Catering Racism

Amy and I sometimes work for a catering company. The work is physically demanding, but mentally easy, and the hours are good for moms with young kids, which we both have. Mostly you just serve drinks and food, open lots of wine, and clean up the mess afterward. You’re supposed to be visible to the guests if they need something, invisible otherwise.

A couple of weeks ago, Amy and I were working a swanky wedding on the grounds of this gorgeous old lakeside house-turned-art-museum. She and I were clearing the dinner dishes from a table. It was an 8-top, five young men, three young women, all invited guests to this fancy wedding. As we approached their table, their conversation turned to quinciñeras, a traditional societal coming-out party thrown for a Mexican girl on her 15th birthday. Seemed a strange topic for an all-white, young, rich group like this, but maybe quinciñeras were in the air this week. Just the day before I had been talking to my friend Jose about the flowers he bought for his niece’s quinciñera, how he’d worked ten extra hours at the flower shop to be able to afford them, how proud he was that he could present her with this special gift.

These guests were not delighting in the quinciñera tradition, however. They were making fun of the Mexican girls who participated in them. One guest started mocking the excitement of the girls, using a high-pitched voice with a fake Mexican accent, saying “I’m from Brownsville! For my keen-sin-yera we get to go to the Galleria in Houston and go shopping! Hee-hee!” The whole table started laughing, but I saw Amy’s eyes go fiery. She knows I’m Mexican, she knows my family is from Brownsville, and she was disgusted. As the conversation turned to the “problem” of Mexicans in general, I thought I was gonna puke, but I just turned and took the plates I had back to the main bussing area.

Amy had stayed behind to finish clearing, and as I returned to the table, I saw her eyes filled with angry tears. She whispered that it was a good thing I didn’t hear the rest of it. She was ready to drop those plates on their heads, but I told her no, no, it’s just ignorance, ignorance, they’re not worth losing your job over.

Later, when we were on break, we talked about what had happened. Amy was angry, sure, but she was also really hurt for me. She couldn’t believe that people would say that in front of me, not knowing that people have been saying stuff like that in front of me my whole life. My light skin, a “blessing” in the color-conscious Mexican culture, is also a curse, as it has allowed people to make their own assumptions about my heritage and spew their unfiltered racist comments all over my face. With practice, you wipe it off, maintain your dignity, return no one evil for evil, and educate when and where you can.

When I was explaining that part to Amy, about education being the only cure for ignorance, she said that these rich people went to the best schools their whole lives, and shouldn’t they have gotten an education? Can they really claim ignorance? They can, for they only learned the things rich people consider worth knowing, and honor and respect for the whole humanness of Mexicans isn’t usually one of them.

Maybe they deserved to have plates dropped on their heads, but in my current thinking, violence, even when it feels like merited commupance, is not stronger than ignorance; violence and ignorance are two sides of the same coin. I didn’t want to participate in that cycle with them at all. Love and education, love and patience, love and forgiveness, love and love and love are the only responses that have a chance of changing things for the better.

But I didn’t love them that night, and I didn’t educate them. I walked away. They’re minds are probably no different now than they were that night, but I know that by walking away I stopped a cycle of violence, and maybe that’s good enough for now.
Because Amy and I remembered that we were truly richer than they were, these well-heeled guests at this fancy party, and I wouldn’t trade places with them for the world.

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4 responses to “Catering Racism

  1. I love this post, and you.

    And I know we disagree about this. I am not sure you stopped a cycle of violence. Not challenging those assumptions means they will keep committing those acts of verbal violence again, and again, and again, until someone does correct them.

    I DO NOT THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE CONFRONTED THEM AND LOST YOUR JOB. At. All. But I do think it is *someone’s* responsibility to speak with them for real, and that might someday take a plate to their heads. I would be happy to volunteer, but you know that. 🙂

    I wonder a lot about where the lines are on the spectrum from ignorance to willful ignorance to out-and-out malice. This is one night, but these rich dickheads will go on to make policy decisions about the people they casually eviscerate verbally at a fancy party, and that’s not at all OK.

  2. Thanks for your insight, locustsandhoney. The violence that I feel like I stopped was the violence within myself. The urge to harm them, to lash out, was strong. And in a situation where I felt powerless to speak, it was the one thing within my control.

    I agree with you that it is someone’s responsibility to speak with them for real, and I like to think that I would have, if it hadn’t meant losing my job. It’s one more example of where the class stuff intersects with the racial stuff – the rich white kid stays stuck in his prison of privilege and the working class chicana ties her own tongue so her son will have diapers.

  3. I couldn’t help but get a little hot around the collar just reading this. Great post. It really speaks to a divinely pivotal realization. For the fighting to stop, someone has to commit to not hitting back.

    I’m still processing this better way, but intellectually, as I reflect on the universal gifts of rain and sunshine, this sort of radical love begins to become the only way out of mankind cycle. But its easy to theorize. Your story touched on the reality, and I appreciate your ultimate decision!

  4. lovejustice88

    Thank you for this post. I am sorry you had to go through that. It makes me angry to read it. Don’t feel guilty about your choice to walk away self-care is important and sometimes weary soldiers have to take a break from the battlefield, recoup and come back. Take care.