I made some comments on a blog recently, and count myself fortunate enough to have certain friends ready to call me on the times when I do turn into a rude, condescending cow. The comments I made very much made me out to be not only classist, but racist as well and I was mortified when I realized just how big an error I had made, and I have since amended the post that those self-same comments appeared under.
You see, I am fortunate to be one of a minority of South Africans working in a white-collar industry. I am fortunate to have a roof over my head, food on the table, and clothing on my back. I am fortunate to have been brought up in a lifestyle of comparative luxury where I’ve never had to worry about finances. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced a part of the other side of the coin.
When I failed first year University on my backside, my parents pushed me into the working world. I had no degree, no experience, and yet I had to earn enough money to pay them back for the ‘wasted’ year of my life. I did what millions of teenagers who need a little extra money did. I started waitressing.
My first waitressing job was at middle-class restaurant on one of the beachfronts in Port Elizabeth. I made a little cash, but not enough because let’s face it – I suck at being a waitress. I preferred to spend my time talking to the nice family of four from America then actually taking orders and looking after the rest of my tables. How I managed to not get fired is something of a mystery to me, and I eventually left because of the Manager. He was a bit of a… well… male chauvinistic sexist jerk is I think too strong a term for him.
From there I went to work for a Pizza Restaurant. A pizza restaurant that didn’t hire cleaning staff. It was the job of the waitresses to ensure that the restaurant, soda fountain and toilets were kept clean and respectable. It was the job of the kitchen staff to ensure that the kitchens were kept clean. Talk about a wake-up call. I worked horrible hours, 6.00am until 4.00pm day shift and 4.00pm until midnight (sometimes 2.00am) for the night shift. I worked doubles regularly.
Day shift during the week was usually alright, there were three or four waitresses on duty and chores were split. Night shift during the week was hell. There was only one waitress on duty responsible for cleaning (proper behind the chairs and under the tables and behind the toilets cleaning) as well as for the slice bar, the tables, and the soda fountain. Unless the whole restaurant was spotless at the end of the shift, we weren’t allowed to go home. Two weeks in and I was already wishing I was back at the first restaurant, but pride refused to allow me to beg for my old job back. I decided to stay where I was for a bit before looking for something else.
I put up with rude comments, disgraceful behaviour, indecent proposals, and a whole lot of other things too disgusting to mention, all of them made by people that would normally have been considered peers, or acquaintances from the same social circles my family moved in. Not all the patrons were like that though, just a select few. Still, it was degrading and embarrassing to have people assume that just because I was a waitress it meant that I wasn’t worth a little bit of respect.
When the opportunity was offered to me to work as a filing clerk at my dad’s company, I jumped at the chance. Anything was better than putting up with the derogatory behaviour I had been putting up with. I was wrong.
At the Pizza restaurant, I at least had a respite occasionally due to a lot of the patrons being decent people. Working for my dad’s company didn’t offer me that respite and ended up being even more of an eye-opener. When I started there, I kept my head down and didn’t say anything because I didn’t want preferential treatment simply because of who my father was. Most of the staff hadn’t met me before, and it was easy to blend in. I was stuck in a basement office with three very sweet black ladies who showed me the ropes and took me under wing. The work was simple. Log the files in and out of the computer system, and sort and file the documents as they came in.
It became clear within a few short hours just where my position on the company ladder was. I was treated with disdain and contempt and, in some cases, pity. I wasn’t good enough to be associated with in other words. At least at the pizza restaurant I was spoken to by some of the patrons. As a filing clerk, I rated below a waitress.
A month later I was transferred to a data capture position and given an e-mail address that revealed one thing I had pretty much kept hidden – my surname. “Are you (dad's name)’s daughter?” came the shocked question time and time again as people realized that the filing clerk that they had thought was beneath them was revealed to be a partner’s daughter. Behaviours changed overnight and suddenly people were sucking up to me. Anything to improve their status in the company.
It sickened me, and I vowed that I would never become a two-faced classist, racist, condescending cow. How wrong I was. From data-capturer, I was offered a better position, and worked my way slowly but surely up in a white-collar field. I still don’t have a degree, but at least I have experience, which has helped me to get myself into a position that is enviable by the majority of South Africans who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve been given. Despite this, despite having seen how people react to those they consider beneath them, I still went ahead and fell into the trap that only the self-absorbed, idiotic elitist fall into daily and wrote something that was degrading, rude and condescending.
I’m furious with myself. Furious that I have allowed myself to fall into a mindset that I try to avoid. Furious that I have allowed myself to be so negatively influenced. Furious, in fact, that no one who read that blog, apart from those very good friends, called me on it. What’s done is done. I have tried to fix the mistake, but there’s no knowing exactly how many people have read my words and wondered how I could have had the audacity to say what I did.
There’s no excuse, ever, for that kind of behaviour and it’s sad that it’s still so rife. Rife enough that I see it every day in the way that some of my colleagues treat those that they consider beneath them. They say changing the world starts with one person, but what can one person do to change such a mindset in others?