I ordered him to drop the plastic grocery bags far away from our front door and place the receipt on a nearby garden wall. The delivery driver tried to strike up a friendly conversation. I just nodded and nudged his tip along the wall like it was a time bomb. And when he extended a gloved hand, I politely backed away and declined his handshake.
I told myself I was keeping my distance to protect his health and mine. But by physically policing him, I wonder whether he believed I was distancing myself because of race. After all, he was an older Black man and I, although biracial, appear to many people as White.
That unease continued over the next several weeks as other service workers — package delivery people, Uber Eats drivers and local cable/Internet technicians — came to our door and were instructed to “stay in their place.” The overwhelming majority were Black and Brown — a reflection of the diversity in Takoma Park, Md., and the fact that African Americans and Latinos make up the largest percentage of service industry workers in the United States.
Each time they arrived, I waved them away from the front door toward a side entrance. More than once, I shouted instructions from a window and watched as they dropped packages on the porch and then slowly backed down the steps as if they feared they’d somehow accidentally trespassed.
When my teenage daughters accused me of being rude, I told them generous tips were more important than trying to build personal currency. After all, these workers were out in a pandemic because they needed the money. Besides, I said, any personal interaction just didn’t seem safe.
I continued to justify my lack of social niceties when we slowly ventured outside our bubble. At the curbside pickup of our local grocery store, I watched silently from my air-conditioned front seat while a rotating group of young Black women heaved plastic bags into the back of our SUV, week after week.
Then, a familiar sense of shame began to creep in. After all, I’d grown up seeing some of my own family members treated with disrespect.
For more than half her life, my Black grandmother bustled through the back doors of middle-class homes in our rural western New York town. Once there, she scrubbed toilets and floors, washed linens, and then mended and ironed the family’s clothes. When I accompanied her on some weekends, there were strict instructions. Take off your shoes. Don’t touch anything. Never ask to use the bathroom or for a water glass. Back then, I didn’t have words like “bigotry” or “racism.” As a young boy, all I understood was that the homeowners demanded that white things — toilet bowls, floors and linens — remain pure. I guessed they thought Black bodies were unclean.
To them, even touching my grandmother’s hands was apparently dirtier than handling cash that had passed through untold fingers. Their $10 or $20 bills were left discreetly on sideboards, kitchen tables or polished armoires, where my grandmother was free to retrieve them when she was done.
I’ve suspected that buying power was being used to excuse or obscure bias many other times. Working in fast food as a teen, I grimaced every time I noticed a White customer pointedly slap their cash down on the counter, rather than place it into a Black or Brown hand.
It seemed obvious to me then that racial prejudice accounted for the poor treatment. But I’ve come to see that it was also a way to reinforce class divisions. The same is true today.
After 54 years, I realized that for the first time this past summer when a young Black postal deliveryman unexpectedly rounded the corner of our home and found me sitting on the front doorstep, conducting a work meeting via video. I was unmasked. When he tried to hand me the mail, even at a distance, I repeatedly gestured to my virtual work meeting and shook my head no. Then I pointed toward the bottom step as if to tell him to just drop it there. Although I thanked him as he left, I could see him visibly bristle. For him, perhaps, it might not have mattered whether I was Black or White — just merely that someone who had the freedom to work from home could seemingly order him around as if he were an office intern.
But the full weight of the lesson sank in when our go-to contractor, a Guatemalan immigrant, returned to do work at my home. Before the pandemic, he had free run of our house when he was repairing or renovating. Now, in the midst of our summer of sheltering, we hired him just for outside projects.
It was easy at first for me to assume he was self-sufficient and would be okay confined to our front yard. He seemed content to fill his water bottle at an outside spigot and plug in a used microwave to heat his lunch in the garage. He brought his wife, who had recently given birth, to help him paint our porch. He kept apologizing when she needed to use our bathroom. Another time he brought along his young son to help him landscape in the hot sun. Meanwhile, my own kids were just a few feet away inside, catching up on lost learning in a virtual summer school.
If left me wondering what kind of memory his young son will now carry with him — whether it will be about the value of hard work, or about what it feels like being on the outside looking in.
For that reason, I realized that I owed that family more than just money. I owed them empathy, compassion and recognition that they are valued just for who they are.
We all owe our essential workers, particularly those who are Black and Brown, a larger debt. We know that they already are more likely to contract or die of covid-19 because they work in the service industry.
Moreover, they experience a higher emotional toll in their working life. Studies show they unfairly face higher expectations for performance on the job than their White peers.
They also are experiencing more amounts of stress and trauma during a time when some in our country refuse to even acknowledge that their lives matter.
Money or tips aren’t enough. That’s just a payment for services rendered.
What’s also due is verbal acknowledgment for their hard work, explicit thanks for the risks they take every day, and most importantly, intentional behaviors that honor their humanity — a wave, eye contact, a few minutes of conversation or even just being present to how they’re feeling.
That’s not gratuitous behavior. That’s just the essential price of being human.