Lessons learned at the counter of a local bakery
Around this time four years ago, I was offered a place at Stanford University.
While I almost never tell people about my acceptance into Stanford, I mention it here to complicate the dominant narrative of success: you study hard, complete an excellent education, and settle into a respectable, high-paying job.
If my 18-year-old self had subscribed to this narrative, she would have traded her dreams for a degree in Something Stable from Stanford University, after which she would have secured an impressive job in the pertinent industry.
Almost certainly, she would not be where she is now: freelancing around the city as a flutist, working long hours at part-time jobs to save for living expenses post-graduation.
Almost certainly, she would not be working at the counter of a local bakery, which is one of those part-time jobs.
As a result, she would not feel humiliated by customers who, like most customers anywhere, are too intent upon living their lives to acknowledge the humanity of the person serving them across the counter (this is not an accusation, but an observation).
Lastly, she would not wonder, sometimes, if she is perpetuating power dynamics between white people and people of color by working in the service sector — where the education, accomplishments, and skills that her parents worked hard for her to achieve are obscured by the sight of a brown girl with short hair, greeting you from behind the counter as you walk into a local bakery.
In fewer words, she would not wonder if she let her parents down by not chasing the narrative of success that Stanford opened to her four years ago.
Despite these misgivings, I am more grateful than anything to have this part-time job. In addition to a lovely team, I have the opportunity to work plenty of hours while still a student, which has made my dream to freelance in Pittsburgh for another year possible.
All of this to say, the following thoughts come from a place of gratitude to have this job in the first place:
1) It takes so little, yet goes so far, to acknowledge the humanity of the person who's serving you.
Working in the service sector has radically transformed how I interact with people in service.
All it takes is a smile and eye contact. Sometimes, I use the tone of my voice to express, "I know what it's like. Maybe it's been an exhausting shift, or you've had that 'customer of the day' (how one of my co-workers refers to rude customers). Maybe you're bored out of your mind. I hope the rest of your shift goes smoothly, and you're able to go home and do something you find rejuvenating."
Few things sting like being treated — not once but repeatedly — as if you were less than human, a means to checking off a box on your customer's to-do list.
2) It's best to abandon the judgments creeping into you about the other person.
During a rough shift, I would be quick to dismiss a customer as "rich, rude, and hopelessly privileged," as if their evident claim to wealth invalidates any struggles, unrelated to financial stability, that life has brought upon them.
I've had to remind myself that it is simply impossible to know what they're going through — what their life is like, how their day has been, and what traumas or challenges they've faced and perhaps are still working through, whether they realize it or not.
3) To customers: Simple mistakes are less of a testament to the counter person's low intelligence, and more of a testament to their tiredness.
When you walk into a shop, you may appear to be the only customer, or one of a small handful, but you might be the fiftieth that this counter person has helped, with little break or non-stop — simply at a slower pace than during rush hours.
Be compassionate if they make a simple mistake with your order. Far from anything against you, they are probably tired.
4) To myself: Remember your own privilege.
Last fall, I had a revelation while watching the umpteenth customer agonize over having so many breads and pastries to choose from. They seemed genuinely distressed, as if something more than tastebuds were at stake.
As I watched them, I became aware of a familiar thought creeping into my head: "If they realized how privileged they were — to live in this neighborhood, to be able to afford these items on a regular basis — they wouldn't be so tense right now."
Then I got slapped by the truth that in a different sense, I am as privileged as they.
I had been succumbing to a lot of anxiety about supporting myself after graduation. Watching these customers, however, I realized I was like them: with a strong education, my family, and a network of mentors as wonderfully supportive as mine, there is nothing to be distressed over. There is only good before me.
So I am grateful for this job, grateful for the lessons it continues to teach me, and grateful that, more often than I tend to remember, my interactions with customers are pleasant, even joyful.
Unfortunately, no amount of introspection has kept me from racializing my negative experiences with customers. I still struggle to separate their rudeness towards me from my perception of their white privilege and their perception of my brownness.
Sometimes, the way those customers look at me makes me wonder: how would their expressions change if they knew that at one point in my life, I had reached a pinnacle of what we are told is success?
By this, I mean getting into Stanford — but what if they knew that I'm a classically-trained flutist, or a student at Carnegie Mellon?
Maybe their expressions wouldn't change at all, because their concept of a short, brown girl who works at a bakery isn't wide enough to include these achievements.
Of course, at the end of the day, their treatment of me is harmless. It doesn't keep me from being everything I am outside of this job.
Although it stings, their thoughtlessness and disdain don't prevent me from carving my own definition of success. Perhaps that’s a struggle they could relate to, if we ever found ourselves in a position to talk about such things.
But I will admit that I didn't believe it the other day, when a man stared at me as he took his $1 tip out of the jar because I had neglected to charge him for one of his items.