We heard on the news the other day, in something we didn't pay much attention to, that a family in Arizona was coming up against slavery charges. At the time, Colin scoffed, thinking that it was probably an over-zealous prosecutor.
And then I read this article this morning (read it before you read the rest of this post). It doesn't sound at all like an over-zealous prosecutor to me. In fact, it seems frighteningly accurate, and strikes way too close to home.
I went to school in Flagstaff. The I Do I Do/Sweet Nothings store is right on the main road in town. It is a large, grey brick building, with a painted sign split between the two store names, despite being clearly one store. (That link is to a store review--creepy as hell now that the allegations have been made.)
I went in a few times while I was a student. It was half bridal boutique, half lingerie/sex shop. The bridal boutique wass sort of cheap and ordinary; the lingerie was racier than what else could be found in Flag, and there was a selection of sex toys. I remember thinking it was oddly juxtaposed with the bridal stuff (a virgin/whore complex if ever there was one), but chalked that up to a cultural difference or just typical Flag store eccentricity.
I only ever saw Asian women in the store, you see. I guess now they must've been Vietnamese, but I wasn't saavy enough then to be able to identify their nationality. I remember specifically the woman who sold me a pair of shoes--she was middle aged, incredibly sweet, tiny, attentive. I remember less well the woman who sold some friends and I a lingerie set for a bridal shower, but recall that she was pleasant, too.
When the article got posted to my newsfeed today, a friend said something about the vibes in that store always being weird. She's right. When I closely examine my memory, it was uncomfortably low-ceilinged, and the florescents were sort of dim, and there were no windows. And there were always so few customers. There was an air of desperation about it. I took it to be the desperation of a store that might go out of business, but who knows what happened to those women if they didn't make a sale . . .
Anyway. I am sort of shocked, and feel horribly guilty, that I on two occasions appear to have directly funded human trafficking. The phrase "dead Chinese" and all its awful connotations have been haunting me ever since I watched Biutiful; I have for a long time simultaneously worried about people being exploited to bring me cheap goods and attempted to push it out of my mind. Who has time to research the business practices--usually overseas--of every company for every product they buy? Who has the money to only buy things labelled "fair trade?" And yet I never dreamed I had bought something from the hands of someone who had literally been enslaved.
And the net of my mind pulls in other experiences: the first time I got a pedicure, for instance, at one of those prolific, oddly-named nail shops in a strip mall. There was one man, very bossy, presumably Vietnamese, scolding a herd of women as they attended to customers; and I remember distinctly the phrase "white privilege" floating indelibly up to the surface of my consciousness. Here I was, white, sitting in something very like a throne, with a tiny Asian woman, head bowed, washing and pruning my feet. I didn't like the man in charge. I didn't like the vibe in that place. And now I wonder how well anyone keeps an eye on those sorts of businesses. Was that vibe I got just one unpleasant man? Are those women being treated perfectly well and legally? Or were there other people being illegally and horrifically exploited just under my nose? What about the countless businesses I've patronized without getting any bad vibes at all?
We tend to forget, in this part of the world, that Mexicans aren't our only illegal immigrants. We also forget that that phrase doesn't only mean that they're exploiting our country's benefits, as so many of the pundits and down-home whitefolk would have us believe. It is far more horrifying that "illegal immigrant" very easily means that we are exploiting them.