Normalcy in the Workplace

“Oh, shit. Another one from Milwaukee.”

As a party host for children’s birthday parties at an arcade in a surrounding suburb of Milwaukee, my fellow coworkers and I had learned the tells. We knew what Milwaukee meant for us.

It was the first thing on our minds when we walked in each day: We wanted to know who our personal guests for the day were. The immediate followup to clocking in each day was to head straight to the front desk to look at our party “contracts” for the day. Within them was contact information for the guests who’d booked the party. To us, that was all the information we needed to know to tell us how our shift was going to go, and how much we were going to get paid.

There were the simple tells like the birthday child’s gender and age. You didn’t want a kid under three, because our typical activities weren’t suited for them. You didn’t want a boy from 8–12 years old, because then you’re in a room with 10+ 8–12 year old boys and they’ll probably chant things at you and call you stupid and other mean things that little boys do (seriously, they were the worst). The list goes on.

But those kinds of things were secondary. What we really cared about were things like the birthday child’s name and the city they were from. Those were where the real tells came from.

For instance: if the birthday child’s name was Tyler and he lived in a familiar suburb like Greenfield or Hales Corners, he and his accompanying party were going to be familiar, too. They’d probably be white, middle-class, polite, etc. When you saw you had a party like this, you breathed easy. It was going to be relatively easy-going.

It was no Pewaukee party, though. The Pewaukees, the Brookfields, the Mequons of the world — those were what we were really looking for, what we really wanted in a party. Sure, the parents and relatives might be a bit snobbier and pay closer attention to the quality of your balloon animals or your face-painting skills. But if you passed those tests? You were getting paid. Their tip was going to be generous, and you’d know it would be coming.

But you probably didn’t want an “Rakesh” or a “Saanvi.” Their family and friends would be nice, and probably also leave a nice tip, but Indian parties (clearly this was going to be one) were always huge and demanding. Even if you had another party host beside you to help out, you were probably going to have to entertain 20+ kids, serve and clean up after 30+ adults, and really make sure you didn’t violate any of their birthday traditions. You’d be spent by the end of it, and likely want to go home.

You didn’t want Milwaukee, either, and you definitely didn’t want a “Datone” or an “Ashanti.” Datone and his friends themselves would probably be well-behaved, but that’s not who you cared about. Who you cared about was their parents, their aunts and uncles, their family friends. They were going to show up late, be untrusting and rude, possibly reek of marijuana, and leave a minimal tip. You avoided these parties at all costs, and if you couldn’t, you would cross your fingers that they were a no-show.

This absolute kind of thinking, of course, wasn’t entirely indicative of how we felt. For some, their preconcieved notions of a party were imminent, and there was nothing they could do about it. But most others weren’t that naive, and a party’s demographics were merely heuristics — things weren’t going to be exactly how we’d imagined it every single time, but it was often a good indicator. Regardless of the scale of prejudice, it was ingrained our workplace. No matter who you were, these kinds of things were undoubtedly at the front of your mind until the party was over and you got your tip. You cleaned up your room for the next party, looked at its contract, and prepared for whatever you thought, or knew, was next; and the cycle continued.

It was inextricable from the workplace culture, and would eventually seem normal once you were around it enough. No matter the employee, nobody wanted those Milwaukee parties; as many would have openly admitted, it was because they were probably going to be black. But most were never explicit about it — that would have crossed the line. No, you had to speak about it in a not-so-discreet code. And we all were well-versed in it. Everyone sympathized when you said “Ugh, that last party was so ghetto,” and they knew what they were getting into when you asked them to take a Milwaukee party off your hands.

Some felt more comfortable about openly airing their grievances. You’d often hear a manager complain about a disgruntled guest “playing the race card” in order to get a refund or gift card. Many times, that “race card” really was a card — merely a tactic in getting what they wanted, and the reaction was perhaps warranted. Still, the irony was obvious when you’d hear someone predict “I bet they play the race card” before a confrontation, or say “and of course they played the race card” after one.

Others were simply disinterested in masking their true feelings altogether. One superior in particular wasn’t shy about sharing his feelings to other coworkers and me on his personal dichotomy of what was otherwise known as “ghetto” guests. After we observed a confrontation between one of our managers and a disgruntled black woman looking for a refund, he turned to me and murmured. “Fucking niggers.”

Even amongst a culture of predispositions and prejudice, this was surely out of the norm to the rest of us. As I predictably turned towards him with disbelief, he recited what almost sounded like a rehearsed explanation of the topic: “No, no, see there’s two types. There’s nig-gas, who are fine. But then there’s nig-gers like that woman. That was a nigger.” He half-smiled, expecting me to do the same. If I had heard this anywhere outside of work, I’d have been sure it was tone-deaf joke. But I was at work, so instinctively, I knew that wasn’t the case here.

It’s unfair to let this particular employee stand in as the face of the working culture as a whole at my job. In fact, I thought of most of my coworkers as generally good and kindhearted people. But that reccurently begged the question: How did we continue to prejudge our guests time and time again and just be OK with it? Hell, we even openly joked about how our jobs were doing their best to make us racist. Yet, we would say that, then come in the next day and rush to our party contracts again and decide what our shift was probably going to look like. Did that make us bad people, even if we were using them as heuristics instead of prejudicial absolutes?

It’s a question that I revisited time and time again over the course of my employment. Ultimately, I always came back to the answer, “no.” I rationalized that if parties from different areas or birthday kids with specific names tended to show a pattern, for better or for worse, then it wasn’t inherently immoral to see the next party of the same “kind” and think “OK, well statistically, this next one is likely to play out in a somewhat similar fashion.” I was an employee looking for easy-going shifts and big tips, and it was a numbers game to me.

Regardless of the fairness of that conclusion, it’s hard to look back and ignore the culture that the nature of our jobs breeded. It was a culture of self-intersted profiling that was inescapably ubiquitous; a culture so normalized that after awhile, it became routine rather than conscious thought; a culture that turned an already-present ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality against difficult customers into a camaraderie of sorts. It was a culture so ingrained and impactful that a typically outspoken and forward-thinking high schooler could listen to their coworker unapologetically explain the difference between a “nig-ga” and a “nig-ger,” and do nothing but awkwardly smile, brush it off, and move on with his shift like it never happened. It just seemed like the normal thing to do.

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