leave the office, I was still overcome by emotion. I could not get up. She smiled and left. It took a moment before I regained my composure. As I threw the damp tissue into the garbage can, I turned around, and there was John, my red-bearded, bespectacled client. He smiled.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.