african american woman sad

Like so many I got my start in the workforce at a restaurant.  Starting during my sophomore year of high school, I waited tables and did so on and off for nearly a decade. Being a server was easy money and a perfect job for an extrovert like me.

Many of those years are now a blur; I worked late nights, partied a little harder that I’d care to admit, and made many good friends. Of the half dozen or so places I worked, there was one restaurant that no amount of partying could help me forget – a place where the sexual harassment was so ubiquitous, it was never second guessed. It was there I came to understand how sex is exchanged for power, power for money, and the consequences for those who were unwilling to participate.   

When I was 19, I took a year off from college. One night, during a half-assed search for employment, I walked into a restaurant in mid-City Los Angeles. The music was so loud and the people so plastered, I could hardly tell it was a place that served food and not a nightclub. An attractive older man, olive skinned and just over 6 feet tall wearing a baseball hat was handing out menus. I approached him, the techno-like music was blasting so I got close enough so he could hear me and politely asked if they were hiring. He looked me up and down erotically, in the way that so many men had before him, and said with an unfamiliar accent, “you start tomorrow.”

The restaurant was family owned and run. Two brothers, their sister, a niece and two nephews all emigrated from Tunisia, all vastly different in personality and likability. Like so many other restaurants, the back-of-the-house (BOH) staff were mostly immigrant men and the front mostly Americans, thin, chiseled, and “classically attractive.” I was one of the youngest staff but not the youngest. I was however, the only African-American woman. There was a Black man who worked the door on the weekends when it got especially crowded. The anti-black racism there was pervasive (and a whole other story.)

It was only a few days into my new job when the restaurant owner, a married man with four children, greeted me with a kiss on the lips. I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel. The family was openly affectionate; they often greeted you with a kiss on the cheek, something that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable because I grew up in an affectionate family too. Perhaps this was simply an extension of that? Co-workers casually told me that there was a long history of sexual harassment, coercion, and that the owner often made passes at staff and customers alike. There was even a trailer in the back parking lot where he took women to have sex. The casual way people talked about it was worrying.

The advances were rampant. I worked the late shift, a coveted spot because there was an automatic 18% gratuity added to every single tab. Staff and customers alike were euphoric off their vice of choice, of which the residue could usually be found on the bathroom counters. When the night peaked, I was often asked to stand on the table and dance sexily with another co-worker. We were 19 and this was L.A., we didn’t mind the attention. Plus it often led to big tips for us, an exchange I only later arrived at as being somewhat problematic for me. The kissing, exploitation, and quid pro quo went on for as long as I can remember. It was simply part of the environment, and if you wanted to make good money and have fun, you braved it. Otherwise, you quit or were fired.

In 2008 while completing an externship at a women’s newspaper, I took another restaurant job in mid-town Manhattan. Three months in I found out the manager hired me because she wanted to sleep with me. I have no confirmation that is true but sexual harassment existed there, too. It existed at just about every restaurant I worked in and just about everybody experiencing it needed their jobs too badly to quit or speak up.

Because the restaurant industry is the largest employer of people of color, and women make up half of the people working in this business, we are disproportionately subjected to this type of workplace harassment.  At the same time, the restaurant industry is the largest low wage employer with millions of women dependent on tips to survive. Therefore in many cases earning a living requires us to have to put up with predatory behavior.

Sharing our stories is one way we can work towards changing this. Strong Families and ROC United created an anonymous survey for anyone that currently works in the restaurant industry or has in the last five years. A few minutes of your time can help them understand what people are experiencing and what kinds of actions and legislation can create better conditions for the millions of people experiencing harassment in the restaurant settings.

Today, I’m privileged to work in an environment where there is no tolerance for harassment but I often think about my 19-year-old self and cringe. What would I have done if I knew what I know now? Sometimes sexual harassment is so pervasive you don’t even know what to call it. It can’t be true that this is simply what we come to expect. What happened to me happens every day to people of various genders. Every person, no matter their place of employment, deserves to feel safe and respected. Together let’s work to expose and end sexual harassment in the workplace.

Shanelle Matthews is a communications strategist, journalist, and blogger. She is a writer for @Echoing Ida a project of @FwdTogether. Follow her at @TheShanelleM