Racism and the Service Industry

In this blog I’ve decided to outline my history in the service industry here in the Cleveland area and the different aspects of racism I’ve encountered or witnessed.

I started at Jillian’s Billiard Club in Cleveland Heights.  Many of my friends questioned why I worked at such a “ghetto” bar.  Now, granted it wasn’t the nicest place but it was a job.  On certain days I would work the pool leagues which were primarily black patrons.  Many of them didn’t drink during the league as they were competing to win and only drank water.  On those days, even though all I did was refill water glasses, the men always tipped me and I would make at least $100.  For water.  Also, when I started I was the only white girl who worked there.  I remember one time when another server needed to ask me whether or not I had picked up a new table.  She said, “they said the white girl came over and you’re the only white girl, so do you have them?”.  On a regular basis I had sexual comments made toward me from black men because of the shape of my body which was something they apparently hadn’t seen on a white girl before.  I was also regularly asked where I was from because it didn’t seem like I was from that area or neighborhood.  Growing up in a small town in a mostly white neighborhood, this was something I had definitely not heard before.

After Jillian’s I worked at Uptowne Grille on Euclid, near the Case campus.  It was owned by Moroccans who happened to have little respect for women.  The owner and his friends and family (all male) would come in and dirty up a few tables and always expect me to clean it up even though several of them also worked there.  Because we served food until 2am we often had  a late night crowd coming home from the bars and clubs downtown.  I began to know exactly what to expect based on what my customer looked like.  Racial profiling for ordering drinks and food?  Sure, I guess so.  But I was usually right and it was a hard habit to drop.  I can still remember, the usual order was chicken and shrimp alfredo with a glass of moscato, a shot of patron chilled and maybe some chicken wings.  I was forcing my customers to live up to the stereotypes that society has created for them and unfortunately, it worked.

I now work at restaurant a in Tremont and have a second job in Westlake.  They couldn’t be more different.  Last night I was working my job as a bartender at an Italian restaurant in Westlake.  Since I’m not from around there, what I know of the area is based on my limited time spent there between work, school and Crocker Park.  Based on these three locations, I would assume that most of Westlake’s residents are white and from the upper middle class.  The restaurant I work at has a large staff of servers, bartenders and cooks and everyone is white.  I can count on one hand how many times I have seen nonwhite customers come into this establishment.  The thing that gets me is the number of inappropriate comments that are made against people of other races here.  One of my coworkers used to work at Dave and Buster’s and has made numerous comments about how horrible the first of the month would be when poorer people would be able to cash their welfare checks.  His comments are usually directed mostly at African Americans.  Friends of his come in frequently on Friday nights and sit at the bar to “entertain us”.   Most of the time, I feel extremely awkward with the number of racial and/or sexual jokes that are made.  Obviously I think these sort of jokes or comments are completely inappropriate, especially when you do not know how another person will react.  It may be fine for them to joke about these sort of things when only my coworker is around as he clearly feels similarly.  However, they know nothing about me nor my background so the fact that they choose to make these comments as if everyone feels the same is pretty well, ballsy in my book.

Now at my job in Tremont, we had people from every walk of life and of different ethnicities and races.  I have coworkers who groan about waiting on tables of different ethnicities or especially if the hostess seats them with an all black table.  We all know the stereotypes, they’ll be a ton of work and leave you nothing at the end of the night because they’re cheap.  I once asked a friend of mine who is black about this and she said that most of the time it’s because they might know better.  Whatever the reason, it happens.  It happens whether the table is black, white, brown, whatever.  Some people are crappy tippers and you still have to give them the service they deserve.  It may be the one night they get to go out because money is tight but still want to have one good night out with a significant other or their family.  Who are we, as servers to judge who gets better service based on what our customers look like?  I’ve had plenty of upper-middle class looking white people tip me only 10%.  It’s a gamble every time.

As I said earlier, the thing that continues to surprise me are the comments that coworkers will make when they see people walk in the door.  A few weekends ago a large group of young black males walked in and a coworker made a large humphing sound, rolled his eyes and made some racist comments.  Another coworker straightened him out however; she had waited on them earlier and let him know that several of them were in the Marines and had just gotten back from Iraq and were celebrating a friend’s birthday.  That shut my other coworker up.  Regardless, he should not have even thought about voicing his opinions in front of us not knowing how we would react.

The key here is ignorance.  Ignorance toward other races and ethnicities as well as toward the fact that not everyone shares the same opinion even if we are from the same race, class, gender, whatever.

I’m heading to work now and hoping for a smooth, racism-free night!

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