Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Race to lunch on Elgin

I went to Wendy's today to try their new fish fillet sandwich, which I had seen advertised between online clips of the Colbert Report.

Harvey's (my fast food restaurant of choice) hasn't had a fish sandwich in years, and I haven't had a McDonald's Filet-o-Fish in five and a half years.

I also haven't been to Wendy's very often. It's the next rung up from McDonald's in my list of 'corporations I probably shouldn't frequent'. I used to enjoy it, but more recently the food would taste rather bland.

Then I remembered that the taste I get at Wendy's isn't just from the food.


The last time I was there, the girl at the cash was a young black girl whose eyes and face wore an expression of despondency. Her white colleague, a female maybe mid to late 20's, wearing a crisp managerial-type outfit, made smalltalk at her, completely oblivious to the black girl's utter lack of interest.

I think the black girl could see what I see.

Of the various traditional fast food places on Elgin street, Wendy's is the only one where the staff are nearly all of black or southeast Asian ancestry.

At Harvey's, they're almost all white except for the two managers, including Sammy (seen here shaking hands with Jean Chr├ętien). The recently-opened Quizno's is also very white bread. I haven't been inside the McDonald's recently, but peeking through the window on my way back from Wendy's today I saw a white guy behind the counter. Haven't been to Subway recently either so can't comment on that. There are no Tim Horton's on Elgin, but most of the ones downtown are staffed by visible minorities who barely speak English.

Meanwhile, look at the prices. McDonald's, Wendy's and Subway are lower on the budgetary spectrum, while Harvey's and Quizno's are definitely more expensive. There are also ethnic eateries like Shawarma and pho/bubble tea places, plus pizza places and non-fast-food places that are hard to compare because many of them are family owned and run.

I haven't done enough observation of the customers (Ottawa is pretty vanilla), so the most I can go on is the counter staff.

Clueless white guys

Andrew Nellis (who like me is white) told me a good story once of a trip to a suburban breakfast place with a black friend of his. They sat down and the staff never approached the table. Never gave them menus, asked for their orders, or so much as acknowledged their presence.

Andrew's friend told him that it was because he was black, and they should probably just go someplace else.

Andrew, being the hardcore activist he is, was upset by this and wanted to put up a fight. Stage a campaign, make a fuss, and so on. But his black friend told him that if he were to fight every time he encountered racism, he'd do nothing but. This shocked Andrew, as it did me when he relayed the story.

It's a good story of how easy it is to be ignorant of racism, sexism, homophobia, and discrimination against the poor when you're in the majority.

Just one clue

That's why I'm so bothered by this observation of the Wendy's staff. I've gotten as far as observing that there's something different going on, but I otherwise don't know what to make of it.

Is it because these are the lowest-paid jobs in the service sector, and these people are the only ones who will take it?

Are the other places discriminatory in their hiring practises?

Is there a correlation between race and poverty? Like, do they only apply to the lower-priced places because those are the only places where they shop?

And assuming I did figure out where this discrepancy came from, how should I respond? Actively boycotting Wendy's and Tim Horton's won't work; that would only encourage them to stop hiring minorities. (Not that fast food is good for your health)

I don't think the problem is with the fast food places; I suspect this is just a manifestation of a greater social problem that causes minority youth to be poorer and less well educated.

But it's really hard for me to know any of this because I'm a well-educated middle-class white guy who hangs around with other well-educated people and professionals who are mostly white.

Not that it matters at this point, but the fish fillet sandwich was unspectacular. A bit smaller than I'd hoped and the sauce bland.

- RG>


Anonymous said...

I think the entire fast food industry is corrupt, evil and exploitative beginning from where and how they purchase their products to the crap they produce and sell, to the marketing, to the workers they employ, to the damage they're doing to consumers. I think we SHOULD boycott them all and start encouraging people to eat real food again. This would benefit so many in so many ways I don't even have room to list them all right now.

RealGrouchy said...

Sigh, you're most likely right, XUP.

- RG>

Anonymous said...

You were telling a story about racial discrimination, then you ended with,

"It's a good story of how easy it is to be ignorant of racism, sexism, homophobia, and discrimination against the poor when you're in the majority."

It might be worth your time to consider how you mind made the leap from discussion racialized discrimination to suddenly "the poor." Just sayin.

Also if you haven't read White Privilege: Unpacking the Knapsack (PDF), you might like it.