The Bitter Taste of Racism

I've spent most of my life working in customer service. In one way or another, every job I've ever had required me to interact with paying customers. Those jobs taught me a lot about people. They also gave me reason to watch others when they interact with people who are just trying to do their jobs.

When I order takeout, there are only a handful of places that I go. I tend to be a regular customer at restaurants where they know me. I like to order there so that I can look around and see that it's clean. If someone else is making my food, I prefer knowing that they're going to do it right and that they regularly follow food safety standards. There are three places that I frequent where friends of mine work. I was at one of them earlier this week when I witnessed a bizarre and racist encounter.

I'd finished placing my order and I was chatting with the cashier. Someone else came in, so I stepped to the side to let her help the other customer.

"I want to talk to a manager," the older lady said, cutting off the cashier before she could even welcome her.

The girl came back a moment later with one of the shift managers following her. "How can I help you?" She had a smile in her voice and on her face when she greeted the grumpy woman.

"I was in here the other night and I had a horrible experience. The store was full of teenagers and they were climbing all over the counters. There was a black girl back there and I don't think she works here. They weren't wearing gloves when they put toppings on the pizzas and then that black girl left when I came in and she went that way." She pointed west toward the other stores in the strip mall. "I don't know if she works down there or what but I don't think she works here. My pizza was also terrible. It was just flavorless. It didn't taste like it usually does. My husband said so, too. It was just flavorless."

The manager had stood there quietly while the woman ranted but was quick to reply when body language indicated that the customer wanted an answer. I was rapt. I couldn't wait to hear this conversation from the outside.

"I'm sorry to hear you had a bad experience," the manager began. The phone started to ring and the cashier darted around the corner to answer it on the other end of the counter. "First of all, this county doesn't require us to wear gloves when we're touching food that is going to be cooked. Our oven is over 450 degrees. We only wear gloves if we have to touch food that will not be cooked again before it is consumed."

The customer's shoulders straightened as her lips pulled a little bit tighter together. "Well, I suppose that makes sense. But there!" She pointed at the petite cashier as she leaned over the counter to see the pop cooler and list off what varieties they had in stock for the person on the other end of the phone. "She's doing it again! She was climbing on the counter like that when I was in here before. What's wrong with you that you can't keep these kids from treating this place like it's a jungle gym?"

"Um..." the manager hesitated.

I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.

"She's not doing it for fun," she continued hesitantly. "You made it sound like she was goofing off. But she's just trying to do her job and is too short to see the cooler." The manager paused for a few seconds and we all listened to the girl be pleasant and perky to the person on the phone.

"Well, okay. Fine. But what about that black girl? She shouldn't have been back there."

The manager’s eyes narrowed just a little bit and her lips pressed together. "Ma'am, people who don't work here aren't allowed behind the counter. Only employees can be back here." Her tone was carefully controlled and not nearly as friendly as she’d been up to that point.

"But she doesn't work here! She was wearing all black and she wasn't wearing a hat on her--" The woman cut herself off as she gestured with both hands to illustrate the size of the woman's hair.

I instantly knew who she was talking about because that's one of my friends. She's the only black woman in that restaurant who wears her hair natural. She's also one of two girlfriends that I told before I eloped with my husband. I had to intentionally loosen my jaw so that I wasn't grinding my teeth. I watched the manager blanch while I felt my face flush with anger.

“Ma’am, our uniforms are black.” She gestured to her black shirt and apron. She pointed at a few of the other employees in sight. “Everyone back here is wearing all black. The woman you’re talking about has worked here for years and no one has ever has a bad thing to say about her. Did she say or do something to bother you or offend you?"

"No. She was just here."

My mouth fell open in surprise at her oblivious tone. She was just here--as if her mere presence had been enough to offend this wretched old woman.

"But I'm also not happy with the pizza we got. It was absolutely flavorless. It just didn't taste like anything at all. I can't believe that I'd be served such a subpar pizza."

The manager took a moment to look up her order history in the computer and read off her last order. The woman agreed that that is what she ordered.

"Was it made wrong?" the manager inquired.

"No. It had everything we asked for."

"Was it missing the sauce?"

"No. Why would it be?" she asked in an indignant tone.

"You said it was flavorless and I'm trying to understand what you mean by that." The manager looked genuinely perplexed as she cocked her head to the side and her eyebrows drew together. "It had the sauce and cheese and all of the right toppings, and yet it still had no flavor?"

The grumpy racist murmured her agreement.

"Was it cooked wrong?" The manager glanced around the lobby, as if she were searching for an answer or perhaps some logic. Maybe she was looking for hidden cameras because, frankly, it was getting rather ridiculous. I caught her eye for a second but she looked away. Probably because I was trying not to laugh.

"No. It was cooked fine," the old woman said like the suggestion was absurd.

The manager's eyebrows knitted together again and her lips pursed in consternation. "I'm sorry, but I just don't understand," she admitted. "We don't make the toppings here. The pepperoni already has the spices in it. So does the sauce. We don't actually cook it and add the spices to it here. It is pre-made."

"That's what I figured."

The manager looked baffled as she waited for the woman to say something else. "Um..." she said after a few seconds of the woman waiting expectantly. "So, what can we do to make this right for you?"

"I don't know. It was just flavorless. It wasn't good. It wasn't bad. It was just bland and totally flavorless."

"So, do you want a credit for next time?" the manager asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes, that will be fine," she replied with no hesitation.

Ha! So that's what she was after all along. A small snort escaped through my nose and I tried to pass it off as a cough. I'm pretty sure no one bought it, though.

Once she left, I stood up from the bench where I'd been observing the conversation. My order was ready--I had watched them bring it up. But I'd also wanted to see how the complaint ended. I took in the still baffled expression of the manager as she bagged my food. Helpless to control myself, I opened my mouth and the sarcasm just came pouring out.

"So, I know what was wrong with that lady's pizza."


"Yeah. I mean--how does she expect to taste her food when her mouth is already full of the bitter taste of racism?"

She burst into laughter and promptly slapped her hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry. That's inappropriate."

"No. That woman was inappropriate in her prejudices. *** is an awesome person and she doesn't deserve that kind of ignorant hatred. And you laughing at her ridiculousness is entirely appropriate, even if it's not very professional. I'll see you later."

I took my food and left.


***To protect the innocent--and the offended--I've quite intentionally left out any names of people and places.