Gringo Cracker

We need a new dishwasher. Fluvio places an ad in the paper. We’re soon inundated with applicants.

Throughout the morning an onslaught of applicants trudge through the front door. They’re all Hispanic men. Hailing from places like Ecuador, El Salvador, and Mexico – eager to take the jobs Anglos turn their noses up at.

Most of the applicants don’t speak English. That’s a problem filling out the paperwork. My Spanish is terrible. That’s a shame since I’ve worked around Spanish speakers for several years. I should’ve learned. I ask Julia, one of our bi-lingual busgirls, to help me fill out the applications. It’s time consuming. I feel bad. Only one of these guys are going to get the job.

By noon the men stop coming. I’ve got a stack of applications. Flipping through them I notice most of the guy’s left only phone numbers. No addresses. Worried about La Migra I guess.

As I shuffle through the paperwork the door chimes. I look up. A young Hispanic looking guy is standing in the vestibule. Surly faced, pants hanging off his hips, he looks about twenty years old.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

No response.

“Can I help you?” I repeat.

The young man stares at me. He says nothing. Maybe he doesn’t speak English.

“Are you here about the dishwasher position?” I ask.

The kid looks at me angrily.

“What did you say?” he hisses.

“I was wondering if you were here about the job,” I ask.

“That’s fucked up man. Fucked up,” the kid mutters angrily.

Now I’m getting aggravated. Why’s this kid pissed off? Not a good way to look for a job.

“Listen, I don’t know why you’re getting mad at me…….” I start to say when the door opens.

In walk the kid’s parents. The mother’s white. The father’s black. This kid isn’t Hispanic.

Oh shit.

“Hey Dad this cracker thinks I’m here for a job!” the young man shouts.

“What?” the father says surprised.

Looking at me the kid barks, “You thought because I’m black I’m here to get a job – not to eat. Didn’t you?

I want to say “But I thought you were Hispanic” but think the better of it.

The father turns to me. Gulp.

“Sir, we’re looking for a new dishwasher and I’ve been talking to applicants all day….,”

“You’re an asshole,” the kid sneers.

“That’s enough William,” the father says sternly.

I feel my face getting red. “I apologize for my assumption sir,” I say contritely.

“Well I don’t accept your apology,” William pouts.

The mother puts two and two together. “He didn’t mean anything by it William,” she says.

“An honest mistake sir,” I entreat.

We’re all quiet for a moment. I pray for the earth to swallow me up.

“Well, I’m hungry. A table for three please,” the father says finally.

I grab some menus. “Right this way sir,”

I’d better not wait on this table. I get one of the other waiters to cover it. When I see Fluvio I explain what happened.

“Good move,” he says when I finish.

“I have no excuse. I screwed up.”

‘That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.”

“I know.”

Fluvio sighs and goes to the table to make nice nice. The kid’s still angry. The parents say they understand. They order their lunch.

The kid doesn’t miss an opportunity to glare at me. I hide behind the hostess stand.

I’m embarrassed. I think I made an honest mistake. Fifty Spanish guys came looking for jobs this morning. The kid, who turns out to be a BIG fifteen year old, looked like all the other guys searching for work. How was I to know he was black? Or is he white?

Oh man my head hurts.

“I’m not a racist. I’m not a racist,” I chant to myself, trying to reassure myself that my mind filled in the blanks with the information I had on hand. I made a false assumption. That’s all

I’m not a cracker.

Or am I?

When I was in the seminary I heard a story, maybe it’s apocryphal, about a white nun who worked in the inner city for forty years. Most of the people she ministered to were black. She was considered a saint.

She’s driving to work one day when some black guys jump in front of her car screaming at her to stop.

What does the nun do? She thinks they’re carjackers. She guns the engine trying to get away.

And ends up busting up her car in gigantic pothole.

The black guys waving her down weren’t trying to carjack her.

They were trying to save her.

The men pull the nun out of the car. She goes to the hospital. Luckily, her injuries aren’t serious.

The nun is shaken up and not by the accident. She’s shaken by the knowledge if those guys had been white she would have stopped the car. Forty years of service in the black community and she still had prejudice in her heart. It was an eye opening experience.

If I’m honest with myself – that’s exactly what happened with this kid.

I thought because he looked Hispanic he was looking for work – not lunch. So what if a hundred Hispanic guys came looking for a job? I was wrong. It was an assumption wrapped within a stereotype.

The kid? Well he’s a teenager. Teenagers are quick to anger and keen to expose hypocrisy. He got confused because he thought I was making an assumption based on his racial background

Right idea kid. Wrong ethnicity.

I take a deep breath. Despite my education and experience, my good intentions and egalitarian ideals – I struggle with race and ethnicty like everyone else.

I’m not perfect. Far from it.

The trio finishes their lunch. The kid walks stonily past me. The father and mother follow him.

“I’m sorry for what happened earlier,” I say.

The father graciously offers his hand. I take it.

“We all make mistakes,” he intones solemnly.

“Thank you sir,” I say appreciatively.

The mother smiles at me and they go outside. The father says a few words to his son. The kid heads back inside.

“I’m sorry I called you an asshole,” he says.

“Maybe I deserved it,” I reply.

The kid smiles.

“Maybe you did.”

“Good day sir,” I say.

I watch the family walk down the street. I shake my head. What a day.

The lunch shift ends. Ernesto makes us something to eat. I sit down with my compadres and dig in. I look around the table. These people have been like my family for five years.

And I’m still a gringo cracker.

But I’m trying.

The staff eats their lunch.

I eat my crow.


Comments

Gringo Cracker — 40 Comments

  1. Well, within the heart of all of us beats a hypocrite at times. Your’s just happened publically. You’ve done well to expose it. We are all racists at times, I’m sorry to say. Some of us admit it, others don’t.

  2. If I were that kid’s family, I wouldn’t have let you off the hook so easily, and I appreciate the honesty with which you look at your own actions and assumptions. White people’s racist ‘mistakes’ perpetuate the cycles of oppression in this country, regardless of the intent behind them. Keep learning.

    Either learn some Spanish, hire a translator, or ask one of the Spanish-speaking workers who is of appropriate position in the restaurant to do the interviews next time. Asking someone with as low-paying a job as bussing tables to do a specialized task like translating….well, it’s just not cool. People used to ask the janitors to do translating and that’s not legal.

    Good luck!

  3. don’t beat yourself up about it so much. it’s ok. personally, i think it was a logical mistake you made given what happened prior to the family arriving. but i can see the kid getting upset because he didn’t know what had been going on during the day there, however, he should have ‘checked’ his attitude when you explained.

    keep in mind, that kid is probably bringing alot of baggage with him too, hence his quickness to anger.

    no worries. it’s all good.

  4. I thought the story would end this way: parents realize kid is a jerk and decide that a job would be a good thing for him and they make him apply to work in your bistro so he can grow up to be a good person who values hard work and respects others.

  5. I agree with v.a.e. It happened, you’ve examined the event and yourself, and now move on having learned something. Don’t walk around with your dawber down thinking that you might as well join the Klan. You handled it well with the family, and the kids parents seem open-minded and forgiving. The kid will probably learn from that, as indicated by his returning to apologize.

  6. Nonsense. You said yourself you didn’t even know what race he was. And yet you think you were being racist? White kid? white kid with a tan? hispanic, asian, whatever. People that age don’t walk into a fine dining bistro by themselves for a table for one. Doesn’t happen. I think you’re falling for the “I’m white, I’m guilty” ploy. If Julia had been interviewing all day and saw him walk in, don’t you think she would have done the same thing?

    As far as learning Spanish.. if you want to bridge a cultural divide, great. But you certainly shouldn’t *have* to learn Spanish to employ people who want the job. What if the person that would best fit the job speaks Russian, Italian or Swahili.. are you going to learn those as well? If not, why not? I have the utmost respect for migrant workers that come here seeking to better their lives and the lives of their families. Learning the language spoken where you want to work is part of burden, however. That’s true of even taking a vacation to a foreign country! I certainly don’t expect my Peruvian hosts to learn my language when I’m in their home.. I came to them. Your applicants are coming to you to find work. It’s generous of you to reach out to them with Julia’s help, and it would be exceptionally generous to learn their language to make them feel even more secure.

  7. I’ve got to admit that I’ve been there before. As a teacher I try to open the minds of my students to a world that seems to never be colorblind. This is one of the true things our society struggles with on a daily basis, and I feel will only become better with open dialogue.

  8. I appreciate your story and your willingness to open yourself up publicly. These kind of mistakes are all part of the learning process and I’ve made enough of them myself. I am disturbed that so many commenters would rather reinvest in white privilege than learn from your experience.

  9. I call bullsh*t. I’m of ‘mixed’ descent, I live in a large city and interact with many different aspects of society and it has never kept me from politely responding to a basic fact-gathering question in a social situation. Not when I was five. Not when I was ten. Certainly not in my teens.

    Look, the kid’s lack of social skills – as in you asked him twice if you could help him and he refused to respond – makes you approaching the situation from a different angle, especially as you were trying to be accomodating, neither a hypocrite or a racist.

    It makes him rude. Period.

    In his mid teens, he should have the common decency to answer a simple and civil question when addressed in public. We all walk the same earth, breath the same air and need to make the effort to communicate in order to do so effectively and harmoniously. Those are the simple rules of the game, my friend, and manners do truly make the man. Youth does not excuse bad behavior anymore than the self righteousness of the current climate of political correctness does.

    No harm, no foul and, if anything, the kid needs to learn some manners and maturity.

  10. I can’t add anything that hasn’t been said before: I don’t think you’re a racist, you shouldn’t HAVE to learn a foreign language to hire somebody and manners do count. You have them; this kid didn’t. Hopefully he’s learned from this experience, too.

  11. waiter:

    I think you’re okay. I agree with other posters that mentioned the rudeness of the kid (esp after you asked him twice if you could help him). Plus, he called you a cracker; that’s not exactly race-friendly of him.

    I also disagree with anonymous. It’s not just “white people’s racist mistakes” — it’s everyone’s prejudices and mistakes, and they happen equally between the races. As a young white woman, I’ve been treated with open hostility or with the cold shoulder more times than I care to count by people from other races who were perhaps worried about how I’d deal with them.

    You do the best you can. We all have some prejudices in our heart, and they aren’t all related to race. You made a mistake, you admitted it, and you apologized more than once. You’re doing just fine.

  12. I’m with Frisbee Girl. You asked politely and he acted as though he didn’t understand. So why not assume he didn’t speak English. Many rude people try to make the other guy the problem. Happens regardless of color or ethnicity.

  13. A couple of things seem to be at work here. First, you made an assumption that you shouldn’t have. On the other hand, given the circumstances it wasn’t an entirely illogical one. Second, the kid was a jerk. On the other hand, he’s a teenager, and while it’s been longer than I’d like to admit since I was one, I was a jerk then too.

    The real difference between the two of you wasn’t one of race but rather maturity. You apologized without prompting once you realized the nature of the situation. The teenager had to be prompted by his parents. But hey, he’s a teenager. One hopes that when he’s older he’ll be quicker to take that initiative himself.

  14. Good for you, and the kid.
    The kid, sullen as he was, had awareness and a voice. He used it.

    As you you, well, it was an opportunity for self-examination, contemplation of what that self-examination turned up, and some personal growth.

    If the kid had made less of a scene, that opportunity to witness the subtlty of your own prejudices would have been missed.

  15. It sounds like you made a reasonable assessment of the situation given:

    1. The kid didn’t respond to “Can I help you?” even after you asked a second time… The reasonable assumption is that he doesn’t speak English.

    2. You had non-English speaking applicants coming in all day… The reasonable assumption is that he was another applicant.

    3. How many Hispanic-looking teenagers walk into a bistro for lunch wearing droops and a bad attitude? Not many, I assume. The reasonable assumption supports the previously points.

    I neither think you intentionally did anything wrong, nor would I expect anyone to react much differently given the circumstances listed. What would I have done after the kid twice failed to respond to “Can I help you?” Call a diversity sensitivity counselor? Hold a teach-in or out-reach? Please.

    This reminds me of the incident with the teenage hippy you mistook for a girl. Were you being sexist, homophobic, gender-dyad-tyrranical, or whatever, then? Of course not. It is always the case that if you choose to present yourself in a certain manner, by dress or by action, you have to assume a large portion of the responsibility for the way people percieve you.

    Don’t beat yourself up over this. It’s obvious to me that you don’t have racism in your heart, nor were you trying to hurt the guy’s feelings. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we all make wrong judgements somtimes. Yes, even with race, gender, clothing, age, deportment, and other outward signs as factors. How exhausting it would be to approach every situation, no matter how routine, without any prior assumptions and without the benefit of the patterns we’ve learned by experience. Ultimately we have to act with the best available information and guided by experience with similar situations. It sounds like you made amends with the whole family; there is no need to assume any more guilt or dwell upon what was an honest mistake. Even though it was one hell of an honest mistake.

    Finally, the kid’s lack of social skills and his over-the-top reaction are not proportional to the mistake. None of this would have happened if he had responded to “Can I help you?” While I can see where he’s coming from, he needs to get his social skills together and also realize that being the victim of misunderstanding does not free him of the obligations of basic social conduct. The fact that he used racial epithets makes me wonder if his behavior was informed by hatred that he has in his heart.

  16. I have been there before, and it didn’t turn out as nice as yours. Sometimes we need to keep quiet, but sometimes this stuff needs to be said out loud. I think you did a great job.
    By the way, I think you’re a hell of a writer.

  17. You made an honest mistake based on the circumstances and, to be honest, I think you’re making too big a deal of it. By over apologizing, you’ve made it clear how uncomfortable you felt, which suggest there WAS something going on underneath that had to do with race, but (based on your framing of the story) that wasn’t the case. Go in peace.

  18. Man. I think that your posts are among the best on the web. I use your postings as jumping off points for my daily meditations and prayer. You are really a phenomenal writer, in that you write in such a way that every human being that is honest with themselves are able to identify. Please keep up the work that you do because just as Jesus used parables to teach about the kingdom of God, you use your stories to teach about the humanity of all of us. I really love your writing.

  19. Thanks for making me think again. It’s not always the most enjoybale thing to confront one’s own shortcomings, but it is usually beneficial.

    Anyway, you’re always good for a deep think or a hearty laugh and in this crazy world, both are greatly valued.

  20. To the anonymous poster that said if they were the kid’s family they wouldn’t let you off the hook so easily, I say…SCREW YOU! It was an honest mistake, and I don’t see it as racist in any way, shape or form. All people that are not of caucasion decent (myself included) need to get the hell off of our high horses. The slightest look, or laugh , or question, or sentence is not a damn act of racism. COME ON!!! Just live your life like it doesn’t matter. Live like a normal person, not hunting out racist people or comments. give it up, man. As far as translating goes…if someone asked me to help translate, and I was a bus boy, i would be PROUD to speak my language and use it to communicate. There is not a damn thing wrong with that. You are basically telling the bus boys that they should be insulted, and why should they? They make an honest living don’t they? Not everyone is as sesitive to non-racist actions as you are.

  21. I appreciate the fact that you are examining yourself, your assumptions, and your underlying prejudices. Most of the comments miss this point.

    If you can not give yourself credit for having come to a series of rational if hasty conclusions, maybe you are exposing an underlying negative attitude related to your assumptions that you did not explicitly acknowledge. The kid is probably a rude yuppie like so many of your patrons, and that does not excuse a negative prejudice based on race.

    You are brave for looking this closely at yourself. I think you have highlighted an issue that is not addressed in politicaly correct think. We all have our prejudices. They are hardwired into us. Make yourself part of a community (social, not geographical) that is not racially segragated, and perhaps you can form less onerous prejudices. Hopefully I can take my own advice some day.

    Thanks for sharing, and keep up the great blogs.

  22. I wouldn’t worry about this one. The fact that his parents stood there while there son called you an asshole is a big look at how he was raised. You didn’t do anything wrong he had a bad attitude from the get go and his parents are the ones that need to fix that not you. I am not far passed my teens and I was taught from the get go that no matter what you treat your elders with respect weather they are 1 year older or 40 doesn’t matter they are still your elders. Obviously these parents don’t feel the need to teach there child respectful manners.

  23. He should have responded to you. If he had, then that whole situation would have been avoided. You don’t have anything to worry about here. He was an asshole who apparently didn’t want to respond to you. That leaves you with the only option being to ask follow up questions, searching for the answer to “can I help you?”.

  24. This is un-fucking-believable. Waiter (with admirable honesty) admits that his response was based on his perception of the kid’s ethnicity, and y’all are falling all over yourselves to absolve him of any responsibility to examine why he did that. This certainly wasn’t a lynching or anything, but it wasn’t nothing either.

    Oh, and Sarah? That is the dumbest fucking thing I’ve read all day. The kid didn’t respond, so the only option was to start guessing what he wanted based on his skin tone? Sheesh! If next week a Korean looking guy walks in and doesn’t respond to a couple of questions, should Waiter just tell him that they don’t serve dog meat or “flied lice”?

    There’s no shame in admitting that you’ve internalized some racism, people. You can’t control that. But you can control what you do about it. Or, in ya’ll’s case, what you don’t do about it.

  25. The kid presented himself as a kid looking for a problem. He walks into a fine dining restaurant at lunch time dressed like a punk and with a surley expression. Doesn’t respond to “May I help you?” If he doesn’t respond he leaves you to make an assumption. Sounds like the kid was playing a head game with you, trying to make you feel guilty for being white. Of course you thought he was a poor hispanic looking for a job. That’s how he presented himself!

  26. it’s ageism as well- Teenagers of any ethnicity do not usually dine at fine restaraunts that serve alcohol by themselves. If the clientle is mostly people 21 and up he probably would have asked any teenager who walked if they were there for the job.

  27. I have to agree with Sophist.

    The response to the kid’s perceived ethnicity was unacceptable, plain and simple. It’s great that the waiter recognizes it as such. But everyone telling him he didn’t do anything wrong is just encouraging him to continue living in denial.

  28. Straight up the kids an ass hole for not responding to you when you asked him if you could help him. Fuck him the little shit. Don’t feel bad

  29. I agree with Sophist. Yeah the kid should’ve responded to you. Yeah he was kinda rude, but we DO live in a racist system. So yeah, even if you think you aren’t racist, you still aren’t perfect. If you’re white, you’ve got white privelege. Quit denying it and deal with it.
    Props to Waiter for taking a look at it, trying to deal with it, and being so honest.

  30. Well you did ask him “May I help you?” Where I come from that is a question, and questions deserve answers. :) Since he was there by himself at first, staring at you, you weren’t in the wrong.

    It may not have been right, but it definitely wasn’t wrong. And if my kid (even though I’m white) had called someone else a racial name like “cracker”, I wouldn’t slapped ‘em.

    Just sayin’. :)

  31. To Sophist..Why Don’t you take Y’ALL ass back to the brokin english country side that you came from..The WAITER had a situation dealing with a teen who has NO knowledge of how Polite society works and that when he was confronted by Waiter he chose not to respond..TWICE..and he feels Justified in calling WAITER an ass-hole,And his parents let him get away with that behavier,I’m just glad nobody had a gun and that this didn’t happen in another place and time where this would have been handled much differently..I will say”Thank you” to all involved..I learned something today

  32. I don’t see how that kid could be sure it was racism, because Waiter could have done the exact same thing without considering skin color. Every person that entered at that time could either have been a customer or a dishwasher. It’s a fact that some people are far more likely to be dishwashers than others. A single young guy who dresses casually is quite a bit more likely to be a dishwasher than an older woman in a nice dress. Judging by the experiences of the day, it’s even fair to assume that (nearly) all candidates will be Mexican men. I think it’s fair to keep all options open if a man comes in that could be Mexican and try to find out whether the guy is a dishwasher or a customer.

    Of course, you can be ultra-PC by never assuming anything and always asking in the most neutral way possible, but that is a quick way to alienate people and make your life hard. Fact is that humans discriminate and assume things because it works well. If you call in a plumber for a toilet emergency, you will assume that the guy that comes in wearing overalls is the plumber. If you point him to the toilet, without pretending that you think that he might be a customer and carefully asking him, you’re not unfairly discriminating against people wearing overalls. You are getting things done and being a normal human being. Even if it turns out that the guy is a customer that is going to a costumed party later, there is no need to feel bad.

    Fact is that you wouldn’t have treated the guy differently from any other customer if he:
    - was wearing nice clothes or
    - came in with a girl or
    - came in with his parents or
    - simply answered your question in a coherent manner
    Waiter, don’t be upset because you checked whether the guy was a dishwasher when he didn’t act like a regular customer at all.

  33. These are the jobs we used to get as kids in college or high school actually. It’s not that Americans are “turning their noses” at these jobs. Who do you think did these kind of jobs 20 or 30 years ago? Someone did obviously.

  34. My head hurts from all the comments…the kid was being sensitive, Waiter was being a hypocrite, and we all make mistakes we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about, because we’re only human. Can’t we leave it at that???

  35. I love how the annon poster (near the top) is quick to point out “white” people’s stereotyping, but the word “cracker,” is totally acceptable? I’m sorry, if you’re going to be intollerant of racial slurs and stereotyping, go across the board. That means you don’t get to call me a WASP or caker or cracker or honkey or redneck.

    I love how if you aren’t white, you can pretty much be as racist and prejudical as you bloody well please. Unacceptable. Racism, regardless of to whom it is directed, is racism. And frankly, everyone (except those who have never been exposed to an “other”) are guilty of it. Plain and simple.

    Brave of you waiter, to apologize. Just because we’re all a little guilty doesn’t mean there’s no hope for change.

  36. To lily… you’re an idiot, honestly… “Of course you thought he was a poor hispanic looking for a job. That’s how he presented himself!” Are you serious? Listen, waiter was wrong, and even he admited it. As a Mexican, it honestly bothers me how people may think of us, that we’re all “brown”, poor, and if we’re in the US we probably don’t have any papers… I’m sorry, but that’s bull.

    It’s good to know, though, that waiter actually realized his mistake on making those kind of assumptions, because we’ve all done it at some point. And no, i don’t think the kid was right to call him a cracker either. We all make mistakes like that, i’ve stereotyped americans too i won’t deny it, but i think that what counts is whether you realize you made those mistakes or not.

  37. To the first Anonymous; I started reading your review and I found it a little hypocritical for you to say “white people’s racists ‘mistakes’” because of the fact that you used racism in a sentence against racism. People of all cultures and ethnicities and skin colours can be racist, not just those with white skin. Yes, they are wider known for it but still, if you are going to be against racism do NOT single out one group like that.

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