Monday, April 28, 2008

white life : restaurant work

When I was a teenager, I lived in the suburbs, where I didn't know anyone who wasn't white. There was an upscale restaurant about two miles away, and since I'd heard it was a good place to work, I was anxious to turn sixteen so I could get a job there. I wanted a car, but my parents said I had to earn it.

The day after my birthday, I rode my bike to the restaurant, went through the front door, and asked a woman who was greeting lunch-time customers how I could apply for a job. She said the place needed a dishwasher, and then she led me through the restaurant's dim interior, which was full of well-dressed diners.

"That's Jerry, the head cook," she said, pointing to a man who was flipping burgers and steaks at a grill. I noticed that the grill had flames above the meat, instead of below it.

Jerry paused to say that I should've come in some other time than the "lunch rush," but that I could go and wait for him in a back room. He pointed the way with a pair of blood-soaked metal tongs. A few minutes later, he came back, asked my name and where I lived, whether I was willing to work hard, and whether I could start today.

After nodding once in response to each of my affirmative answers, Jerry handed me a form, shook my hand, and pointed down a set of stairs. "Go get changed," he said. "See you in a minute, Jim over there will teach you what to do."

Jim was a middle-aged man who must've been a "dishwasher," since that's what he was doing. He seemed too busy to even acknowledge my presence.

It was my first real job, and it didn't take me long to become an able kitchen worker. Every single person working in the restaurant was white, and nearly all of the customers were too, though that fact didn't occur to me at the time; it just seemed normal. What did take me awhile to get used to, though, was being ordered around by people who seemed so much less intelligent than me.

The cooks and waitresses, the bartenders, the "hostess," even the manager--most of them seemed to swear constantly, and they said a lot of things that I just knew were stupid things to say. I often sat down and talked with them, sometimes to fold cloth napkins or fill salt and pepper shakers, sometimes just because business was so slow that there was nothing else to do. Compared to my parents and their friends, and even to the teachers and other students at my high school, most of these people generally seemed so uninformed, so unwilling to think through things, so . . . stupid.

I didn’t think of myself as an especially smart person, but as I worked behind the scenes of this restaurant, I learned to watch what I said and how I said it, so that the workers there wouldn't call me a "smart ass." When we talked about things like politics, or movies, or TV shows, or the various topics that made up the "news," I developed the strategy of literally biting my tongue.

There were other times, though, when I didn't have to do that, because I simply had nothing to say. I was shy around the women, who sometimes tried, but mostly failed, to get me to talk. The restaurant’s other suburban-teenager workers were all guys like me, and we found it easier to feel a part of things when the men started talking.

These men--cooks and dishwashers, bus "boys," bartenders, and managers--all traveled in from the city, since they couldn't afford the kinds of houses that were nearby. They usually talked about their outside interests, like spectator sports, or the cars they were rebuilding, or the weekly card games they played, or the bowling leagues they'd joined. Whenever that happened, I soon got lost in the intricate details. I could hardly begin to understand what was supposed to be important and what wasn't, like the values of different brands for car parts that I'd never heard of, or what kind of pitch had won the previous night's baseball game, or the types of oil used on the lanes at different bowling places.

These restaurant men often joked with me and each other about my efforts to keep up with their conversations. Although I didn't realize it at the time, they were too kind to call me "stupid." I in turn never thought to be impressed by their capacity to analyze and understand the intricacies of their interests.

They also displayed their analytical skills when they talked about the work they did in the restaurant, and about how the restaurant itself was run, but again, I never thought of their often startling insights in these areas as evidence of their intellectual capacity. "Smart" was a word for people who didn't swear a lot, and who didn't have long, detailed conversations about cars and bowling and baseball games. "Smart" was for people who didn't work in restaurants.

This episode in my own white life was an encounter between members of two social classes and one race. I went to a large public high school, one with, if I remember right, about 1,300 students. As I flip through my high school yearbook now, white faces smile back at me. Page after page after page of all-American white kids. I took a more careful look today, and I saw that four of the faces are recognizably black, two Asian, and one Middle Eastern. That's, what, 99.8% white?

This sea of white faces looks kind of weird to me now. Back then, though, as far as I could tell, no one found the way we’d been surrounded by whiteness worth mentioning, or even noticing.

My father's whiteness made it much easier, perhaps even possible, for him to get a "white collar" job, and then for our family to move from the city to the suburbs, and then to feel welcome and comfortable there. I now understand that black people in particular found it more difficult to get enough money together to move out there, and then to find a real estate agent willing to show them a house, and then to find a loan officer willing to set up a mortgage, and then to find neighbors who wouldn’t come up with ways of basically chasing them out.

White Americans became white by moving away from what they were before—by bleaching it out. My family’s ancestors had become “white” by dropping their nation-based, “ethnic” differences. Our whiteness eventually allowed us to make another move, away from the marked, noticeable difference of the “working class,” into what became a more “normal” life.

My own inherited whiteness landed me in a well-funded school, one with relatively well-paid teachers, smaller class sizes, up-to-date textbooks, and an overall confidence-inspiring atmosphere. It also opened the door of a restaurant, where I became a sincere, hard-working dishwasher, as well as a friendly, companionable, well-meaning co-worker. But in a way, I was whiter than my white co-workers.

Just as my awareness of the significance of my own racial membership had been bleached away, so too did I fail to realize that I’d been trained to be a "classist" snob.


  1. Wow. That's some elitist upbringing you had the Macon. So now you've been enlightened trough some turn of events and now you're racked with white guilt. Good.
    The next step is to get over it.

  2. Welcome back, SH!

    Yes, the next step certainly is to get over it, but that phrase means different things to different people. A person could think they can "get over" something by simply dropping it, which is what the phrase usually means when someone spits it at someone else, like a piece of rotten apple.

    People could also "get over" something by trying to work through it, because they recognize that without working through it, they can't just drop it--they carry it with them, mostly unconsciously.

    I'm trying to "get over" the negative effects that my training as a white person has on myself and on others. As this post suggests, I was also raised by a suburban American environment to consider myself superior to people raised outside such an environment, and that elitist upbringing is also something I'm trying to work through, in order to "get over" some negative effects it had on me. (Thus my email address:

    What are you doing to get over your own whiteness, and/or your class-based upbringing?

  3. Macon, I had a similar upbringing. Much less affluent, but similar nonetheless.
    I consider myself one of the lucky ones. When I was in my early 20s, I worked alongside mostly blakc people and got very educated by them. They were very tolerant of my ignorance and treated my kindly while giving me a very good and thorough education.
    When I was in my 30s, I went back to school and became involved in a humanities program. I ended up getting an MA in "Cultural Studies." Most of the things I studied were based in post colonial theory and analysis.
    In the process I learned that it was OK to be proud of MY people. I also learned that while I have a responsibility for the actions of my people, I don't have to feel guilty or responsible for their past horrors. I have to recognize and acknowledge them, but not beat myself up over them. That does no one any good. I can be much more effective if I am free of the shame and guilt. The healthier I am, the better I am at helping other people.
    Often, people who feel guilty become extremists in one direction or another.
    One can be proud of their white race without being a white supremist and one can be ashamed of their race's past actions without personally taking on that shame.
    Now don't get me wrong. I've been through the whole guilt trip thing. I dated a scholarly type WOC who used to love to make me feel guilty and beat me over the head with my whiteness. She was also the one who taught me to NOT be full of white guilt and to clear my mind of such negative bullshit.
    Hope this helps define my intent.

  4. Oh, and "get over it" was a very poor choice of words on my part.
    I've gone into attack mode more than once when white people expressed the idea that people of color need to simply "get over it." Which might be a good post for you in the future.

    ie: White people like to say "get over it."


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