A Jamaican Michelle Obama
It’s 6pm on the dot and our first 2 covers are right on time.
An older (white) couple, acting as adorable as all hell, smile on their way in and I’m already thinking it’s going to be a good night. The wife heads to the bathroom as I turn to her husband to greet him and guide him to his seat.
“Are you Jamaican?”
As I try to catch my breath, deciding whether I should actually correct him or play it off, I’m faced with an attempt of what I imagine he thinks is a type of Jamaican dance -- arms out, hips twisting and all.
Still haven’t said hello.
I give him a short nod and I head back to the service station.
We’ll just try again with the next 2 top at 6:15.
It’s a busy Friday night, we’re a bit short staffed and we’re fully booked -- the weekend before RAW wine fair and you can feel the energy in the room. After moving incessantly for the last 5 hours, I can only look for a bit of reprieve at the end of the 2nd seating where things are finally starting to wind down. I return to the 4 top (white) family who have been, to my surprise, actually enjoying themselves all night. They just didn’t seem like the vegetable-forward tasting-menu natural-wine and craft-beer only type-of-folks, so I’m relieved at their pleasurable experience with us. I head back to check in on them before their final savory course.
“You know who you remind me of? Michelle Obama. That’s a compliment you know -- she’s done some really great things.”
It’s a good thing he ran that by me, I’ve never heard of her before.
I’m not sure if she has 12” twists though.
I got the Michelle Obama “compliment” 3 more times that month.
It’s a quiet weekday night, so I’m the only person working the floor for service, acting as the Maitre d’/sommelier/food runner/busser, and to be honest, I sometimes actually prefer it that way. It’s kind of fun to be able to be the everyman and show guests a good time while doing it. Especially when they go for the beverage pairing. And especially when this beverage pairing includes a funky sour beer from a personal favorite Quebecois microbrewery. The Solstice d’Eteby Dieu du Ciel featured a label with what I suppose is an interpretation of the image of Mother Nature -- a woman who has, in place of a normal head of hair, an untamed raspberry tree growing from her cranial roots. I excitedly approach the (white) 3 top at the end of the bar for this surprise pairing with their dessert.
“This beer is cool, but she’s got nothing on your hair!”
Yes, I had taken my twists out.
Seems like I can’t catch a break anyways.
Microagression /mʌɪkrəʊəˈɡrɛʃ(ə)n/ :
A statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.
I think we -- and the “we” here being any people a part of a marginalized group living in the US and abroad (i.e black, POC, LBGTQ, womyn, etc) -- find ways to manage and cope with various kinds of instances of microaggressions. Whether it’s deciding to tame the situation, playing it off with a witty response to how you speak so eloquently, or tackling it head on, explaining why touching someone else’s hair without permission is just fucking inconsiderate, we find ways to deal with it. The hardest part is when you know that the interaction is intended to be “harmless” -- when the words are meant to be compliments.
And inevitably, we also have to deal with the “it’s not a big deal” situation immediately following, one that the tumblr site/project Microagressions answers perfectly:
“it” is a big deal. ”it” is in the everyday. ”it” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it. ”it” happens when you expect it the most. ”it” is a reminder of your difference. ”it” enforces difference. ”it” can be painful. ”it” can be laughed off. ”it” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both. ”it” can silence people. ”it” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed. ”it” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”
But what happens when these moments occur within the already complicated universe of the hospitality industry? What are we supposed to do when we combine the already challenging feat of providing a guest with the best possible experience (and in many cases, leaving a bit of our humanity at the door at the expense of guest experience) with the exhausting instances that remind us of our difference in the macro social world we’re apart of, and the micro social world of the restaurant industry? How do we ignore the flashbacks from childhood of “you talk like a white person” and “why don’t you wash your hair everyday? That’s disgusting” in the middle of service? How do we resist the traditional restaurant mantra of “the guest is always right” to defend our identity while still doing what we love? Should you have to swallow it and forget about it? Why can’t we defend our identity in the restaurant space? What if you don’t have the luxury to only experience these moments within the confines of the workplace? How much is too much?
When dealing with microagressions in the workplace, there is always a moment of considering where the line drawn between teaching others and resisting ignorance -- and at times, ill-will. But is that even a possibility for specifically service-industry folk? Do we have the opportunity to do as we wish and speak up for our identity and defend our humanity in the same way we’re faced to do so outside the restaurant doors?
Because in reality, regardless of harmless slip ups or careless misjudgement, these moments do in fact dehumanize us and insult our identity, and in these dire times, confronting these instances head on may be the thing that helps us maintain our sanity and self-worth. By not speaking up, deferring defense to dissipation, we are allowing the reinforcement of harmful ideologies and habits, at the benefit of this vague idea of “guest experience” and at the cost of our own personal well-being. Working in hospitality, we're all trying to survive on so many levels, but for some of us, the resistance doesn’t end once we’ve clocked out.
In times when I’m feeling particularly empowered, I try and think back to these moments, reflecting on where I fell short, what I could have done, what I could do in these situations in the future.
Like, what if l clarified that I actually don’t look anything like Michelle Obama, and that I feel like his comment is referring to the way I enunciate my words compared to “other black people”? Or that it can be alienating when bringing attention to a black woman’s hair in a space that is entirely white and privileged, or that it can be exoticising to refer to a black woman’s hair as reminiscent of wildlife? How would that fare for the rest of my evening, or theirs?
I don’t have the answers for it and I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do about it.
I just know I definitely don’t look like Michelle Obama.
And I didn’t know how to tell them that.