“Just don’t be difficult.” I’d repeat that phrase to myself every day on my walk to work. Sometimes, I would follow by making the sign of the cross on my chest and on the door of my job before I walked in. I’m not Catholic, but going into work — where I was the only black female employee, and the only staff member singled out for violating a dress code that we were told didn’t exist — made me feel like I needed every bit of help I could get.
In the winter of 2016, I was hired as a hostess at one of Chicago’s most popular restaurants, where there was often an hours-long wait. The restaurant catered to clientele who had the trifecta of privilege — youth, a superior attitude, and disposable income — despite being a short Uber ride away from one of the city’s poorest areas. In fact, the place cashed in on its location; the owners spent thousands of dollars on making the inside of the restaurant look like your favorite SoundCloud rapper’s basement studio, and when guests enter, it’s intentionally dim, and they feel the bass of the hip-hop playlist. It’s a place where wealthy white millennials of Chicago can wear their “3″ Chance the Rapper hat, confidently rap along to songs with “n***a” in them, and feel like they’re a part of the black culture they ignored while on their way over to the restaurant.
Telling a customer that we couldn’t seat them would often result in “F**k you”s and racial slurs yelled back at me. I’d had similar experiences at previous restaurant jobs, like when a guest called me a “black bitch” and left a negative Yelp review when I asked for his ID (which was part of my job). Working at restaurants in one of the country’s most segregated cities, I sadly became accustomed to it.