I’ve been training this week to be a waiter at TGI Friday’s. It has been an interesting experience to say the least, from weird guests to coworkers. I’ve never waited tables before and it’s kind of overwhelming to learn it all at once, but overall I think it’s a good experience for me.
Today was definitely the most interesting day so far in some ways. I followed around a woman (we’ll call her Susie) for a couple hours to learn the ropes a bit. By herself, Susie was an interesting story. She’s very nice, a strong Southern accent, white, mid twenties. She has a 5 year old son, who she had when she was “knocked up” (in her words) by her previous boyfriend. She’s soon to be married to her current boyfriend. These details aren’t essential to my story, but I felt a strong “Woosh” of stereotypical-ness come over me. You know? There’s movies and TV shows about single moms from the south working in diners or restaurants to make ends meet for the kids. And as I followed her around, I met more people who were in the same boat, multiple kids, boyfriend not the father, moving, etc. It was a good revelation for me to understand where some people are coming from.
On to the real story. While standing behind Susie at the register, she started to talk to another woman who trained me yesterday, who happens to be black (about 3/4 of my coworkers are black). Susie turned to me and said to me, “This is [Ashley], I’m going to get her a man and get her to use mascara on her eyes. And, she’s colored but doesn’t like it when I tell her she’s colored. She says she’s black. I don’t understand, it’s the same thing.”
This went back and forth between the two of them a little, but that’s the basic gist of what was said. Race terminology is a rather touchy subject, but I was surprised to hear the ease at which Susie contradicted Ashley about what word should be used to describe her. In my Af. Am. Studies class about the Civil Rights movement this past semester, my professor asked the class (which was about 3/4 black) what word was acceptable now to refer to black people. We had discussed the evolution of terms (endorsed by blacks themselves), from Negro, to Colored, to Afro-American, to African American. At different times in history, these terms have signified a sort of shift in thinking by blacks in defining themselves. When asked, most of my class said that “black” was how they thought of themselves. I could be wrong, but I think an important difference between the terms used is what they signify to the signified (to use a Sausserian term). I don’t want to be called “cracker” not because it doesn’t in some way describe my race, but because I don’t think of myself as a “cracker.” I don’t even want to be called “Caucasian”; I’m white.
Though racial terms certainly have more signifcance and weight in the black community, I think the principle still applies. Whites often have a certain amount of ignorance, and what makes it worse is that it’s OK (by white standards) to be ignorant about things like how to refer to the black community. Whites don’t understand why it would offend someone to be called “Colored” and not “black,” or why it would even matter in the first place. It’s all the same, right? That is a big problem still in many white people’s thinking, and it comes from seeing the world through white lenses. We look around and assume everyone’s white, and if they’re not, they’re the oddity, not us. We’d rather think that everyone is the same (and the same color) so we don’t have to deal with racial issues, but the problem is that we then paint everyone white. This leads to color-blindness and pretending that racism is gone, and that blacks shouldn’t have anything left to complain about. They can vote now, right? Anyone with any critical lenses on know that this still isn’t completely true. America. What a country.