Burritos and Privilege
The amount of sheer joy I derive from living in California in such close proximity to some of the best food America has to offer is often hard to put into words. My town alone has a large population of Latinos, Sikhs, Vietnamese, and a host of various Asian transplants which elevate the local cuisine to delectable heights.
There are mosques and temples, fish markets and panaderias, flea markets, outdoor malls, and a host of experiences to initiate the curious, but I have found the easiest way to learn about a culture is through their food.
Growing up in Bakersfield there has been no shortage of exposure to Latino culture from quinceaneras, school assemblies with folklorico dancing, weekend swap meets, pinadas, day of the dead celebrations, and the majority of my friends’ families who fed and helped raise me into who I am today.
However, I think a lot of people take for granted this diversity, and some have even come to expect the world to kowtow to their whims. Due to their inherent privilege they assume a level of comfort and respect at all times, and when that is encroached upon they are willing to write off an entire experience.
People sometimes tell me the place I recommended to them had rude service, they were ignored, or they felt like they were being talked down to, and, more often than not, this is a white person entering a predominantly non-white establishment. It is not hard to imagine the same experience is often flipped with non-whites in a white establishment feeling patronized or disrespected by an assumed prejudice employee. Neither side’s intent has to be prejudice, but the perception of a new experience can be distorted by ignorance.
Once, I was ordering pizza in the Bronx, and I was confused as to why the guy at the counter would not take my money. He handed me my slices, gave me the drinks, and there was nothing left for me to do but take it to my table and eat. After repeated attempts to hand him money he looked at me with disgust. I paid after I ate and later asked a cab driver why this happened, and he explained that the guy was Italian and most places in New York have more of a “European” way of doing things: you don’t pay until you have eaten your food. Here I was righteously indignant when I had been the rude one inadvertently offending him.
This was reinforced at The Algonquin when I waited for a half hour on my check in a not that busy restaurant. I later discovered rushing me out of a table is a faux pas. On both these occasions I thought I was being messed with, but it is just the way things are handled in that culture. In California the server is flipping tables as fast as possible to get the next tip in, but by the end of my stay in New York I was having 1 to 2 hour meals.
It is no secret America has a rich history of not being kind to others, and those in the privileged class grow used to privileges. When the kitchen tables have turned and said person of privilege finds themselves on the receiving end of discrimination one should chalk it up to an adventure in empathy rather than an excuse to demonize an establishment. Remember that the next time you perceive something off about your service. It is a privilege to get to partake in their culture and have them prepare their food for you. The price of the meal buys so much more than food, but it does not buy you respect. Like anywhere else, respect is earned, so be thankful for the opportunity to earn it.
So, I’ve been brewing over this post for a minute and let me just tell you, I absolutely love what you have to say. Especially that last line “the price of the meal buys so much more than food but it does not buy you respect”. So many great points in your post, But there are a few things I see in this post that don’t really come off right and lemme explain to you my experiences.
I also live in California, I actually live in LA which you well know is an extremely well cultured metropolis.
I’ve been to many Ethiopian, Indian, Greek, Italian, Mexican, south/central/west African, Arabic, middle eastern, Persian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mongolian, Cambodian, Thai, and other ethnic restaurant establishments. I am very mixed, I look white but half of my family is Mexican, black, and Italian, and the other half is many generations back American Norwegian/German. I also grew up in a home where my mother cooked foods from all the countries listed but we would go to these restaurants and try the foods first and then go home and try to replicate it, so I have a palette for many different types of foods.
So back to the point, EVERY ethnic establishment has a complete different experience. When we went to most Indian towns to pick up spices and chai teas and jasmine rice we would get treated like we did not know anything. We would ask for something and they would look at us as if we were stupid… And trust me… They fluently spoke English. But we always gave them the benefit of the doubt and came in super nice and bubbly and call them by name if we could remember and try to make our presence comfortable. Really Just to trying to warm up to them. It wasn’t till we came back many times that they started treating us with respect, which would take months sometimes years. The same with many Ethiopian establishments, they would really treat us like shit honestly, we would go to their restaurants and they would serve people of their own ethnicity first and very quickly, but it would generally take maybe 45 minutes for us to just get tea or water and when when we would try to talk to them or ask them questions hey would be very fidgety and or would look down on us, this happened at a few different restaurants in LA.
Most Greek, Mexican, and Mediterranean establishments were VERY sweet, always very nice. This place for instance called papa cristos, the owner is about 4’8 and he is famous around LA for always going around and speaking to new customers (and there are a lot!) and we always loved it and the food is absolutely amazing. The best Greek food in LA. We always come back their and buy the spices, wines, sangak, flour, and they have the best home made falafels.
Now the point I’m trying to get at is that it is all from perspective, some places are LEGITIMATELY being rude because they may be prejudiced to white people and who knows what they’ve been through? Who knows what they’ve had to deal with when coming to America? It’s probably terrible and I can never know how it feels. But what I’m trying to say is that when you come to America why not mold your service so that the demographic and people of your culture may benefit from the diversity of foods, clothing, and music you have to offer? A painting is not made from one color and so not all of the same race are exactly the same. we should be try to be inviting to everyone! I’ve had terrible experiences going to other places and meeting other cultures but I’ve never ever been prejudiced to others nor do I have the desire to. Just cause an Ethiopian man or woman was mean to me doesn’t mean I will be mean to another Ethiopian person I meet on the streets. Be nice to EVERYONE. Learn the cultures of where you are planning to establish yourself and try to make your presence comfortable and not something as a burden.
First, thank you for taking time to construct a response to my article. I am glad you found it interesting enough to initiate a conversation, and I think you, as well, make some great points.
I hope my post did not come off as defending prejudice, but more that tolerance in the face of perceived intolerance is a valuable skill. The phrase “more flies with honey” comes to mind…
Further to the point, like you said, a lot of ethnicities arrive in America escaping intolerance, war, oppression, and sometimes even the systematic dismemberment of their culture. Wanting to carve out a part of the land to create a safe haven for their people to practice and behave how they choose is what America was supposed to be all about.
As a white person, I do not think it truly possible to fathom the importance of culture and history because there is no parallel. So much of being white in early America pushed people to assimilate by stripping away any defining characteristics for general acceptance and financial success. Any strong association my family could have had to the many histories we descended from are all but lost, so I have a lot of respect for people who seek to protect themselves from a similar fate.
America seems to deliberately want to forget its own culture while absorbing everyone else’s, and this can be extremely problematic. It is observable in fashion with the appropriation often of sacred garb and jewelry for cute looks.
One day, perhaps we can all be nice to each other, but for every person like you who wishes the world to be as one there is an anti-you whose existence justifies inherent defensiveness. Yes, some places are just plain rude. If they are not providing a meaningful service to the community, especially to those of their own culture, they will most likely go out of business. Capitalism takes care of that.
People with prejudice are ignorant, but that does not always make them malicious. Sometimes it is a defense mechanism developed through a series of failed experiments in trust with the other. Personally, the only way I see to overcome these defenses is to be the best ambassador I can be and try to initiate conversations like this one.