On Monday, Karmen Elaine, a restaurant worker in downtown Detroit, asked a friend to publish a Facebook post in response to the silence of her corporate restaurant group’s management team in the midst of a pandemic, a recession, and nationwide protests over police brutality in black communities. The original post discusses not only the “passivity” of her employers, but also indicts an industry whose labor force is largely composed of black and brown workers who are rarely provided with opportunities to rise into positions of leadership. Eater asked her to expand on her experience in the restaurant industry, before and during the novel coronavirus pandemic, and what she’d like to see from the hospitality industry during this moment.
There’s a look and an aesthetic you need to work at a certain place. I experienced that in Chicago, being told that I didn’t fit the profile or that I just didn’t have the right look. As an athletic, queer, black woman, it seemed clear what they were getting at. You have to look right and you have to speak right. You have to take shit from people all the time with a smile. And it’s one thing for that to be a job — but then when you have to do that with your employer, it’s even more exhausting.
Working at my latest place, I had long hair and weaves and I was timid to wear my natural hair; it was almost four months in until I did. I was nervous to change my aesthetic, because I was a staple in the entryway of the restaurant, welcoming customers inside, and people don’t recognize me when I change my hair. I had a customer say, “Oh, you know, there was a girl here, dark skinned and pudgy. I hope to see her again.” And she was talking about me to me.
So, the way I carry myself and the way I choose to reinvent myself with my outward appearance has a direct effect on how people treat me at my job. And I don’t think it’s intentional. I think that’s hospitality: You want somebody friendly and bubbly and cute and soft and whatever at your host stand. However, this often leads to the fetishization and tokenization of people of color. There is a look that is considered less threatening and more approachable.
Working in Detroit, it was very exciting to be surrounded by black and brown people in the front of house who aren’t just, like, in the kitchen or housekeeping. However, it’s that diverse because of where we are. It’s not necessarily intentional. It’s just the way it is demographically. The opportunities for those black and brown people to get promoted are obviously less than our white peers. Our managers aren’t black and brown. Our corporate leaders, when they come in from New York, are not black and brown, so it’s still very limited. We’re here and we’re able to be in this entry-level position, and that’s where we end up stuck. Only the select few get those opportunities to climb that ladder.
This was my first time working with a corporate restaurant group or a larger restaurant group. On a corporate level, there are so many more hoops to jump through to get them to do anything. Last year, it was two days before Pride and I had to speak to someone, and I said, “We have three American flags outside and it’s Pride Month. Are we doing anything?” For companies that brag about diversity and inclusivity and hiring LGBTQ people, that shouldn’t have come from me. That’s really the point: This shouldn’t be coming from me. There should have already been those things in motion — systems in place. This isn’t a surprise. There shouldn’t be a reason why I wanted to remain anonymous.
There are no answers with the pandemic, but there really hasn’t been an open line of communication. There was an Instagram post from New York, and then our team started calling people letting us know we were closing. This was the first thing we heard from our leaders, followed by the official termination letter and instructions to navigate loss of health insurance after a certain date. Since then, we’ve received one company-wide email offering one resource. This is more than some employers have done, but mine could have done more. I would think that a company would be reaching out to their employees in a more personal way, even if it’s an email being like, “Hey, just checking in to see if anybody needs anything. Please feel free to call if you need a meal, if you need counseling, if you need support in some way. We don’t have solutions yet, but we are keeping you informed as we go forward.”
We’ve actually had team members, both past and present, die since we’ve been closed. Wouldn’t a wellness check be appropriate? I don’t understand why they can’t simply send out an email when we get emails from them advertising products for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
I expected the same for what’s going on with the protests. When you have a staff that is 80 percent black, I don’t know why you wouldn’t intentionally reach out to those people and check on them, because a great percentage of your employees may be out protesting and could have been arrested, could have been injured.
I feel like they may ask me back to be a server, but we don’t know what that looks like at 50 percent capacity. Nobody’s going to be making the same amount of money as they were. And I’m concerned about safety. I’m my mother’s primary caregiver: Her husband passed away in April; she’s immunocompromised. So I can’t put myself in a position that’s reckless, because I need to take care of my mother.
The type of commitment to reach out to people is an HR issue, and it should happen because they’re going to need us to come back. And we will, because we have to — for lower wages than before, in more compromising health conditions than before, and to corporations that remain silent against police brutality. There needs to be a conscious effort and investment in the mental and physical wellbeing of hospitality workers. I think that if they were to make that intentional step and to reach out, it could really be monumental. It would be so nice to know that they care at that level now.
If we were to open next week — which I don’t think we are — being downtown with all of the protesting going on... I don’t think it’s safe to, I don’t think it’s smart to, and I think it would look like we were tone-deaf if opened and had things be business as usual. And I feel that for any restaurant or business in downtown right now.
If they are doing things, then they need to be public about it. Maybe some companies are, but this isn’t the time to not be public about it. If, in the middle of all of this, we’re still getting advertising emails — I don’t understand. I don’t understand how that translates. The least we could do is take a knee to our regularly scheduled programming and allow this to be in the forefront, not a product. This isn’t a photo op.
*This story was lightly edited for length and clarity.
This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience. First-time writer? Don’t worry, we’ll pair you with an editor to make sure your piece hits the mark. If you want to write an Eater Voices essay, please send us a couple paragraphs explaining what you want to write about and why you are the person to write it to email@example.com.