I don’t see myself as prejudiced.
Biased? Of course. We all are. But Prejudiced? No.
Prejudiced is such a harsh word for a liberal minded, Caucasian, Suburban, Jewish, Middleclass, girl of the 80’s. I can’t watch the 70’s era musical “Hair” because it is not PC enough. My mom is a hippie feminist turned low income school teacher. My dad is a reformed Neo-con religious extremist. I am thus given the same choice as most in my generation; we must become either apathetic or moderate. I choose the later. I want everyone to like me and so I like everyone in return. My dignity depends on the lifelong quest to befriend people of various races, religions, creeds and opinions. I learn from my Jamaican, Chinese, Indian and Italian cousins. I entertain starving artists and Fortune 500 CEOs. My conversations are not limited by the identity of my company. And I arrogantly pride myself in my open embrace of diversity.
And yet, even as I strive to have an open-mind, I find myself sometimes needing my mind to be forcibly opened.
I manage the Front Desk of a luxury hotel in Napa Valley and daily, I interact with our housekeepers. Housekeeping is the hardest working department in the industry. They work longer hours and regrettably, housekeepers rarely receive the level of prestige attained by those who work in the Front Office. Overwhelmingly, the housekeepers and housemen are Hispanic. Quite a few are in our country illegally. Most speak very little English. And I speak minimal Spanish. A typical conversation between me and a housekeeper sounds like this:
“Hola. Buenos Noches. Que Tal?”
“oh, um… Good!”
“Y tu, Alexandra?”
“Muy Cansada. Mucha Trabaja?’
“Okay. Um… Adios.”
The language barrier acts like a kind of filter, leaving me with a shallow understanding of who my housekeepers are. I can tell they are friendly, hardworking ladies of character but what that character is evades me. I do not understand their needs, complaints or the nuances and therefore, I have no sense of their interpersonal dynamic or of their dynamic personalities. And tragically, when honest observations could not bypass the filter, they were replaced by preconceived notions I did not realize existed in my head.
For a year, I watched the housekeepers arrive to work on buses and assumed they could afford no better. As I would hand them a paycheck, I would genuinely feel gratitude for their hard work when I would say “Gracious.” But then I assumed much of that money would be sent home to Mexico or Latin America. I envisioned the ladies living in squander with machismo husbands and the housemen, alone in a foreign land, flaunting a wild, dishonest bachelorhood. I came to the unconscious conclusion that my housekeepers were disconnected from the country and therefore, from the same responsibilities I live with. That somehow by being Spanish speakers and by remaining non-citizens, they had chosen to stay distant from and unattached to each other, the company, and anything that would tie them to their current livelihood. I thought that one had to revolt against ones current condition in order to be upwardly mobile.
I felt an unjustified pity and a benevolent superiority towards the housekeeping staff until last holiday season. We in the prominent Front Office were too preoccupied and forgetful to have our own departmental holiday party. At the last minute we threw money at the problem by handing out Jamba Juice gift cards instead. Housekeeping was more organized and arranged a Secret Santa. I was asked to witness the festivities so there was a strong managerial presence.
As the gifts were passed around, my eyes were opened. There were elegant purses filled with makeup and quartz watches. There were pajama sets with robes, sterling silver jewelry and basketball tickets. The housekeepers had agreed to a $40 minimum and happily, many obviously went way beyond that amount. My staff of affluent 20 and 30 somethings would have balked at a $20 minimum. They regularly compete over $10 tips. And their money is saved for frivolity and fun outside of work. In comparison, I was humbled by the housekeepers’ generosity and indisputable care for one another.
I wasn’t simply mistaken about their attitude toward each other and the company, but was in that moment able to see how disrespectful my assumptions had been. I was able to see how I could be a better person by offering not a benevolent superiority but a generosity that originated from the sincere gratitude I already felt towards the staff. One who strives to have an open-mind should not only embrace diversity but try to apply the best attributes found within the diversity toward themselves.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.