People tell me I shouldn’t but I can’t seem to stop. I have been asking, “Why?” in one form or another as long as I have lived. This earned me no praise as a child either at home where my parents valued obedience or in Catholic Schools where the nuns valued unquestioning adherence to the rules and doctrines of church, state and school. Asking, “Why?” was frowned upon. It got me punishment assignments in school, extra chores at home and angry stares from peers.
In the world of work, it has been the exceptional employer who has valued my questions. I was sixteen when I asked, “Why do waitresses make 80 cents an hour while waiters make $1.30 cents an hour? The men do not carry heavier trays or climb steeper steps to the kitchen. They do not have more experience or work any harder than the women. In fact, they get the stations with the higher tips and the best shifts, working prime dinner hours and not the mid afternoon lag time. In fact, the men often worked lunch and then took off the lag time to get their household chores and personal errands done and then return to work the dinner and evening shifts. Women were given a half hour lunch period for which we were required to clock out but were not permitted to leave the premises. I was told that it was because men had families to support. Yet the evidence among wait staff I toiled amongst seemed to be that the women were more often single mothers supporting kids or putting themselves through college (as I was) and the men were students like I was or just –single. If it was a question of greater need, then it would seem that the women who were single moms should be paid more or be given the shifts guaranteed to garner the better tips.
Despite what they said, it was not about need. It was about privilege. We all know that now, right? And while I’m at it, talking about privilege, there never were any wait staff of any racial makeup other than white on the shifts I worked.
This was in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I am pleased to see that things have changed since then . . . at least on the surface. And yet, I’m not sure if it’s a good thing. There are more people of color working as wait staff and behind the counters of fast food restaurants. These were all staffed by young white kids when I was in High School. Fast food was the expected “first job” for a lot of us. The turnover was high. As soon as we could find a better job, we would step up to a new, better employer. Today, I look at the fast food counters staffed largely by brown and black faces. I see far too many of them not “stepping up,” not moving on. They stay in those jobs for years. They make a career of McDonald’s and Wendy’s. I look at this and I wonder, “Why?” Is this a conscious choice? I know that McDonald’s can be a good career for some in the management track. Where are the next steps for the rest of them? Are there impediments that prevent their upward move, and if so, are they social or cultural, educational or psychological? I suspect the answer is multifaceted and complicated featuring, in some proportion, all of the above?