A detailed account of what happened and what I wish I had done.
Saturday afternoon. The lunch hour rush is finally dying down. Most tables have already called for the bill and are sitting comfortably in post-meal bliss. A couple of friends are catching up over lattes that have long gone cold. A business meeting proceeds quietly over an espresso and a long black. I stand by the main entrance, catching my breath in the sleepy, humid heat.
A pleasant-looking lady walks towards me and flips through the menu. I ask if she would like to sit inside or outside. I assume she’s shy, because she mumbles something about not knowing where to sit before tiptoeing inside. I sit her by the window. Before I can put the menu down, she looks up at me and asks, in a loud, clear, booming voice: “Where are your chefs from?”
I’m thrown off by the nature of the question. Sensing my confusion, she repeats her question. This time, she’s more specific.
“Where are your chefs from? They’re not from India or China, I hope. I’m very picky about my food and those people can’t cook.”
Stunned by her bluntness, I force a smile and tell her, “Ma’am, our chefs are from everywhere, and they’re all very qualified. Trust me.”
“Where are your chefs from? They’re not from India or China, I hope. ... Those people can't cook."
Unsatisfied with my response, she repeats her question. This time, she adds a new criterion: “They better not be just out of prison or something.”
I can feel my blood boiling, but I can also see my manager surveying the floor just five meters away from me. I watch my new customer place her bag on the table next to her and try to answer her question: “Malaysia, Singapore… everywhere. And they’re all very good.”
Before I can see her reaction, I hurry off to the kitchen. I’m seething. I’m breathing so hard, I can barely think straight. Upset, I tell my colleagues that I refuse to serve that table on account of how racist she is.
But it’s unfulfilling. My personal rebellion is pointless, because she will not care whether it’s me, or my manager, or my friend who is serving her. What matters to her is not the waitress. What matters to her is that she gets her food and her drinks, and that she gets to air her thoughts without being challenged.
I’ve just been going over this scene over and over and over in my head. From the moment she walked my way to the moment I ended my shift. I have been thinking about it, and I’ve ultimately conceded that I was complicit.
It starts even beyond she asks the incriminating question. The camaraderie begins the moment she sets her eyes on me, as she walks towards the restaurant. What she sees is a young Chinese girl. Whether the word “privilege” comes to her mind or not, she recognizes that in this country, my fair skin and neutral accent allow me not only to escape marginalization, but also give me access to certain privileges. By her standards, I look likable. I look like her.
The other thing she sees is my apron. I am a service staff. I am not a manager. I’m not another customer. I represent the restaurant I work for. If she says or does something marginally out of line, I am not in the position to do something about it. I answer to my superiors and beyond that, I answer to her. Before she’s even spoken to me, she can assume solidarity because of the way I look.
Is that racist on her part? Yes. But is it entirely her fault? No.
I was raised by a Singaporean Chinese mother. My mother was radical in her parenting. She adopted the montessori method in teaching me, and so my upbringing was very much a Western upbringing. I have always looked Chinese. I am never immediately outed as Chindian. My features and my mother tongue both suggest I am fully Chinese.
Before she’s even spoken to me, she can assume solidarity because of the way I look.
I have grown up being treated like a Chinese girl. People feel safe incorporating racism into their conversations with me because they see me as one of them. They think I will commiserate with them. Coming back to this incident, was I aware of my privilege? Yes. Should I have anticipated how she would view me? Yes. Was I in a position to use my privilege to educate? Yes.
Now that we’re clear on who I am, who she was, and the relationship between us, we can move on to my initial reaction to the situation. Appropriately, it was shock. Understandably, I took into consideration how the restaurant might want me to respond to the situation. I was speechless. Did I display disgust, anger or contempt? No. I displayed confusion. Which, in my customer’s eyes, was a fitting response. She knew her question was unexpected, which was why she wasn’t angry at me for failing to respond the first time. She simply repeated her question and tried to add more detail to make her question understandable.
What she saw in my physical response to her statement was confusion. What she saw was validation. By failing to signal with my facial expression that she had said something unacceptable, I gave her the impression that I agreed with her. The solidarity she had assumed from my looks had been cemented by my response to her racism. Passivity is involvement.
We can now move on to my verbal response to her question. The first reply I gave her was evasive: I said, “our chefs are from everywhere”. Instead of directly disputing what she had said, I tried to maneuver around it. I never explicitly disagreed with her. In fact, I inadvertently sympathized with her by giving her an answer. My response read: “Your question is valid, and I will honor it with a response. I understand your predicament, and am ashamed to tell you plainly that some of our chefs are from China.”
When she asked again, I responded with “Malaysia, Singapore, everywhere.” I failed to include the fact that some of our chefs are from China. Why? Was I afraid of losing her as a customer? Was I afraid that she was right? When I said “everywhere”, I ran away from confrontation. I avoided coming head-to-head with her racism. Additionally, I provided her the possibility that our chefs could be from “everywhere”, including posh Western places like France and Italy, even though none of our chefs have that kind of racial privilege.
But that’s not all I said. I also said, “don’t worry. They’re all very good.” By saying that, I implied she had a reason to worry. I implied that chefs from Malaysia, Singapore, and “everywhere” are normally sub-par. I implied that her concern was valid and common. I wrote off her racism by empathizing with her and comforting her. And then I qualified the chefs on the terms of their race. She needed to hear from me, a Singaporean Chinese girl who speaks English fluently, that the chefs are very good. She needed the stamp of quality from someone of racial privilege, and that was what I instinctively gave her.
She needed the stamp of quality from someone of racial privilege, and that was what I instinctively gave her.
In the span of 30 seconds, I had validated, sympathized, comforted, and allied. I had legitimized her racism.
And what did I do once I was done? I ran. I avoided having to interact with her. I gave the excuse of anger, but by now I hope you realize my true intentions. I felt guilty. I was guilty. I wanted to hide the evidence and ensure I could not be further incriminated for my involvement. Yes, I made the decision to end my participation. But was that enough?
The short answer is no. She went home with a belly full of good food, with no idea that she had ever said anything offensive. If she had entered the restaurant worrying that her opinions were unpopular, she definitely left without that worry —she left feeling affirmed.
When she next eats out, she will feel even more confident in airing her thoughts. She will almost definitely feel comfortable calling over a fair skinned waitress and asking her the exact same thing she asked me. She has no idea that her food was handled by a native Chinese chef. She will continue to believe “those people can’t cook.”
I was in the position to do something, and I did nothing. For that, I’m deeply apologetic and ashamed.
If you gave me the chance to go back to Saturday and deal with this situation all over again, I’d hope it would go like this:
A pleasant-looking lady walks towards me and flips through the menu. I question whether I assume she’s pleasant because she looks Chinese. I wonder whether I assumed her personality because of my internalized ideas of race. Deciding not to typecast her (positively or negatively) on the basis of her looks and race, I ask if she would like to sit inside or outside. She mumbles something about not knowing where to sit before tiptoeing inside. I sit her by the window. Before I can put the menu down, she looks up at me and asks, in a loud, clear, booming voice: “where are your chefs from?” I say, “excuse me?” By verbally questioning her intentions, I might get her to think twice. But let’s say she doesn’t care. She repeats her question and this time, she adds that she hopes our chefs aren’t just out of prison. I say to her, “ma’am, a person’s race doesn’t reflect their ability or talent. Our chefs are from China, Malaysia, and Singapore. All of them cook extremely well. But I’d rather not speak for them, so why don’t you try our food and decide for yourself?” I notice she’s occupying two tables despite the fact she’s eating alone. Instead of fearing her privilege and bending to it, I say, “ma’am, it’s not busy now so it’s alright for you to put your bag there, but if anyone wants to sit at this table, I’m going to have to ask you to move it.” Instead of refusing to serve her, I continue to wait her table. I show her that it was her, not me, who was in the wrong. I have no reason to run. She does not make me uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time. So what I will do is apologize. I apologize for what she said, and I apologize for my participation in her racism. I’m sorry to the people I hurt or failed to defend by staying silent. I’m sorry to her, for failing to educate her. I’m sorry to the people she may vocalize her racism to or about.
I was in the position to do something, and I did nothing. For that, I’m deeply apologetic and ashamed. And I promise that if this ever happens again, I will speak up. I will not be silent.
Edit: Thank you for the responses! I want to make it clear, however, that this article is not me throwing myself a pity party. I’m not wallowing in my guilt — I am using my experience as a springboard to discuss racial privilege.
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.