Friday, June 24, 2005

Gringo Cracker

We need a new dishwasher. Fluvio places an ad in the paper. We’re soon inundated with applicants.

Throughout the morning an onslaught of applicants trudge through the front door. They’re all Hispanic men. Hailing from places like Ecuador, El Salvador, and Mexico - eager to take the jobs Anglos turn their noses up at.

Most of the applicants don’t speak English. That’s a problem filling out the paperwork. My Spanish is terrible. That’s a shame since I’ve worked around Spanish speakers for several years. I should’ve learned. I ask Julia, one of our bi-lingual busgirls, to help me fill out the applications. It’s time consuming. I feel bad. Only one of these guys are going to get the job.

By noon the men stop coming. I’ve got a stack of applications. Flipping through them I notice most of the guy’s left only phone numbers. No addresses. Worried about La Migra I guess.

As I shuffle through the paperwork the door chimes. I look up. A young Hispanic looking guy is standing in the vestibule. Surly faced, pants hanging off his hips, he looks about twenty years old.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

No response.

“Can I help you?” I repeat.

The young man stares at me. He says nothing. Maybe he doesn’t speak English.

“Are you here about the dishwasher position?” I ask.

The kid looks at me angrily.

“What did you say?” he hisses.

“I was wondering if you were here about the job,” I ask.

“That’s fucked up man. Fucked up,” the kid mutters angrily.

Now I’m getting aggravated. Why’s this kid pissed off? Not a good way to look for a job.

“Listen, I don’t know why you’re getting mad at me…….” I start to say when the door opens.

In walk the kid’s parents. The mother’s white. The father’s black. This kid isn’t Hispanic.

Oh shit.

“Hey Dad this cracker thinks I’m here for a job!” the young man shouts.

“What?” the father says surprised.

Looking at me the kid barks, “You thought because I’m black I’m here to get a job - not to eat. Didn’t you?

I want to say “But I thought you were Hispanic” but think the better of it.

The father turns to me. Gulp.

“Sir, we’re looking for a new dishwasher and I’ve been talking to applicants all day….,”

“You’re an asshole,” the kid sneers.

“That’s enough William,” the father says sternly.

I feel my face getting red. “I apologize for my assumption sir,” I say contritely.

“Well I don’t accept your apology,” William pouts.

The mother puts two and two together. “He didn’t mean anything by it William,” she says.

“An honest mistake sir,” I entreat.

We’re all quiet for a moment. I pray for the earth to swallow me up.

“Well, I’m hungry. A table for three please,” the father says finally.

I grab some menus. “Right this way sir,”

I’d better not wait on this table. I get one of the other waiters to cover it. When I see Fluvio I explain what happened.

“Good move,” he says when I finish.

“I have no excuse. I screwed up.”

‘That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.”

“I know.”

Fluvio sighs and goes to the table to make nice nice. The kid’s still angry. The parents say they understand. They order their lunch.

The kid doesn’t miss an opportunity to glare at me. I hide behind the hostess stand.

I’m embarrassed. I think I made an honest mistake. Fifty Spanish guys came looking for jobs this morning. The kid, who turns out to be a BIG fifteen year old, looked like all the other guys searching for work. How was I to know he was black? Or is he white?

Oh man my head hurts.

“I’m not a racist. I’m not a racist,” I chant to myself, trying to reassure myself that my mind filled in the blanks with the information I had on hand. I made a false assumption. That’s all

I’m not a cracker.

Or am I?

When I was in the seminary I heard a story, maybe it’s apocryphal, about a white nun who worked in the inner city for forty years. Most of the people she ministered to were black. She was considered a saint.

She’s driving to work one day when some black guys jump in front of her car screaming at her to stop.

What does the nun do? She thinks they’re carjackers. She guns the engine trying to get away.

And ends up busting up her car in gigantic pothole.

The black guys waving her down weren’t trying to carjack her.

They were trying to save her.

The men pull the nun out of the car. She goes to the hospital. Luckily, her injuries aren’t serious.

The nun is shaken up and not by the accident. She’s shaken by the knowledge if those guys had been white she would have stopped the car. Forty years of service in the black community and she still had prejudice in her heart. It was an eye opening experience.

If I’m honest with myself – that’s exactly what happened with this kid.

I thought because he looked Hispanic he was looking for work – not lunch. So what if a hundred Hispanic guys came looking for a job? I was wrong. It was an assumption wrapped within a stereotype.

The kid? Well he’s a teenager. Teenagers are quick to anger and keen to expose hypocrisy. He got confused because he thought I was making an assumption based on his racial background

Right idea kid. Wrong ethnicity.

I take a deep breath. Despite my education and experience, my good intentions and egalitarian ideals - I struggle with race and ethnicty like everyone else.

I’m not perfect. Far from it.

The trio finishes their lunch. The kid walks stonily past me. The father and mother follow him.

“I’m sorry for what happened earlier,” I say.

The father graciously offers his hand. I take it.

“We all make mistakes,” he intones solemnly.

“Thank you sir,” I say appreciatively.

The mother smiles at me and they go outside. The father says a few words to his son. The kid heads back inside.

“I’m sorry I called you an asshole,” he says.

“Maybe I deserved it,” I reply.

The kid smiles.

“Maybe you did.”

“Good day sir,” I say.

I watch the family walk down the street. I shake my head. What a day.

The lunch shift ends. Ernesto makes us something to eat. I sit down with my compadres and dig in. I look around the table. These people have been like my family for five years.

And I’m still a gringo cracker.

But I’m trying.

The staff eats their lunch.

I eat my crow.

Well, within the heart of all of us beats a hypocrite at times. Your's just happened publically. You've done well to expose it. We are all racists at times, I'm sorry to say. Some of us admit it, others don't.
If I were that kid's family, I wouldn't have let you off the hook so easily, and I appreciate the honesty with which you look at your own actions and assumptions. White people's racist 'mistakes' perpetuate the cycles of oppression in this country, regardless of the intent behind them. Keep learning.

Either learn some Spanish, hire a translator, or ask one of the Spanish-speaking workers who is of appropriate position in the restaurant to do the interviews next time. Asking someone with as low-paying a job as bussing tables to do a specialized task like translating....well, it's just not cool. People used to ask the janitors to do translating and that's not legal.

Good luck!
don't beat yourself up about it so much. it's ok. personally, i think it was a logical mistake you made given what happened prior to the family arriving. but i can see the kid getting upset because he didn't know what had been going on during the day there, however, he should have 'checked' his attitude when you explained.

keep in mind, that kid is probably bringing alot of baggage with him too, hence his quickness to anger.

no worries. it's all good.
I thought the story would end this way: parents realize kid is a jerk and decide that a job would be a good thing for him and they make him apply to work in your bistro so he can grow up to be a good person who values hard work and respects others.
I agree with v.a.e. It happened, you've examined the event and yourself, and now move on having learned something. Don't walk around with your dawber down thinking that you might as well join the Klan. You handled it well with the family, and the kids parents seem open-minded and forgiving. The kid will probably learn from that, as indicated by his returning to apologize.
Nonsense. You said yourself you didn't even know what race he was. And yet you think you were being racist? White kid? white kid with a tan? hispanic, asian, whatever. People that age don't walk into a fine dining bistro by themselves for a table for one. Doesn't happen. I think you're falling for the "I'm white, I'm guilty" ploy. If Julia had been interviewing all day and saw him walk in, don't you think she would have done the same thing?

As far as learning Spanish.. if you want to bridge a cultural divide, great. But you certainly shouldn't *have* to learn Spanish to employ people who want the job. What if the person that would best fit the job speaks Russian, Italian or Swahili.. are you going to learn those as well? If not, why not? I have the utmost respect for migrant workers that come here seeking to better their lives and the lives of their families. Learning the language spoken where you want to work is part of burden, however. That's true of even taking a vacation to a foreign country! I certainly don't expect my Peruvian hosts to learn my language when I'm in their home.. I came to them. Your applicants are coming to you to find work. It's generous of you to reach out to them with Julia's help, and it would be exceptionally generous to learn their language to make them feel even more secure.
I've got to admit that I've been there before. As a teacher I try to open the minds of my students to a world that seems to never be colorblind. This is one of the true things our society struggles with on a daily basis, and I feel will only become better with open dialogue.
I appreciate your story and your willingness to open yourself up publicly. These kind of mistakes are all part of the learning process and I've made enough of them myself. I am disturbed that so many commenters would rather reinvest in white privilege than learn from your experience.
I call bullsh*t. I'm of 'mixed' descent, I live in a large city and interact with many different aspects of society and it has never kept me from politely responding to a basic fact-gathering question in a social situation. Not when I was five. Not when I was ten. Certainly not in my teens.

Look, the kid's lack of social skills - as in you asked him twice if you could help him and he refused to respond - makes you approaching the situation from a different angle, especially as you were trying to be accomodating, neither a hypocrite or a racist.

It makes him rude. Period.

In his mid teens, he should have the common decency to answer a simple and civil question when addressed in public. We all walk the same earth, breath the same air and need to make the effort to communicate in order to do so effectively and harmoniously. Those are the simple rules of the game, my friend, and manners do truly make the man. Youth does not excuse bad behavior anymore than the self righteousness of the current climate of political correctness does.

No harm, no foul and, if anything, the kid needs to learn some manners and maturity.
I can't add anything that hasn't been said before: I don't think you're a racist, you shouldn't HAVE to learn a foreign language to hire somebody and manners do count. You have them; this kid didn't. Hopefully he's learned from this experience, too.

I think you're okay. I agree with other posters that mentioned the rudeness of the kid (esp after you asked him twice if you could help him). Plus, he called you a cracker; that's not exactly race-friendly of him.

I also disagree with anonymous. It's not just "white people's racist mistakes" -- it's everyone's prejudices and mistakes, and they happen equally between the races. As a young white woman, I've been treated with open hostility or with the cold shoulder more times than I care to count by people from other races who were perhaps worried about how I'd deal with them.

You do the best you can. We all have some prejudices in our heart, and they aren't all related to race. You made a mistake, you admitted it, and you apologized more than once. You're doing just fine.
I'm with Frisbee Girl. You asked politely and he acted as though he didn't understand. So why not assume he didn't speak English. Many rude people try to make the other guy the problem. Happens regardless of color or ethnicity.
I totally agree with Frisbee Girl. You asked, twice. No need whatever to put a guilt trip on yourself.
A couple of things seem to be at work here. First, you made an assumption that you shouldn't have. On the other hand, given the circumstances it wasn't an entirely illogical one. Second, the kid was a jerk. On the other hand, he's a teenager, and while it's been longer than I'd like to admit since I was one, I was a jerk then too.

The real difference between the two of you wasn't one of race but rather maturity. You apologized without prompting once you realized the nature of the situation. The teenager had to be prompted by his parents. But hey, he's a teenager. One hopes that when he's older he'll be quicker to take that initiative himself.
Good for you, and the kid.
The kid, sullen as he was, had awareness and a voice. He used it.

As you you, well, it was an opportunity for self-examination, contemplation of what that self-examination turned up, and some personal growth.

If the kid had made less of a scene, that opportunity to witness the subtlty of your own prejudices would have been missed.
It sounds like you made a reasonable assessment of the situation given:

1. The kid didn't respond to "Can I help you?" even after you asked a second time... The reasonable assumption is that he doesn't speak English.

2. You had non-English speaking applicants coming in all day... The reasonable assumption is that he was another applicant.

3. How many Hispanic-looking teenagers walk into a bistro for lunch wearing droops and a bad attitude? Not many, I assume. The reasonable assumption supports the previously points.

I neither think you intentionally did anything wrong, nor would I expect anyone to react much differently given the circumstances listed. What would I have done after the kid twice failed to respond to "Can I help you?" Call a diversity sensitivity counselor? Hold a teach-in or out-reach? Please.

This reminds me of the incident with the teenage hippy you mistook for a girl. Were you being sexist, homophobic, gender-dyad-tyrranical, or whatever, then? Of course not. It is always the case that if you choose to present yourself in a certain manner, by dress or by action, you have to assume a large portion of the responsibility for the way people percieve you.

Don't beat yourself up over this. It's obvious to me that you don't have racism in your heart, nor were you trying to hurt the guy's feelings. If we're honest with ourselves, we know we all make wrong judgements somtimes. Yes, even with race, gender, clothing, age, deportment, and other outward signs as factors. How exhausting it would be to approach every situation, no matter how routine, without any prior assumptions and without the benefit of the patterns we've learned by experience. Ultimately we have to act with the best available information and guided by experience with similar situations. It sounds like you made amends with the whole family; there is no need to assume any more guilt or dwell upon what was an honest mistake. Even though it was one hell of an honest mistake.

Finally, the kid's lack of social skills and his over-the-top reaction are not proportional to the mistake. None of this would have happened if he had responded to "Can I help you?" While I can see where he's coming from, he needs to get his social skills together and also realize that being the victim of misunderstanding does not free him of the obligations of basic social conduct. The fact that he used racial epithets makes me wonder if his behavior was informed by hatred that he has in his heart.
I have been there before, and it didn't turn out as nice as yours. Sometimes we need to keep quiet, but sometimes this stuff needs to be said out loud. I think you did a great job.
By the way, I think you're a hell of a writer.
You made an honest mistake based on the circumstances and, to be honest, I think you're making too big a deal of it. By over apologizing, you've made it clear how uncomfortable you felt, which suggest there WAS something going on underneath that had to do with race, but (based on your framing of the story) that wasn't the case. Go in peace.
Man. I think that your posts are among the best on the web. I use your postings as jumping off points for my daily meditations and prayer. You are really a phenomenal writer, in that you write in such a way that every human being that is honest with themselves are able to identify. Please keep up the work that you do because just as Jesus used parables to teach about the kingdom of God, you use your stories to teach about the humanity of all of us. I really love your writing.
Thanks for making me think again. It's not always the most enjoybale thing to confront one's own shortcomings, but it is usually beneficial.

Anyway, you're always good for a deep think or a hearty laugh and in this crazy world, both are greatly valued.
To the anonymous poster that said if they were the kid's family they wouldn't let you off the hook so easily, I say...SCREW YOU! It was an honest mistake, and I don't see it as racist in any way, shape or form. All people that are not of caucasion decent (myself included) need to get the hell off of our high horses. The slightest look, or laugh , or question, or sentence is not a damn act of racism. COME ON!!! Just live your life like it doesn't matter. Live like a normal person, not hunting out racist people or comments. give it up, man. As far as translating goes...if someone asked me to help translate, and I was a bus boy, i would be PROUD to speak my language and use it to communicate. There is not a damn thing wrong with that. You are basically telling the bus boys that they should be insulted, and why should they? They make an honest living don't they? Not everyone is as sesitive to non-racist actions as you are.
I appreciate the fact that you are examining yourself, your assumptions, and your underlying prejudices. Most of the comments miss this point.

If you can not give yourself credit for having come to a series of rational if hasty conclusions, maybe you are exposing an underlying negative attitude related to your assumptions that you did not explicitly acknowledge. The kid is probably a rude yuppie like so many of your patrons, and that does not excuse a negative prejudice based on race.

You are brave for looking this closely at yourself. I think you have highlighted an issue that is not addressed in politicaly correct think. We all have our prejudices. They are hardwired into us. Make yourself part of a community (social, not geographical) that is not racially segragated, and perhaps you can form less onerous prejudices. Hopefully I can take my own advice some day.

Thanks for sharing, and keep up the great blogs.
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