Grey Spaces: The (dis)comfort of Complacency
I've been thinking a lot about the ideas of complacency versus resistance in any sort of group setting. From your slightly racist family members, to the chef or manager who makes off-color jokes, to the friends of friends who are “nice guys” but seem to exist in a frat-based reality (that hasn't quite caught up with the major strides in transparency, awareness, and respect that we’ve made in the past five to ten years). Specifically however, I am thinking about complacency as part of our roles within hospitality. A huge influence and inspiration for me was a piece written for this publication by Bianca Sanon for the Resist issue. Bianca wrote about microaggressions in the workplace, (specifically a Michelin-starred tasting menu spot where we both worked) and the reality and struggle of needing to navigate a fine balance between being a hospitable service professional (literally it is our job to be nice to people and make them feel good) and actively turning a blind eye, or even, I would argue, allowing ourselves to be HURT by being passive in moments of problematic behavior and conversation. Bianca describes a series of interactions she had with guests, or rather, a series of statements that were directed at her, most of which she describes simply walking away from. There was an older white man who asked if she was Jamaican, and starting “dancing” at her; multiple people who “complimented her” by telling her that she looked my Michelle Obama (she doesn't); and the all-time favorite - a running commentary on her various hair styles (from twists to a fro).
Reading her piece I found myself nodding along, partly because I’ve witnessed too many of these moments, and partly because I have my own versions of them to add to the pile. We have all heard these stories. We all HAVE these stories. What is a boon for us, is that more and more restaurants are like family, they are places that look out for their own, and have started to do so outwardly and proudly as we evolve past the “customer is always right” era.
When I was new to the New York industry I witnessed something magical at a large, fairly corporate restaurant downtown - the type of place where one might assume that yes, the customer is always right. Our barista was an elderly Bengali man who had worked for the company for years. On a busy evening he was delivering coffee to a large table and accidentally spilled one of the beverages on a guest. He immediately apologized, and notified a manager of the situation, while promptly returning to his station to remake the order as quickly as possible. In short: he did everything as perfectly as he could in light of a mistake that does, unfortunately, sometimes happen. The manager, a black woman, immediately went to the table to offer a follow-up apology, as well as a card with information to cover any dry-cleaning expenses, however the gentleman in question responded with a comment along the lines of “well that's what you get for hiring people like him…” Naturally she was shocked, but didn't miss a beat, and quietly told him that that sort of language and opinion was not welcome in our establishment, and while she was sorry there had been a spill, it did not excuse his comment. Then she dropped the bill and asked him to leave.
I was so impressed with her quickness and calm in simply squashing something as disgusting as that man’s comment. She didn't hesitate. Of course, she was, it seemed to me, a fearless person in all ways - I was not surprised by her reaction. But the reason I find this moment so powerful is that she, and the barista, were supported by the GM (also a woman) and the rest of the team (mostly women of color, and one gay man). Her decision to ask the guest to leave was not questioned, and there was no disciplinary action or retaliation against her. To me, this is the most important part. The GM had intentionally built a team of diverse managers and, more importantly, actually created a work culture where they were trusted and encouraged to make decisions they believed were right and good, and THEN THEY WERE SUPPORTED. I know it seems like a small thing, but in a world where one bad Yelp review can ruin a business, a culture of strength and support such as this was something special.
I realize that I have been coddled during my time in NYC because this sort of work culture represents the majority of my experiences. The idea that your team is your family, that we are ‘ride or die’, and that going into service every day there is a feeling of ‘us vs. them’ (this is a problematic opinion for other reasons, specifically ones related to sincere hospitality, but we don’t have to get into that here) is a powerful bonding foundation to build a love and sense of community I rarely see in other industries. The point is, I have witnessed the beauty of many restaurants, places that are ripe for throwing the little guy under the bus, choosing to stand alongside the staff and prioritizing workplace safety and happiness, potentially causing the loss of future business from a problematic guest.
This is all well and good, but it is not necessarily the reality across the board. So what happens when this sense of kinship breaks down? Or what happens when it was never there to begin with? These questions can easily be witnessed in more blatant cases, like those we’ve been watching unfold in the news, of sexual harassment, or monetary misconduct on the part of owners and managers. But what about the grey spaces? What about the moments that are more in line with your slightly racist grandma? Or your frat-boy friends from college? What happens when the manager doesn't think there is a problem, or doesn't feel like dealing with it? Or when your coworkers think something just “isn't that big of a deal”? What happens when the issue isn’t with a guest, but with another coworker, or with the boss themselves?
What happens when you are here on a work visa, and feel nervous about rocking the boat because you cant lose your job because then you might not get a renewal? What happens if you are the only woman, and so you know that you have a different opinion and reception to the day to day of service than your male counterparts? What happens when you are the only black person and yet your white manager insists on playing rap music and singing along, even dropping the n-word? What happens when you’re illegal?
What do we do then?
I am a white woman so by default my place in the world is a lot less tenuous than most of the hypotheticals I’ve been describing. I am lucky enough to have had, and continue to be offered, many and varied job opportunities. I can leave a job and feel secure that I will get another one. I feel safe speaking my mind. However, by nature of my whiteness, and my education, I have also noticed that often it is assumed that I am of the same mind of the group when I am actually not. People (mostly white men) make comments in front of me that I know they would never utter in front of the POC or a queer person. There is an assumption that I am “same” and thus “safe” to be witness to jokes or opinions of the more privileged groups (meaning men, and white people). In many ways I “pass” and thus am able to participate in groups and work dynamics that (shockingly) would still be, if not formally closed, at least not as accessible to a more diverse workforce. And yet then I find myself struggling with the reality that I too do not actually belong in these spaces, and do not share the prevailing opinions or value systems, and yet I am often scared or overwhelmed with the idea of calling them out.
Complacency has come to exist for me as both a space of comfort and discomfort. As we all know, it is often easier to ‘go with the flow’ or follow the path of least resistance, especially in any sort of group dynamic where it is clear that there is a majority consensus. Now, of course, as children we participated in anti-bullying campaigns that taught us to stand up for “what’s right” and as our teachers and parents worked to help us create mini moral compasses, the generic language of the moral imperative became ingrained in our lexicon and psyche. We see it paralleled in the adult world often, with not a huge amount of growth or evolution. For example, have you ridden the subway lately? Were you urged to ‘say something’ if you ‘saw something’?
Somehow the simplistic childhood message is still present in it’s exceedingly generic phrasing. I think the dialogue we’ve created around moral vigilantism is very theoretical and topical when in reality “saying/doing something” is often fraught with tension and personal danger. That might sound extreme, but how often does the kid who stands up to the bully, or tells the teacher, end up getting hit more?
Or, perhaps more relevant to most of us hip adults, is the favorite saying: “snitches get stitches” or "Nobody likes a rat"… Obviously the implication in this phrase is that someone is breaking a rule and will be held accountable to a higher power - perhaps an adult, a parent, or the law - if they are outed. But I think it is equally relevant in the cases where the ‘majority rule’ of a group (be that a group of friends, a family, or a workplace) leans away from one person’s moral intuition. In these cases everything gets a bit muddy because there isn’t necessarily a right and a wrong, and there isn’t a ruling third party to whom each side may lay their case. So how to we reconcile these two things? How is it that we have created two cultural mantras that are in direct opposition to each other. On the one hand, being encouraged to ‘do the right thing’ but on the other hand, not to be a rat or a goody-two shoes brown-noser?
All of these people are at the mercy of their boss, or manager, or team mates. Especially if those teammates are not minorities. The question becomes, if those teammates, those people in positions of power, do not choose, or care to see, the ways in which their minority coworkers are being compromised - whose job is it to educate them? Does the onus fall on that one person, the minority? Is it fair or right to expect that person to be the HR department, or the whistleblower, or the morality compass for a group of adults who just can't be bothered to figure it out on their own, or open their eyes to see past their own experiences enough that they can recognize that perhaps the workplace where they feel so comfortable and safe is actual a place of discomfort and danger for others?
When I think back to that “magical moment” at the corporate restaurant all those years ago, what I am struck most by is the fact that it wasn’t magic. It was reality. It was the culture of the restaurant and the team that had been intentionally crafted and supported by the GM. Moments and realities like this shouldn’t be one-off anecdotes. They shouldn’t be magical moments that we write about in awe. This should be how the world works. I remember having a staff member, a white man, calmly and without malice, suggest I find a different term to use when I called a staff “pow-wow” before service. It took so little energy for him, and yet I don’t know that if the roles had been reversed I would have, or could have, done the same. He used his place in the world, as a white man, and the fact that we had a rappot of respect and open mindedness, to make a positive change, and to educate me. And I thank him every day for that.
And then I think about the times I have done something along those lines, and how often my comments are laughed off, or I am told that I am ‘overreacting’. Our industry, while vibrant and constantly focusing on innovation, is still exceedingly homogenous and status-quo, especially at the top. How are we to edit our community and our work culture when a majority of people, especially in positions of power are unable or unwilling to acknowledge anything needs to change?
And thus we come to my daily struggle. Complacency exists on multiple levels - obviously the easy one to point out is the passivity of the people in power. However, I find myself often turning a blind eye, and also witnessing coworkers and friends doing the same thing, it's simple herd mentality. So where does the responsibility for change lie? I don’t have an answer for this, and honestly I don’t think there is a simple one because this is something that causes me an immense amount of personal frustration and pain. Is it actually better, or perhaps more accurately less bad, to keep ones mouth shut, as they say, if the potential harm that would come is greater than the harm that one is passively witnessing? When you might perhaps lose your job, or at the very least alienate yourself from the group of people who you spend the most amount of time with, is it better to keep your head down and hope that the next day will be better? Or the next job?