Thursday, January 12, 2012

Some Thoughts on "Lady Chinky Eyes"

“Lady chinky eyes” blew up last weekend, and it might be old news at this point, but I wanted to take some time to reflect on it. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, an employee of a Papa Johns pizza joint in Manhattan was fired after she’d used the offensive phrase on a receipt to describe a customer and a picture of it “went viral” on Twitter. It happened just a month after another fast-food restaurant, Chick-fil-A, fired a cashier for naming two Asian college students “Ching” and “Chong” on their receipts.

Honestly, I’m not sure I’d have given the matter more than an indignant retweet, but a friend whose intelligence I respect expressed sympathy for the boss’s point of view, which was that the employee could learn more from a conversation about racial sensitivity than from being fired. So I read and reread the boss's response to the incident in Saturday’s article on Gothamist.

First of all, I buy that the boss is a thoughtful mentor type. In fact, I did a little research and learned that Ronald Johnson, the Papa Johns operating partner quoted in the piece, is a widely admired finance whiz who reportedly grew up poor in New York City and whose success story has been featured by Crain’s New York Business and Entrepreneur, among others. To his credit, he expressed disappointment and outrage at the incident right off the bat. So let me take up his other remarks:

He said the female cashier was a “16-year-old urban youth who listens to this nonsense all day on TV and radio”—he said the incident reflected a larger disconnect in modern youth culture. . . . “When I googled the phrase, all these songs came up.”

I can’t help but wonder why he had to Google it. Was he unfamiliar with the expression? Anyway, to appreciate what he meant, I also Googled The Phrase. Of course, most of what comes up now are blog posts and news articles about the incident. But I did manage to find a whopping four examples of songs containing The Phrase in my admittedly cursory search. The first was an insipid ditty by a husband-and-wife Vietnamese pop duo, and I think it’s safe to say that particular tune hasn’t permeated the consciousness of urban youth in New York. The other three were by hip-hop artists, only one of whom I’d ever even heard of: Nicki Minaj. Her song “Cuchi Shop,” from almost four years ago, depicts a brothel madam who asks what kind of prostitute a client is looking for: “What you need, thick thighs and some chinky eyes?” Now there’s a true reflection of modern youth culture. Any teenager who’s ever perused a whorehouse menu could tell you that, or something.

“These kids bring their baggage into the store with them. I dont know if I should fire her." Johnson said it's normal practice for cashiers to identify customers with phrases like "lady with blue shirt" or "man with Yankees cap."

Obviously he understands that The Phrase isn’t comparable to the color of a shirt or a baseball team’s hat; what he meant is that this misguided teen is most likely unaware of its derogatory nature and was using it simply as a descriptive device. So where would he draw the line? There are equally or, some might argue, even more racially offensive terms one could substitute for The Phrase, which I won’t bother to articulate. But let’s take inflammatory language out of it altogether: What about identifying a customer as “fat guy” or “big tits”? (Chow has a summary of similar instances of offensive language used on receipts, racial and otherwise, here). Obviously, there need to be policies in place, regardless of whether the description is an intentional insult or merely an unfortunate choice of words.

"I bet I'll talk to her and she wont know why this is offensive. She needs to know, and she will know. If I fire her, two years from now, she won't even remember why she got fired. If I sit her down and talk to her, I can help her. You still need a certain decorum and level of professionalism [at minimum wage jobs], and that may help her more in the long run."

This is the real heart of the argument and, I suspect, the basis for why my friend found the boss a sympathetic figure: He’s like Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, and the cashier is Lou Diamond Phillips. She just needs someone who believes in her! And that is a nice thought. So, okay then—with a little patience and a little guidance, she could win Employee of the Month someday. "A negative times a negative equals a positive." (That's a line from the movie.) After all, despite the public outcry, the “victim” in this case wasn’t substantively wronged. She wasn’t refused service. She wasn’t charged an arbitrary fee. She wasn’t made to eat her mediocre pizza in a separate, but equal, section of the restaurant. Assuming this was a truly isolated event and doesn’t reflect a pattern of hostility, it would be alarmist at best to claim that she suffered real, live, racial discrimination.

But regardless of the boss’s good intent, to allow this incident to slide, even if only to give the young employee a chance for sensitivity to be trained into her, would be tantamount to racism—an institutional condoning of the use of a racial slur by a company representative. Firing the cashier and offering a corporate apology was the appropriate response and the minimum outcome that could be tolerated by a conscientious consumer. And by the way, he’s dead wrong about the alternative; I’m pretty sure she is going to remember why she got fired. And so will all her coworkers and everyone else who’s heard about it.

Here’s the thing: An action as crude as typing a disparaging remark on a fast-food receipt is a relatively minor transgression. It’s appalling, but at least such behavior can be identified, disciplined, rooted out. Personally, what I’m far more disturbed by, what’s much more insidious, are the subtler forms of maltreatment that occur every day in “real” restaurants, including ones that are respected for their supposedly superior quality and service. Being made to wait an hour after a scheduled reservation while parties who arrived later are seated; getting stuck by the bathroom, next to a swinging door, or way in the back in a dark spot where you can’t even see your meal; being left to sit without food or drink while others are seated, served, and settled up—these are some of the indignities I’ve endured, however seemingly slight. I won’t name names, but I’m talking about some well-regarded places. Zagat-rated places.

First World problems? Sure. But another reason I’ve been hesitant to vocalize my suspicions is, well, I can’t possibly be being treated differently, can I. This is the 21st century, in a cosmopolitan city where people of Asian descent make up more than 11% of the population. Double digits! I accept that not every experience can be optimal. We can’t all be seated at the best table; hosts and servers alike get overwhelmed; some patrons might have a special relationship with the establishment that affords them special attention.

And even if I receive service that’s doesn’t seem quite as good as it could or should be, race isn’t necessarily the issue. Maybe I’m not dressed well enough, or maybe I’m simply not assertive enough. Or there’s always the chance that these things happen inadvertently, randomly, purely incidentally. That’s what I keep telling myself anyway. And keep telling myself. Because the truth is it happens a lot.