Friday, August 26, 2005

The Service Standard

As I've been searching for a job, I've applied for many different positions in several different places: from teaching to nanny, from receptionist to research associate, from server to hotel concierge. I've got the skills and the ability to do any and all of those jobs. In more than one way I've felt myself hampered not by my skills- if anything, the fact that I'm willing to do any kind of work should help me- but by the attitudes of my friends (hardly) and family (profoundly) when I discuss with them my applications and why I choose to do so. And it ain't just them. This, I think, may just be a community-wide thing.

Let me go back into history to explain why this is such a bigole pain. My great-grandmother is still alive, and almost 90 years old. She is amazing. As far as I understand, she barely finished school, and never went to college. She's literate, but her handwriting, though cursive, isn't exactly refined. She doesn't use it in her line of work.

She was a domestic worker- a cook and sometime housekeeper- for all of her working life. Then, during her retirement, she would take care of some of my cousin's kids until they were school-aged, which allowed said cousin to work. She still tells stories of the times when she would cook for these rich white descendants of plantation owners, how they'd act toward her, and how proprietary she felt toward them. They might have felt she was theirs, but in reality things were more the other way around.
My great-grandmother only had one child, my Grandpa (not to be confused with Grandpa Earl), and through that line especially I've learned the importance and pride not only in hard work, but in a craft and service - the combined abilities to use your hands well and to use that for the benefit of a community. Ain't no shame in being a domestic or blue collar worker. This is a big part of my worldview. It wasn't always- I was really trained to it in purpose and example.

So we know that my family, especially on my mother's side, should see no problems with service work or manual/blue collar work, because it is an honored tradition for us. With me so far?

The other line I get from my family is that of constantly improving yourself and your station through education. My father's life is the big lesson on that topic- I remember his college graduation quite well, because I watched him walk across the stage. In MY lifetime, he's gone from being janitor to air-conditioning repairman, both blue-collar, to working in computer analysis for the government- very very white collar. So I also get this sense that the only reason to get an education is to help you improve your class station and get that high-payin' job. Not just for the education itself or to raise the level of education in your race or class or community, but for the monetary rewards. You pay for it so it can pay for itself. I understand this. And I do agree that education in this country, expensive as it is and can be even for academically gifted people, isn't worth the money you spend if you can't earn enough to pay the loans back OR do what really makes you happy.

Then there's the fact that economically, black people stand to lose a great deal because of entitlement attitudes and lowering education and employment levels. The public education system of this country was made to turn out educated LABOR so the country can run. The US already in trouble with companies exporting labor and service positions because they're cheaper and in a lot of cases people don't kick up too much dust when asked to actually do some work. Of course those same companies can get away with a lot more abuse, but that's another entry. My point here is that as part of a community that doesn't have all that much to begin with my reality is that you have to do with what you have, or you won't have anything. If I have no job and many skills, then I should apply as many places as possible so I'll get some job somewhere, and work from there. If I want to work my way up the ladder I can start after I have a way to fill my mouth and sleep warmly at night.

Still with me?

The reason for my frustration of late is that every time I mention that I've applied for a nannying or concierge or waitressing position, I get insta-commentary from family members and certain friends to the point that I should NOT be trying for that kind of job, that I have a college degree and that I'd be wasted there. In essence,that I'm above such things. It is that attitude that has me soooo frustrated. For example, in two different conversations I had yesterday, I had someone first question whether or not I was trying to be in the hospitality industry, and then, in a later conversation, point out that immigrants have such great chances now because they take the low-paying and manual jobs that
black people are too proud to take anymore, like cooks or janitors or agricultural jobs. (The incidents in Herndon, VA, were on the news, and we went into a discussion about that, just to give some context.) Same person, not an hour between both statements. I'm not even really angry about it anymore, but it does have me thinking.

My question is, can we have it both ways? Because as a BLACK Gen-xer (I think- or am I Generation Next? My parents are baby boomers, but I digress), I know, in my heart, that my family and community want simply the very very best for me and my generation. I mean, we're only one step- sometimes two- from the time when being a pullman porter or a teacher was the MOST prestigious job someone in the Black community could have! People were blacksmiths and subsistence farmers and construction workers and carpenters and were proud of their honest work. When we lose that pride in our work we lose work period. I don't know a single soul who can afford that, black, red, brown, yellow or white.

At the same time, it only contributes to a great level of frustration and confusion to tell me, as an educated person, that I'm too good to be a teacher or a front-desk person. Am I really too good for anything? Dont' get me wrong. I really want a great, high-paying job. I want to get the education so I can have it. But on the way there, I don't see a thing wrong with being an educated nanny or service worker. I know that it may be a stop on the way, but not the last place I go, either. I'm not going to take being condescended to , and I'm not going to be ashamed because I have a BA and a blue-collar job. And I also know that I'll end up as an executive officer or a doctor if that's what I want. We've got to stop holding ourselves to a double standard. Because what we're holding onto is our own progress. Let it go!

Now. I know I'm not the only person who has had this thought, so please holla back... and I dont' care if you're black or not! I just want thoughts.

Miss TwennyTwo


  1. I think its funny that the current attitude is that black people are too proud to take a blue collar job, whereas for white americans its not an issue when they don't want to work a blue collar job- in fact they are pitied if they do or somehow seen as genetically inferior.

    Native Americans are generally regarded as useless, so we don't have to worry about people accusing us being too uppity. People are generally surprised when we have a job.

  2. As you know I completely feel your frustation when your own people expect you to settle for nothing less than the dream job and fat paycheck because you have a degree. They mean well but it makes you feel shitty.

    If anything that is a very middle class and naive way of thinking (that you will be rewarded if you work hard)- its really about who you know and so instead of going to class we should have been hanging out with the cashy students of GW and not being broke together and bonding about social issues and making fun of people with pink nipples.

  3. You know before I was a team leader at my daycare, I worked at this resort for this guy known throughout the area as a slave driver (I didn't find this out until after I got hired). He was messed up. This one time a waitress's son was missing in the woods for 48 hours and he was knocked out with a concussion somewhere and a group of men were also looking for him to kick his ass some more and she wanted to go find him before it was too late. She called in and instead of realizing that this was a horrible situation my employer told her if she didn't come into work in 1 hour she would be fired (she had worked for them for 9 years).
    I don't know if this is related to your post but it is so messed up I had to share it.

    Oh it exhibits the higher incidence of abuse among the working poor than the middle class.

  4. Yeah eastern europeans here are like that too. Especially the ones that came over from the Balkans when the war started- a lot of them educated but still working multiple blue collar jobs, however God forbid one of their kids is so inclined to do that after they finish school. They think americans undermine their intelligence & look down on them due to their accents so they want to stick it back to them via their offspring (they also usually save up and buy an outrageously expensive vehicle that they can't afford too). Back over there- kids aren't really supposed to work while in school because it looks bad on the family- like your parents can't take care of you. When I was in high school- my mom needed me to work but I wasn't allowed to tell anyone...
    As for my family in Yugoslava- most of them are like "school? why aren't you married with 4 kids yet?" But as Sherry said, when I get my degree they are expecting I will be working some fabulous job & rolling in dough & sending them $$$ on the regular.

    My exboyfriend, who was an upper middle class-raised blonde American white male & finished his BA at NYU over 3 years ago is still working as a doorman. There is NOTHING wrong with being a door-man but his lack of ambition really irritated me because he had everything going for him & didn't take advantage of any opportunities...
    I don't know, I'm a white girl at the end of the day- so what do I know, but I can definitely see where your family is coming from. Still, you should do what you think is best right now & there is not doubt in my mind that you'll be a huge success in years to come.
    ps- i've always wondered, what is a plantation???

  5. Oh, when I was speaking of my pathetic- waste-of-space exbf, I wasn't trying to say it is not OK for educated white males to work in service jobs in juxtaposition to educated minorites- I was just trying to convery the message that he is a lazy, unmotivated, useless asshole. This has little to nothing to do with what you were talking about but I had a fierce urge to get that in there at the time...
    Great post, by the way!

  6. haha, I think its funny at the end of you first post you say Im just a white girl and then a few sentences later you ask what a plantation is. Im not laughing at you so much as thinking it is cute in an unpatronizing way. Marisa you see the irony in that don't you?


  7. We need to start a blog together, geesh. Y'all and David are 'bout the only people who read me on a regular anyhow.


  8. I don't knnnnooooow! My people like just got here yesterday & I've never been to the south (actually, does Falls Church, VA count as "the south"?- I've been there...Alexandria too!). I was just trying to say since I am white, while I can certainly sympathize there is a level of understanding that I will never possess on certain issues due to lack of personal experience, so while I can definitely see Twenny-two's family's perspective, I might of course feel differently were I not white- so it's really not my business to come in here and say "well, you know, if I were black... cause who gives a shit? I've always found it elitist when white people sit around and talk about civil injustices and of course concur "that's not right" but don't really do anything remotely constructive to improve anything. And if Sherry came over to my pathetic site and said, "Aleksa, if I were Croatian I would stop acting like such a whore because everyone knows eastern europeans women are sluts" I am not sure I would appreciate such a comment. Even though it is kind of true...
    Well, I have obviously heard the word plantation before but I'm not sure whether it's a farm or an estate or a community or what...crazy southerners always have to be so difficult. Yankees are so much better- and lucky miss twenny-two is gonna be one soon! he he he
    (P.S Mid-westerners are pretty lame too... ;) )
    p.p.s- I have been to Arlington and McLean, VA as well...

  9. OH! I was in the North Carolina airport when I was en route to Tampa. Hell yeah, I was! So I HAVE been to the South!

  10. Holy Shit, I just remembered was in the Houston airport once too. Damn, I get around...

  11. Salaams: Good post... I have a post on attitudes towards blue collar work among Muslims brewing in my head... -- UmmZaid

  12. Wait these times when you were in the south (as in VA) was it when tony got us lost on the way back from baltimore?



  13. nooooooo- I totally forgot about those. No, I've clearly done extensive traveling in the south. I bet Tony knows what a plantation is. I can see him living on one (Google was nice enough to inform me since you ladies are useless) in a white suit or something...
    Oh seriously, though - M, is your family OK? The ones in Alabama? They showed some in town covered in water on account of this Katrina (of course they give the WORST hurricaine an E. Euro name, whatever...)