Monday, December 10, 2007

race and class issues at the holiday office party

My office holiday party was this weekend and I was hoping it would be drama-free. Unfortunately, I left in anger.

I was angry because, unlike every other office party we’ve had (and we know how to party), this time, there was a servant (the party was at The Boss’ house). And the servant was Latina.

As a Latina myself, I was incredibly uncomfortable with having one of my peeps cleaning up after my co-workers who couldn’t be bothered to get up and throw their garbage away.

I was incredibly uncomfortable with one of my peeps being told what to do without a “please” and “thank you.”

I was incredibly uncomfortable with one of my peeps being ignored unless one of my coworkers needed something.

However, that’s not the worst of it.

At some point in the evening, The Boss came up to me and said, “Have you spoken to L (servant's name)? You really should talk to her. She works as some kind of counselor somewhere, maybe at (insert name of my new employer as of January 2nd). I’m not sure. But you should talk to her.”

I had spoken to her earlier (just some small talk) but I had no idea she was a “counselor somewhere.” So, I got up and went over to the kitchen where I found L. I introduced myself to her and asked her about her work. L proceeded to tell me that she worked as a therapist at a well-known health services organization in DC. She told me what kind of therapy she did, what training she had, and what certifications she had achieved. On the inside, my jaw dropped. On the outside, I smiled and nodded.

The more I listened to her, the angrier I became. I couldn’t believe this woman, who had more professional training than a handful of my co-workers, was picking up our garbage.

I told L that in January I was going to start working for (insert name of my new employer as of January 2nd) and that I may have a need for a therapist with her kind of training. We exchanged contact information. Honestly, I’m not sure what I can do for her, but I want to make sure she never works as a servant again.

I went back to my friends (my work clique which is entirely made up of the only minorities in the office) and told them what had just happened. They were shocked.

Earlier, they too were uncomfortable with the idea of a servant. Considering we had never before had help at previous office parties, having one now seemed entirely unnecessary. And what’s worse is that her presence offended every minority in the room.

I’m glad L was able to earn some extra cash, but I feel terrible that she was in a position where she needed to lower herself to do so.


Anonymous said...

Whoooaaa! When did working in a service profession become "lowering" oneself? This woman made a conscious decision to take a second job. People do it every day. You come into the party and suddenly you're projecting race and socioeconomic mumbojumbo into the situation. It's way more offensive to me that you appeared to spend the evening mentally condescending to this woman based on the color of her skin and her side job.

lizzie said...

anon--if you're a regular reader of this blog, which i'm assuming you're not, then you'd know that i've worked in a service profession myself for over 6 years. it's not easy to swallow one's pride and let others treat you the way they see fit (whether you deserve it or not) day in and day out. there's been a history of race issues at my job so i viewed the situation with that lens.

i was in no way condescending to this woman. when i mentioned that i could somehow help her, she was incredibly appreciative that i would even offer. something tells me that she didn't want to be anyone's server.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I respectfully disagree with you and agree somewhat with the first comment. She wasn't a "servant", she was getting paid for working at a holiday party. I know many professionals who pick up extra money by working at holiday parties, waiting tables, "serving" people. Your last sentence really struck me... Are all of these people "lowering" themselves? I know customer service is grating and difficult, but that's how you pay the bills. Also, If the person working the party were white or asian or african american would you have felt differently? I do love your posts, just not sure about this one...

Aileen said...

I have to say I agree with both of the "anonymous" commenters. I can understand being offended by how server was being treated, but I don't understand why her presence was offensive.

Often when a party is catered, the caterer will supply a server to serve the food and clean up afterwards. It frees the host (and the guests) so they can focus on socializing and relaxing. It's a paid service, I'm not sure what the problem is. And I don't believe it's a job restricted to certain races.

intellileg said...

I think the issue is more that people from the organization were asked to help with the setting up and cleaning etc -- and some of them did. Yet for the first time a paid server was also employed, and with no recognition from the majority of people at the party. She was not a formal caterer, or part of a formal service.

I agree that it was her choice to act in that capacity, but she really was stuck in the kitchen the ENTIRE evening. And ignored: I'm not sure that anyone really even greeted her or treated her as someone who was providing a service. Please and thank yous are not only for one's peers.

intellileg said... addendum on the race issue: if the woman had been white, I am pretty sure she would NOT have been treated as near invisible. Ditto if she had been male. It's very easy for people who have never experienced discrimination to see it as imagined. (FYI: I am usually categorized as 'white'.)

lizzie said...

anon2 and aileen--ok, this is entirely my fault. i should've explained that this woman was not part of some kind of catering or maid service (actually the party was potluck style and was not catered). had this been the case, i wouldn't have batted an eye. this woman's regular gig is therapist, not server. and to answer your question, anon2, yes, it would've bothered me had the woman been white, black, or asian.

also, i work in a small office. picking up after ourselves would've been more than adequate. we didn't need any help if we were all being considerate enough.

intellilig--do i know you? you explained the situation far better than i did. i suppose i let my emotions get the better of me in my post.

Mme.Meow said...

Definitely it sounds like having a server was a little ostentatious for such a small, informal party.

(It was great meeting you today :o)

Anonymous said...

Define "small, informal party." Anytime I've had more than 20 at my house, I hire someone to help clean up. Regardless of their race, they are well paid. When I made less, I worked parties to make extra money. What's sad is that L doesn't make enough in her other job to support herself. What's sadder is that she is looked upon poorly for working hard to support herself.