(originally posted 04/08 at wordpress)
by mae stephenson
So, I've made a disturbing observation over the past few weeks. Several women I respect and consider to be strong, smart women have mentioned playing "the dumb girl" to get things done. I admit, I've even mentioned it myself. From getting the proper tools to put furniture together to solving conflicts with customers at a restaurant, smart women all over our precious Portland and beyond are submitting to patriarchal stereotypes to accomplish things. As a woman in the service industry, I understand how difficult it can be to get people to take you seriously. Too many times in my line of work and in daily life, I've seen women stand up for themselves and be dismissed as "crazy" or charged with being on her period instead of being listened to as, perhaps, some of their male counterparts might be.
I want to share a personal story to illustrate my point, and afterwards, ask for some advice. I work at a popular late night restaurant in Portland. We consistently get the weekend bar crowd because we're still open after the bars close. If sober customers can sometimes be rude and disrespectful to waitstaff, you can bet your bottom dollar the drunk customers are worse. It's not irregular for some hyper-masculine man to get upset about who knows what (their food taking longer than three minutes to arrive, getting shut down after inappropriately hitting on a server, etc) and end up yelling at and calling a female server any number of vulgar words. I don't want to sound like I think all men act this way at restaurants-- they don't. There are tons of awesome male allies out there, but unfortunately, there are tons of men who think it's okay to be a total jerk, too. Now, I've seen women respond to angry or sexually aggressive customers in two ways: playing sweet and innocent, or verbally standing up for themselves.
It's easy to understand the first response. If you're busy, you don't really have time to put every Tom, Dick, and Joe in their place. It's quicker to refill their water, laugh off their request for a kiss, or pretend you didn't hear that name they called you and move on to the next table in your overflowing section. The problem is this can wear you down-- eat your soul, even. Not to mention, cause physical fights between the eagerly confrontational kitchen staff ready to defend all the waitstaff against the unruly customers they despise before they even enter the restaurant. And, on a bigger scale, you're colluding with the patriarchal system that empowered these people to treat women disrespectfully in the first place.
Which brings us to response number two. Standing up for yourself isn't easy, and when your adrenaline is pumping from running around a loud, busy restaurant for a few hours you can loose your cool and lash out. Next thing you know, the customer is cursing at you and six big kitchen men and women are behind you yelling at someone to get out of the restaurant and causing everyone in eye and earshot to hold their breath and wait for a brawl to break out. Try regaining composure after that! Then try and explain why a table of four with a $60 tab didn't pay because you kicked them out.
People don't get how often women have to deal with inappropriate advances as a waitress. I've had police officers in uniform ask my dishwasher if I was in the back giving some guy a blow job because I didn't deliver their food the first second it appeared in the window; I've had men offer me $500 to serve them without a top, and when I denied, they argued that I simply needed to be offered more money because every woman has a price; the first weekend I waited tables, I had three requests from three different tables asking for a lap dance like they were on the menu; I've had a customer ask for a kiss every time I approached their table and announce to the restaurant that we were about to make out before I dumped an entire pitcher of water on him. I could go on and on, but I'll spare you.
Luckily, the restaurant where I work now is owned by a man who may not necessarily understand what it's like to be a woman waiting tables, but cares enough to ask me to meet with him to discuss the topic from a feminist perspective. This is where I need your advice. How do I explain that if we kicked out every person who called a waitperson a nasty name or touched a waitperson inappropriately, we might not have very many customers left? As much as I want to give him some spectacular feminist advice on how to run a restaurant where women feel safe, I can't fight the urge to tell him that what goes on in our restaurant is part of a much, MUCH larger societal problem and there's just not a whole lot he can do about it.
On the other hand, he'd probably be willing to try something pretty radical if I suggested it. It's not every job you have that a white male in a position of power asks to sit down with you to discuss feminist issues in the workplace. So, readers, here is where I need your advice: how can I take advantage of this opportunity?