Respecting Those Who Serve Us

Working in most any service industry is hard. Working in fast food just plain sucks. The hours are long, the pay is terrible, and far to often, the customers treat you like you are somehow less than human once you place that “McDonald’s” hat on your head.

I used to work at Subway, which in the hierarchy of fast food garnered me more respect than if I had worked at, say, Burger King or Taco Bell. Even there, though, people yelled at me for putting peppers on their cold cut trio, berated me for the fact that we were out of honey oat bread after the lunch rush, and one person even threw their sandwich back across the counter at me because it was cold when it was supposed to be hot.

With that in mind, I always try to greet those serving me with a smile and leave them with a thank you. This morning I stopped by a fast food joint in the terminal at Denver International Airport before boarding a flight to Earlham College in Richmond, IN. Most of the women at the counter seemed to be East-African immigrants, likely from Somalia or Ethiopia considering the size of populations from those places in Denver. I smile and place an order, double checking the monitor to make sure I heard right when the young woman said, “$6.76, please” through her gorgeous accent.

As I waited for my order, I watched a middle-aged white man struggling to understand the woman serving him. Though she was speaking perfect English, she did speak with an accent. He got more and more frustrated, slamming his money on the counter, shaking his head and saying, “Learn to speak English.”

I could see the frustration in the young woman’s face as she undoubtedly thought, “What language am I speaking?”

You see, it’s tough to work in fast food, but’s even more difficult when you work in fast food and have dark skin or speak English with an accent.

Racism is alive and well. It may not look the same as it used to, but it’s everywhere. It’s in a muttered epithet, in a shake of the head, or sometimes it just stays inside, boiling and festering until we can allow it to spill out when we’re in the safe company of those we know will sympathize.

As I now sit by my gate and ponder the occurrence, a few different things trouble me.

1. Why is it that we as a society feel so entitled as to treat those who serve us with such disrespect?

2. What more could we ask of immigrants than was demonstrated by this young woman? She has a job, she pays taxes, she speaks English fluently… Should she somehow unlearn her first language’s tonal expression to “talk American?”

3. I didn’t say anything to the man, and if I consider myself an anti-racist ally, I probably should have. Would I have changed his mind? Likely not, but I think of a quote (paraphrased) from Tim Wise: “When we confront and interrupt racism, we’re not doing it to change the mind of the person we’re confronting. In fact, that may be impossible. Instead, we’re doing it so that the person watching, wondering if they have the power to do anything, can see our example and realize their own power, knowing that racism doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be tolerated. We interrupt racism simply because it’s the right thing to do.”

I don’t yet consider myself an ally. That term is a badge of honor that can be afforded to few. I wear on my wrist a bracelet that asks, “What would an ally do?” After all, being an ally means that you choose not to retreat to the privilege of silence as I did this morning. It means working for justice at all times, in every day, in every interaction. After all, that woman had no choice but to engage with racism. I did, and I chose to retreat into my privilege.

Hopefully in time I can find the courage to never to retreat, but instead to courageously and lovingly interrupt racism.

In the mean time, I will do my best to continue treating those who serve me with the respect they deserve as human beings.

Peace be the Journey.

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One thought on “Respecting Those Who Serve Us

  1. My boss surprised me this morning by throwing me in with one of the mowing crews. As the only gringo in a limited-english group, I was at first a little intimidated and started to feel a fear-based retreat coming on. I reassured myself that everything was fine, though, and tried my best to communicate with my broken Spanish and the foreman’s broken English during the ride to the first job site. Within minutes, we were laughing and joking, and that small interaction made the rest of the day not only tolerable, but enjoyable. By the end of the day, the foreman was complementing my grip on Spanish, which I’ve always felt was meager at best.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that racism is often based in a mindset of fear. Maybe the guy this morning was afraid the staff would get his order wrong, maybe it was a more general paranoia relating to the increasing cultural diversity of our home. Either way, it’s likely that his fear of something prompted his reaction. If we allow fear to be our primary emotional base, it’s a short slide into racism and other unseemly thought patterns. If we instead decide to confidently engage, however, it seems that new doors miraculously open for us, in places where we never thought to even look for a door. Perhaps you should have confidently engaged with the racist this morning, but I think the more important point is that you confidently engaged with the register operator. In a working environment in which rudeness and hostility are all too common, who knows what kind of a difference your interaction made for her day?

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