Editor’s Note: James Baldwin said to be conscious and Black in America is to be enraged most of the time. And sadly, those words are still true for many of us. In addition to the deeply depressing and unjust news headlines, there are the hostile situations we deal with everyday. For many of us, these incidents happen at work. In a culture where we spend more time working than with our families, these environments, with ignorant and entitled White people, can be everything from tiring to infuriating. In our new series, “Working While Black,” we compile some of those stories and share them with you, as a way to let you know you’re not alone, to offer advice on how to navigate these situations and hopefully to keep you from losing your mind, your temper or your job.
Earlier this week after dining at my favorite restaurant in the city I proceeded to the bathroom before heading home. As I waited for the next available bathroom stall, I observed a very strange interaction between a Black bathroom attendant and a white female tourist.
While in the bathroom stall, the white woman yelled out that she didn’t know how to flush the toilet and asked the attendant for help. The woman opened the stall door and the attendant pointed to the toilet flusher knob and told her to push it down. Instead of following directions, the woman squatted beside the toilet, looked at the toilet flusher knob and then up at the attendant and said, “Um, I don’t know how.” Exasperated, the attendant rolled her eyes, entered the stall and flushed the toilet with no problem. As soon as the woman heard the toilet flush, she broke out into a smile and told the attendant “Oh you must have the magic touch!”
Afterward, the attendant handed the woman two sheets of paper towels to dry her hands but instead of taking it, the woman held her hand out, waiting for the attendant to dry her hands for her. When the attendant didn’t oblige, the woman sheepishly smiled, took the paper and dried her hands off herself.
Although the duties of bathroom attendants vary by establishment, usually they supervise the restroom to ensure no fighting or drug use takes place. According to a CityData.com thread, those who’ve worked as bathroom attendants stated their duties also included: keeping the bathroom clean and providing perfume, mints, feminine hygiene and other miscellaneous products that customers need. Depending on the bathroom size, a bathroom attendant may or may not turn on the sink faucet for you but will always provide you with paper towels.
Although they are in a customer service position, I’ve never seen a bathroom attendant act or be treated like a personal servant. This foreign woman’s behavior was just another reminder of how classism and race influence the treatment of those in the customer service industry, especially people of color. After college I worked at Ann Taylor in the Upper East Side section of Manhattan in New York City. The clients were usually older white women who frequented the store quite often and they would purposely ignore me and refuse my help until they learned I was a college graduate and loved to shop where they shopped (i.e. Lord And Taylor, Nordstrom, etc.). I assumed the latter made me more human and relatable to them — the same reason I connected with the bathroom attendant, we were the same. Since she was an older Black woman I treated her the same I would my mother and aunts. I assume for the white tourist though, the attendant was just another customer service employee who is supposed to do her job —being subservient and respectful.