I still remember the bright yellow menus, the ubiquitous TV screens and the lingering smell of chicken wings in my hair. As an undergrad, I spent many nights serving tables and scouring my apron for extra packets of dill sauce.
A sports bar may seem like a strange entry point for a reflection on race, so I should mention that my ethnicity came up all the time. My customers asked “where are you from” about as often as they asked about the actual hotness of the hot wings. When they tried to guess, they would point to all kinds of obscure indicators, like my ethnic-looking earrings or my vague resemblance to a friend of theirs from Peru, India or Lebanon. I was the kind of server who wore a smile as if it were part of the uniform, entertaining customer curiosity without question.
The first time I played this guessing game at the restaurant, I was serving a table of four men.
“How are you guys doing over here?” I asked in my patented chirp. We engaged in light banter as I collected their empty pints and ravaged nacho trays.
“Just curious,” said one man.
“We’ve been wondering–where are you from?”
Although there was no game on that night, these men still seemed like they had their wagers set. I scanned the restaurant, which wasn’t too busy, and stood there holding a non-committal grin.
They placed their bets: Persian? Brazilian? Filipino? Portuguese?
“I speak Spanish,” I hinted.
“And I was born in a small country in Central America.”
One man responded with a tentative, “mmm-Mexico?”
“El Salvador,” I finally said.
“I was born there and moved to Toronto when I was two-years-old.”
This brief explanation felt worn-in like a well-read novel. I had shared it for as long as I could remember, and I didn’t feel much of anything when I repeated it.
Over the years I had somehow internalized that this was a geography game, not a history lesson, and that talk of the civil war and my fleeing family wasn’t good repartee. Particularly when on the job, I’d never say “Canada,” “Toronto,” or some other version of “here.” I’d let customers indulge in distancing my Canadian-ness: I would be agreeable and they would be satisfied. I admit, by temperament, habit, and job-description, I wanted to people-please. And I usually didn’t mind playing along if the customers seemed well intentioned. In fact, if they asked about my last name, I’d even mention my far-flung Italian roots.
I was loath to think this laid-back attitude was anything less than a personal choice. No big deal, right?
But deep inside, I knew it could be. Some people were not “just curious.”
During one quiet lunch shift, a man came in with his preteen son. I approached them with my usual affability and was surprised when the man gave me a hard glare. His son stared at his menu as if there were something unspoken between them.
Grumpy customers are nothing new, but there was something different about this one–he wasn’t just having a bad day. Every time I visited the table, I silently guessed at a different explanation: Did he want me to be servile, not chatty? Maybe he was rude to service workers generally. What if he was condescending towards women?
“Let me ask you something,” he suddenly said to me,
“Where are you from?”
His tone of voice jump-started my adrenaline.
My face flushed, and I stammered, “El Salvador.”
“Oh,” he said. “You’re not native?”
“Daaad,” said the boy, almost inaudibly. His dad dropped the subject and ordered dessert–politely this time.
In the span of two minutes and without using any vulgarities, the man had left me badly shaken. I thought about the banality of prejudice, and how it could present itself so unexpectedly. I wondered if avoiding confrontation was, in this instance, making allowances for bigotry. I considered the First Nations people and the legacy of oppression still palpable today. As my breathing quickened, I tried to decide whether I was feeling guilt or anger or disgust–perhaps it was a potent blend. After all, I had wanted to believe that I could be assertive when someone was making me uncomfortable, or at least push back with a “why do you ask?” or “what’s that supposed to mean?”
“He didn’t even guess right,” said a fellow waitress, dismissively, when I told her what had happened. But it didn’t matter that he had misidentified me; I felt the burn of racism on my skin. My mind began to fill with other anecdotes–everything from a man who had asked me if I “even spoke English” when I’d prepared his hamburger incorrectly, to an airport worker who had told me that I could be deported to El Salvador because my passport had expired–there were many times that I knew something wrong was happening, and I’d stayed quiet.
Then an early memory emerged. I was seven-years-old and sitting with my friend Jennifer, laughing and swinging our feet above the ground. Our legs froze when we saw the bully’s scuffed sneakers walking toward us.
“I’m going to punch one of you in the stomach,” he said, examining our widening eyes. We didn’t run. We didn’t speak. We probably didn’t even breathe. He started to play a counting game.
“Eeny, meeny, mini,” he said mechanically, pointing at me, then her, then me, then, “moe!”
He lunged forward and punched Jennifer, full force, in the stomach. Jennifer let out a chocked whimper and crumbled forward, crossing her arms. The bully turned to look at me. Then, as casually as he’d approached, he walked away. He had come for my neighbour, and I had done nothing.
Years later, as I stared at the crude man’s paid bill and empty chair, I once again felt like a quiet little girl. I was still playing nice and hoping the ugly things would go away. The line between being cordial and being complicit had definitely blurred.
In the years since this incident, I have come a long way. As quaint as it sounds, I now know it’s possible to be a friendly person without allowing just anyone to take shots at my values. I can diplomatically address injustice without undergoing a hulk-like transformation into something I’m not.
I’m no longer a waitress at a sports bar, but there are some games I know will always be a part of my life. And when the rules are unfair, I will no longer be a “good sport.”