Reading “When Living on Tips Means Putting Up With Harassment” in the New York Times this week made me reflect on my own brief career as a waitress.
As a student in my late teens and early twenties I waited tables as one of the few jobs I could get. I always expected to do something else in the long term, but was glad to have a skill I could depend on in the future if I needed to. Having my own job gave me the courage and money to take risks – like focusing on my art and community organizing in college rather than the “practical” things my dad would have preferred, like engineering or business or medicine. Having my own job helped me show my mom, who had just divorced my dad after 19 years of marriage, that I would be able to make it, to support myself no matter what. Long after I moved on from restaurant work I continued to see waitressing as my safety net.
Waitressing was different for the women I worked with, women for whom waitressing was a career: They had kids. They were single and middle aged. The restaurant was key to their making it – or not. It wasn’t a launching pad for big visions and risks; it was economic survival for themselves and their families.
For all of us, pleasing the customer was central to the job, even when it meant erasing our own dignity or personhood. Getting “hit on” by customers was part of the job, something we’d laugh about when we could, trying to connect with each other and shed painful feelings of shame and fear.
Over the past five years I’ve worked with Move to End Violence (MEV), a collaboration of people from all corners of the struggle to end gender-based violence and violence against women and girls. Alongside the smart and caring people of MEV I’ve thought a lot about our culture of violence and the deep undercurrents that fuel it. I’ve also had the chance to connect my MEV work with that of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Caring Across Generations, United Workers Congress, Grassroots Global Justice, Movement Generation and others. All of them have helped me to see very clearly how our economy – how it’s set up and how we experience it, each other and ourselves in it – is the fuel that enables a full spectrum of violence to thrive.
Now, looking back, I can see how our sexualized treatment as waitresses – sometimes subtle, sometimes horrific — was part of a culture of violence that is deep and structural. While it was individual men who took advantage of us, it was the situation that made our sexual harassment possible: the reliance on tips, the need to please, the need to perform. As Ginia Bellafante explains in her article,
It isn’t just the notoriously sexist culture of restaurant kitchens that is at fault, but the economic structure that turns customers into shadow employers, leaving servers — so often women — vulnerable to the predations anyone picking up the bill might feel entitled to exercise.
Our culture of violence – alive in restaurants, public schools, and professional sports teams – thrives on shadow employers and shadow employees, on fear and oppression that lurk and loom powerfully beyond the structures that support them. Women, particularly women of color, are often the shadow workers who fall outside of the public eye, those whose humanity and dignity somehow don’t count: the domestic workers, the farm workers, the people without work who have to turn to street and informal economies, the people who work in the prison system and make pennies an hour.
All of us need to make the connections across the shadows and, most importantly, join with others to imagine and build toward the future we want, to understand what it would take to bring forth a world that supports everyone’s dignity, well being, and connectedness. To do this we must profoundly re-envision and redefine our economy, to bring into being what Ai-Jen Poo and others call a caring economy – an economy that supports the well-being and dignity of each person, an economy where there are no shadow workers or employers.
Building a new economy, a caring economy, offers us an alternative to our culture of violence. We can begin with small steps, such as ensuring a fair minimum wage for all workers, along with many other steps that lead us together towards a caring economy and world.