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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

May I Help You? Dealing With Racism in the Service Sector

The next time you’re at the register in a store, the teller window of a bank, or the front desk of a hotel take a good look at the person behind the counter. Chances are you’ll rarely ever see a Black male working there.

When it comes to service jobs that require public interaction, Black males are the least likely to be hired even if they meet the qualifications to fill the job. Positions like receptionist, administrative assistant, sales rep, and customer service rep are often filled by a White woman, Black woman, Hispanic woman, Asian woman, Hispanic male, or males of other ethnicities.

So why don’t we see more Black men at the front desk? A little bit of sexism and a whole lot of racism. Most managers regardless of race are extremely uncomfortable with a Black male at their front desk as the “face” that represents their company. They believe that the sight of a black male at the service desk is detrimental to business and can possibly scare off customers, while a woman or male from another ethnic group in the same position would make the public feel more relaxed and comfortable.

While there are a few Black males (myself included) who have found work at the front desk in service positions, they often received no support from management once on the job. Instead of feeling “welcomed” during the first few weeks while adjusting to the new workplace, many Black men encounter a work environment that is distant and tense. Mangers have often shown new Black male employees they aren’t welcome with actions such as not introducing them to senior staff or co-workers in critical positions, explaining company policies, and telling subordinate employees to disregard the new employee’s instructions. The unwritten message co-workers in the workplace receive that the Black male has no real authority in his new job and is not going to be around long-term.

Other actions managers take to show black male employees they aren’t welcome include taking severe disciplinary action against them. Black men in service workplaces are often threatened with reprimands, write-ups or termination for minor mistakes that females or males of other ethnic groups would not be punished for. Such harsh discipline creates an unrealistic double standard for judging a black man’s work as compared to everyone else’s; the message is he has to work twice as hard to get half as far as everyone else. It also makes black men feel that they aren’t a part of a “team” and won’t be able to “fit in” the workplace.

In addition to a lack of support from management, Black males at the front desk have to deal with passive-aggressive behavior from their co-workers. Many Black men have stated while trying to communicate with co-workers and supervisors they have encountered defensive body language, indifferent responses, or treated with hostility when asking simple questions about work related tasks. Other passive-aggressive behaviors Black men have encountered from co-workers included company policies not being clearly explained, memos not being delivered to their desk, and documents becoming “lost”. With most service positions requiring constant communication between co-workers, these actions make it nearly impossible for a Black male to do their jobs effectively.

Black men also deal with resistance from customers in front of the counter as well. Many customers of numerous ethnicities are more willing and eager to complain about perceived harsh treatment, attitude or rude service when served by a Black male at the counter than if they received actual harsh treatment from a woman or male from another ethnicity. Other customers have complained of hard tone or hostility on the phone with a Black male customer service rep or receptionist. Moreover, some customers perceive the facial expressions and body language of black men as angry, surly, or menacing, when they approach them to ask for assistance. Other customers perceived themselves as being in danger and are actually afraid to approach black male employees at the counter and the sales floor.

This hostile and racist environment within the service workplace creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where Black men are unable to perform the basic tasks of their jobs. Because Black men are judged by unrealistic double standards from managers and encounter resistant actions by co-workers they become frustrated and resign after only a few months on the job. Other Black males who try to persevere are terminated for minor infractions and have their work records unfairly tarnished. This turnover creates a false perception in society that Black males are poor employees. However, this is far from the truth. Most Black males don’t perform well in service positions due to institutionally racist policies, cultural adhesion to sexist and racist gender roles in employment, a lack of support from management and co-workers, and prejudices from the public.

So how is this workplace racism detrimental to Black males and employment? With the service sector being fastest growing area of the economy in the United States over the last twenty years, oftentimes these are the only jobs available in urban areas that pay livable wages. With most service positions in the inner-city oftentimes filled by Black females, Hispanic females or Hispanic and men of other ethnicities, this discrimination leads to the disproportionate unemployment of Black men. In some urban areas the unemployment rate of Black males is close to 60 percent while the unemployment rate for other minorities (especially by gender) is significantly lower.

I’ve been employed in numerous service jobs since 1994 and over the years I’ve noticed a pattern in how minorities were placed in jobs and how Black men were treated in the workplace. From my observations over the years I noticed that Black men worked out of sight in the back, other minorities and females of color in the front regardless of education or work experience. At hiring pools, women of color and males of other ethnicities with the same qualifications were hired before Black men for a front-desk or administrative support position.

When I was placed in those rare front-end service jobs like the receptionist’s desk or at the circulation desk of a library, I was met with tremendous resistance from just about everyone. I often wondered if it was racism; looking back at my experiences now I’m pretty sure. It’s clear most people aren’t comfortable with the idea of a Black man in certain positions in the workplace, and that has to change. It’s time brothas started discussing the racist, sexist, and discriminatory actions of employers within the service sector and how it’s holding us back in our careers.

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