A black Burger King employee who went on a racist rant against a Hispanic couple she assumed was white didn't have it her way after she was terminated from her fast food job last month. . . She shouted at the pair, who had a crying baby in the car: 'F*** you, you white piece of s**t... how about that? F*** you.' The woman in the car said: 'We're not even white... we're Hispanic. Get it right' before another worker next to the angry employee slammed the drive-thru window shut. The defiant worker opened the window again and called the woman a 'fat b****' and f***ing wh***.' The female customer fired an insult back: 'I don't care... at least I'm not working at Burger King.' Further infuriated, the employee added: 'I don't care. B****, I have two parents, I go to school... this job, the money I make, is to blow up. So it don't matter.' . . . "The woman in the car asked: 'Are you threatening to kill me?' The employee replied: 'Did you hear me say that?,' before the video concluded."(Ibid.)
This post includes brief reflections on this story, and the contradictions it exposes at the intersections of race, class, culture, family life, age, and place. It also suggests the consequences of perhaps larger movements, felt subliminally throughout society, that reflect not just to the current state of racial (re)construction in this country (and its discourse), but also to a very short essay I had prepared for the very 1st Annual Northeastern People of Color Scholarship Conference, held at Western New England College School of Law in 1996, and hosted by Len Baynes (now the Dean of the University of Huston Law Center). The text of those remarks, Pitied but not Entitled: The Normative Limitations of Scholarship Advocating Change, also follow.
1. Assumptions about race at the front line continue to defy the elaborate theories constructed by elites of all groups to try to understand, mediate, solve or challenge, them. And yet a residue, understood in a way that suits those who choose to consider these, tends to produce articulations of theory that tend to produce dissonance between action and theory.
2. The explosion that gave rise to this heated exchange (as these tend to) was connected to the most everyday and banal event--dissatisfaction with service at a modestly priced fast food restaurant drive through lane. No great stakes were involved; nothing that could change the course of history might have been surmised for the context. And yet, as these things tend to develop, and with the help of the Daily Mail (of course, because individuals now need the social media giants to leverage single voices into institutional discourse), the incident acquired a resonance and importance through transmission and the invitation of others to take part in the communal reaction (and disciplining) that followed.
3. Once the events started, the tools of inter-sectionality were used quite effectively. The protagonist (eventually fired for her efforts) started by reacting to consumer demands by referencing race. But the object of that invective countered by denying the racial profiling (and therefore, probably, the assumed obligations that come with whiteness and its privilege) and offering a distinct category from which to shorthand obligation, responsibility and the attendant behavioral expectations that flow from that. But racial thrust and counter thrust quickly created a potential situation of stalemate, requiring the combatants to move on down the line of binary oppositions. The first was gender, and the second involved a classic judgment of the character of sexual activities. These insults, grounded in assumptions of gender and appropriate sexual roles bade on gender, were then met with a class based counter attack--disparaging the opponent by ridiculing her work, a ridicule made possible only by a shared assumption about the hierarchies of the wage labor market, the place of the job of fast food restaurant worker in it, and the presumption abut the character and prospects of that worker as a result. That brought the last counter--the assertion, effectively, that the restaurant worker was "slumming" in the sense that she did not need the job and by reference to her social condition (parents, schooling etc.) she could not possibly belong to the soci-cultural group implied by work as a fast food restaurant drive through counter worker.
4. As appalling as these "backs and forths" might be to the academic, they efficiently and swiftly deployed what appears to be still strongly held presumptions about the consequences of status--race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic position, family status, fat shaming, etc.-- in interactions that themselves were dependent on those presumptions to impose obligation and power. Yet at the same time, they also appear to have begun to glimpse at changes on those presumptions that have been at the center of the work of "critical" academics over the last generation. The last interaction--"The woman in the car asked: 'Are you threatening to kill me?' The employee replied: 'Did you hear me say that?,' before the video concluded" (Daily Mail)--suggests a deep cultural familiarity with the performance of consequential use of status attacks in American society. Here one sees the way that high theory tends to seep down into the general culture, but exhibit characteristics that might not quite reflect the presumptions of the theories that they are meant to perform.
5. Still, there was nothing remarkable in the exchange, really an everyday occurrence, and it would not have been worth the words wasted on its description, except for one thing: the protagonist made three mistakes. The first was to deploy the hierarchies of racial insult and privilege, the second was to make what the opponent (and perhaps others) would have considered to be a "mistake" in racial profiling for purposes of insult, and the third was to think that racial privileging could, in today's circumstances, protect a person from the consequences of race based attack on "whiteness."
6. With respect to the first and third, the woman who was eventually fired from Burger King could have thought that she was privileged to hurl such insults as long as the object was whiteness (e.g., New York Times stands by new writer with old tweets attacking white people). Yet it might be that the privilege that applied to the the employees of the New York Times (to to other high ranking individuals within the contemporary U.S. wage labor market) do not extend down the wage labor markets to a fast food restaurant worker. If that is the case then race baiting privilege might be better understood as bounded by class rather than race, or that it becomes more complex at the intersection of both is bounded by class. Or perhaps it suggests that whiteness can continue to manage the permission to indulge in white race baiting as it deems useful to its own ends (Ibid. "This comes months after the Times fired new hire Quinn Norton over racist and anti-gay language in her old tweets."). This is not clear but worth considering.
7. But the most interesting aspect of the story, from my perspective was the second--the very complicated story of racing ethnicity. Both the object of invective, and the newspaper, made much of the "mistake" of racing a couple who identify as "Hispanic" as white. But that is quite interesting in one of the American capitals of hybridity. From some perspectives of the "outside" race is the privileged marker of "belonging." But from the insider perspective (in this case) ethnicity privileges (at east as against some conceptions of the meaning of specific racialization, e.g., to be raced as "white" in South Florida might be a signal not just of race but of race plus ethnicity, which thus voids the race classification understood here as a "bundled" term). But more importantly, perhaps, is that while eyebrows were raised about the race aspects of this chapter in the mundane and perhaps ordinary realities of people not in the academy among those of us interested in looking in from an even more remote place, there was little to say about what actually enriched the dialogue--gender/sex, class, family status, educational level, and weight. And there was even less interest (except perhaps by implication) in the value of the use of naughty language as confirmation of the status signalling that one might glean from the place of this encounter--Miami, Burger King, baby, etc. None of this is clear, even as the exchange and the consequences--the Burger King employee was fired because her values did not reflect those of her employer (in the bloodless language of the employer: "A Burger King spokesperson told the Miami Herald Monday: 'The actions of this team member do not reflect the values of the Burger King brand. 'We have a zero tolerance policy for this type of behavior, and the individual is no longer with the company.'"Daily Mail).
8. Of course, none might have been of interest to anyone. One might guess that some people read the article the way one would the proverbial "Man bites dog" story. For others there might be something here to suggest that prejudice and the use of race insults, stereotyping etc. is a universal vice and not necessarily a function of the "privileging" of one race group against others. Still others might see in the story confirmatory derived from the extended exchange that race is really just a doorway to the more interesting status based judgments grounded in class, place on wage labor markets, body typr¡e, family situation, etc. Or it might just be that the language is symbolic--its power derives form its association, and yet it is meant to serve a purpose other than of status judgment. People communicate in a variety of ways that are subtly nuanced in the context in which language is deployed to some ends. I do not presume to supply answers; I am still trying to get my hands around the question.
9. But more interesting still may be the way that discipline--at least at the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, employment status, weight, "foul" language, class, etc.--has now moved the state to the background. Social norms have indeed begun to move, it seems--but perhaps only those of the employer class. They certainly do not seem to have moved much at the level of personal interactions among at least some individuals. But it is the employer that seems to have become the vanguard in changing and enforcing rules of acceptable public behavior. The state is essentially invisible. Yet the enterprises are engaging in this project of social reconstruction for their own reasons. The individual who initiated this interchange was terminated form employment. Query whether economic "death sentences" make sense, but the issue of remedy and penalty I leave for another day, though here again intersections come into play, and again class at the forefront in some cases. But the reason for the termination had little to do with her--it had everything to do with the protection of the "brand" of the employer. That is, of course, something that many might take for granted. But should they? Making economic decisions in the pursuit of brand value maximization is reasonable, but its consequence is to deepen the perversity of labor relations in an odd way. It might be reasonable to ask at what point ought power hierarchies in economic relations permit an employer to assert control over the lives of employees. In this case the result might be viewed as "good" because it was "right." But the tools used do not know either "right" or "good." And the same power that permits an employer to protect its brand against profanity laced intersectional invective, might also be used to assert power, culturally sensitive power, in other ways.
10. As well, enforcement has also migrated from the state to social media. One wonders the extent to which the employer would have been moved to take action but for either the recording of the event, or the interest of the Daily Mail. I have spoken to the construction of self referencing private systems of enforceable norms in the context of global production and human rights (Economic Globalization and the Rise of Efficient Systems of Global Private Lawmaking: Wal-Mart as Global Legislator). Those changes may also have application here. Yet this privatization of both norm making, the rules that are derived therefrom ("x" is a termination offense") and enforcement. Perhaps in the area of intersectional relations--the ground rules for the management of the public interactions at the fault lines of intersection (race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) there is also quite a bit of regulatory privatization being developed in the shadow of law. These are worth more serious study for its opportunities as well as the challenges it poses for law systems, the state, and the locus of cultural, political and economic power within communities bound together by any or all of these.
11. All of this is self evident, and very well worn, though contentious, territory among those who study race, ethnicity and the intersections of those with other status based classifications that make up the complex rules of cultural interactions among a society quite fond of putting people in their place.And of course, it was not clear why the individual was terminated. Was it because of the aggregation of invective that crossed a line? If so what line? Was it one of the vectors of invective? Was the race baiting enough? Or Did it also need the trigger of class, family status, gender, or gender based stereotypical invective--all well on display? Would it have been sufficient is the invective included all but the race bit? Or was the problem that the individual got the race bit wrong? None of this is clear, and the employer was likely satisfied enough that any one of those (if caught on video) would have been sufficient. If caught on video.
12. But did the terminated individual get the race bit "wrong"? That part of this story brought back a memory of another movement that may be lurking beneath the surface of this banal exchange and its aftermath, something at the heart of the crossroads of ethnicity and race in the context of the management of those hierarchies, something that might confirm very tentative insights offered in 1996. That "something else" is the dynamic element of racing individuals in the United States, and of the constant process of "creaming" that retains its potency in the assimilation of sectors of the Hispanic population within the inter-sectoral hierarchies that contribute to the ordering of U.S. society. I end these reflections with a look back to 1996. “Pitied But Not Entitled”: The Normative Limitations of Scholarship Advocating Change, 19 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 59 (1997), follows. It may be worth asking, has much changed?