“Ordering while black”: Confronting workplace discrimination

I work at a restaurant near campus and I am one of the only women who works in the evening; it is very rare that another woman is working with me. I have had this job for quite a while now and, for the most part, I have gotten used to the setting. There are often comments made about women who come in that get under my skin, but when I verbalize my feelings, I am told that I am too sensitive and that I need to learn to take a joke. Race is another topic that is talked about in a rather crude way. The “driving while black” phenomenon in our society is the idea that black individuals are more likely to get pulled over than other races solely because of the color of their skin. There is a similar phenomenon in the restaurant business that is more or less “ordering while black”. Most people who have worked in the restaurant business recognize that black customers are automatically stereotyped as too demanding, needy, or pushy when it comes to ordering food (this is not a personal opinion, there have been numerous articles on the subject); I see this stereotyping every day that I work.

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About a month ago a pair of customers came in to order food, they were both black. The woman asked me if we could scrape the grill because she wanted to order food, but it is against her religion to eat pork. Since I have seen my managers clean the grill upon request many times, I told her that it would not be a problem. She ordered her food and when my manager came to make it, I told him that she needed the grill cleaned. He told me no. I went on to explain that she could not eat pork because of her religion and he said that there was nothing he could do. I looked back at the woman appalled and she was appalled as well. I apologized to her and explained that I did not know about this. Both customers left the building quite upset.

After they left, I decided to confront my manager. I told him that I did not think it was right that he would not scrape the grill for her; after all, it only takes about thirty seconds and I have seen him do it many times. He told me that she was “doing too much” and that she would expect that kind of treatment every time she came in if he did it for her today. I said that she should expect that because of her dietary restrictions and that I did not see the issue. I was told that she was “too needy” and that “it’s not like a little piece of ham would have killed her.” I was shocked. This was someone’s religion we were talking about. When I tried to express how upset I was, my manager went on about how I was being too emotional again and that it is not my problem so I shouldn’t worry about it. He ended the conversation.

The whole incident still bothers me. Seeing that kind of blatant discrimination and not being able to stop it struck a major nerve with me. We talk a lot about the Social Change Model (SCM) in WILL and where we see it being applied. For me, I think about the SCM more when I do not see it being applied. When I am at work, I cannot help but think how much better the environment would be if everyone would take into account others’ feelings and beliefs. I really believe that more awareness of everyone around, including the customers, would make this store a much healthier and happier place to work. I have been trying to think of how to bring this up to higher management, but the whole situation is difficult. I have to do something; I can’t sit by any longer.

Abby Daffner is a senior Sociology major and a second-year WILLer. She can be reached at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.


Truth and Dare

Last week, Jalisa, a member of WILL, shared a powerful blog post on how she was attempting to “navigate race through gender” in her WILL experience.  She wrote,

“…my experiences of racism are being invalidated… The fact that you identify with being a woman takes precedence over my identity as a person of color, and that gender biased is somehow worse than any other form of oppression.   The intersectionality of race and gender are messy, but this act of completely ignoring race as a factor of oppression reinforces the cycle of oppression.  In a group that I look to for liberation in having that shared experience of fighting a system of oppression, it is very disheartening.”

This was both difficult and inspirational to hear.

Not surprisingly, reading Jalisa’s post was tough. First, I heard this criticism on a personal level, as someone who cares.  I care about Jalisa, WILL, and the feminist movement.  To know that despite our best intentions in the group (and in feminism!) we continue to perpetuate racism and oppression was, as Jalisa expressed, “disheartening”. I also heard this criticism as the staff person who coordinates this program and who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that our work aligns with our mission and purpose.  It was challenging to hear this because it meant I/we failed.  It meant I/we let one of us down.  It meant I/we were oppressive and silencing and marginalizing, even as we were working actively not to be.    Even still.

Jalisa’s sharing her personal experience and telling her truth holds us all accountable to confront that which is so difficult to acknowledge: my/our privilege.

bell hooks breaks it down: “The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.”  (hooks, 2000; p.23)

In order to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression, we must tell our truths.   The work of feminism, of social change, is to continuously tell our individual and collective truths.  It is an everlasting story, a perpetual narrative.

And it ain’t easy.

According to the Social Change Model of Leadership (SCM), which grounds our work in WILL, there are seven principles that enable social change, that facilitate truth-telling. These principles are based in three different, interrelated, and dynamic systems: individual, group, and community.  To tell our own individual truth requires consciousness of self, congruence, and commitment.  Truth-telling in a group calls for collaboration, common purpose and controversy with civility.  On a community level, citizenship is necessary to practice truth-telling.  WILL intentionally and strategically fosters these principles—this is the work of WILL.

Here’s where the “inspirational” comes in:

Jalisa’s brave act of truth-telling demonstrates that we have created a culture in WILL where we do hold ourselves accountable to this truth-telling and to the principles that foster this practice.  It is inspiring because it means that we are doing something right, even as we’re not.  Even still.

Racism is ugly.  Revealing it is a beautiful and revolutionary thing.  Only then might we overcome it.

WILL is not alone in confronting these truths.  Just yesterday, in response to recent expressions of racism on campus and a subsequent newspaper Staff Editorial calling for truth-telling, the campus paper ran an article in which campus leaders  challenge the campus community to “Engage More, Not Less” .   Although WILL (nor any other feminist leadership program, for that matter) was not among those cited as examples of how to “engage”, WILL does stand as a model of “engaging more”.   This is precisely what WILL does–intentionally, deliberately, and with care.

Our development as feminist leaders challenges us to call out oppression and to always be looking and listening for ways in which we operate out of privilege.  We are compelled to confront this privilege so that we can dismantle it, and in doing so, challenge systems of oppression and create social change.

Always both difficult and inspirational work.   This is the work of WILL.  This is the work of feminism.

Amy Howton is the Associate Director of the Women’s Center and Program Coordinator of WILL. She can be reached at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.

So, what does WILL “do”, anyway?

Ultimately, WILL is a feminist leadership program aimed at creating social change.  All year, I’ve wondered about this goal.  What does it mean?  How is it “measurable” (yes, I’m that person)?  What will look like?  Last weekend, during a presentation at the UC Student Leadership Conference, a student  attending our session posed this question in very straightforward terms, “So, what does WILL do, anyway”?  We had been talking about the theoretical framework of WILL and sharing WILL values.  The question was a good one.

Honestly,  I wasn’t completely prepared to answer it.  I stumbled.  I had been struggling to clarify for myself the impact WILL was making in terms of social change.  I too was wrestling with this question.  I shared this doubt.

Being the inaugural year of WILL, we have been very intentional in focusing energies on developing the program itself—establishing our values, laying the theoretical groundwork.   The plan was to get our business in order before focusing energies on the “real world”, the world outside of WILL.  For a program explicitly aimed at creating social change, this decision might seem counter-productive.  It certainly feels counter-cultural.    Leadership and activism is after all about the business of making a difference for others, right?

At  last night’s WILL meeting, I was reminded that sometimes it’s enough (maybe necessary) to start with ourselves.  That if we do, and do a good job at it, then we are creating social change.   Our self-growth leaks out into the world, into interpersonal relationships, into our organizations, into our communities.  The change ripples out well beyond our own selves.

As WILL discussed the citizenship component of the Social Change Model of Leadership, it became clear that personal growth and development are key to being active citizens of the world.  Members began by sharing diverse perspectives on meanings of citizenship.  The role of power and privilege became a theme as members contemplated these ideas: strategies of citizenship are determined largely by one’s power and privilege.   Therefore, recognizing one’s own power and privilege are fundamental in being effective change agents.

While WILL members shared different opinions on what constitutes citizenship, when posed the question, “How has your WILL experience impacted your citizenship?”,  responses became more common.  WILL has fostered citizenship through fostering: “self-confidence”, “mindfulness”, “self-awareness”, “self-consciousness”,  “selfishness”.   Members shared examples of ways in which personal behavior has directly impacted others, whether colleagues, friends, fellow activists, classmates, other WILL participants.

While focusing on our personal selves and the WILL “self”, we were doing a lot.  We were changing our world.

I am learning so much from my own WILL experience—a true testament to the fact that as a community, we are co-constructing knowledge.  I was reminded last night, by these amazing WILL women, that the “business” of activism can be distracting.  We should not worry about busy-ing ourselves.  There is a need to quiet ourselves, make time for reflection, be with ourselves.

So, what does WILL do, anyway? WILL does WILL.

Amy Howton is the Assistant Director for the University of Cincinnati Women’s Center. She is also advisor to the WILL program. Amy can be contacted at willtoleaduc@gmail.com.