The Supposed ‘American Dignity Of Labor’

One family dinner a few decades ago, my brother and I made one of our usual smart aleck remarks about how it would be nice if our monthly allowance (or ‘pocket money’ as we called it in those days) were increased by our parents. My mother shot back with a quick, “Yes, and it would be nice if you boys did a honest day’s work to earn some of that pocket money!” When we responded, “But what kind of job would we do?” my mother supplied us with a list that included sweeping floors, taking out the trash, washing the family car and the like. In response, we continued along our utterly clueless path by making disparaging noises about how that kind of work was not what we wanted to do. My mother’s demeanor changed as she shot us the dirtiest of looks. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of work, and we should have been happy that we were being given a chance to earn our allowances. She suggested we were spoiled and needed to rent a clue. (Or words to that effect.) And then, she continued in an even sterner of voice, “Do you know what children in America do? They work during the summers when they are off school! They do part-time jobs, and they don’t care what kind of work it is; they don’t turn up their noses at work! It’s not like around here [in India] where everyone seems to have a high and mighty attitude about what kind of work they consider appropriate for themselves. In America, there is dignity in labor!”

My mother was hectoring us because she knew of the snobbishness of the Indian middle-class, its elitism, its unredeemable arrogance about menial professions and ‘humble, low-class’ work. She was right, of course; we were children of the middle-class and we had absorbed all of its lessons quite well. Domestic help, the sweepers and janitors, the folks who pumped gas at stations, the shopkeepers, they were all beneath us precisely because of the work they did. And here was my mother, reminding us that in that magical land called America, where things were so much better than they were here, in this chaotic land of never-ending dysfunction, one key differentiating point was that its people respected work, no matter what it was, and who did it. That’s why it was so prosperous and powerful. So she thought, and so we believed. Many American myths traveled quickly; and they endured well.

There were many disillusionments waiting for me in America. Among them was a rapid dispelling of the very notion of an American dignity of labor. Here there was shaming aplenty of those who were ‘flippin’ burgers and servin’ fries,’  pumping gas at stations, cleaning toilets, taking out the garbage, washing dishes–or just plain doing ‘minimum wage work.’ It didn’t take me long to cotton on to this fact; my first job was washing dishes in the cafeteria, and by the end of the semester, ironically, a complete reversal had taken place. I didn’t mind telling other international students–including those from India–that that was how I was making ends meet; they knew what had to be done. But I was always mortified when I told my American friends about it. I had begun to doubt they would see any ‘dignity’ in my ‘labor.’

On Being Mistaken for a ‘Worker’

Variants of the following situation have, I think, occurred in many people’s lives here in the US. (I have been on both the giving and receiving end, so to speak.)

You walk into a store (or perhaps a restaurant), perusing its offerings. You do not find what you need; you are confused; you need assistance. You see someone standing around, unoccupied; they are not wearing a uniform or anything like that. For whatever reason, you assume this person is a store employee, and ask for direction or assistance. You are mistaken. This person is not an employee.  Matters now get interesting.

Your respondent tells you, sometimes curtly, sometimes politely, ‘I don’t work here.’ You react as if poked with a cattle iron and electric prod combined, even as your hand flies up to cover your mouth in dismay: ‘I’m sorry!’ And you rush away, mortified, determined to never commit that particular faux pas again. The person you have dared assume was a store employee might also move away quickly from the locale of his embarrassment, wondering what accursed luck had led to this confusion, wondering what they had done wrong. Did they look slovenly or unwashed? Do they look servile?

(In my description of these kinds of encounters, I do not think I have exaggerated excessively. Some twenty or so years ago, I went with a girlfriend to an Indian restaurant for dinner; she was wearing a sari. As we waited for our table, a young man walked up to my girlfriend and asked her for a table; she politely, and with a grin on her face, replied she didn’t work there. You would have thought the lad had been shot, the way he almost doubled up with pain, flushed red, apologized and quickly walked away.)

This species of especially embarrassing social encounter has led to multiple safeguards to prevent its recurrence: in more established commercial enterprises, employees wear name tags or uniforms, and conversely, their customers have learned to be more cautious, prefixing their questions with a very (very!) tentative, ‘Excuse me, do you work here?’

No one it seems, likes being mistaken for a worker. And no one likes to be in the business of mistaking a non-worker for a worker. We worry that we might offend someone by mistaking them for a lowly employee of the business we are patronizing, and the targets of our putative scorn are offended that someone has dared confuse them with those who are there to serve them. The primary sin here is class confusion: our class has been mixed up with someone else’s.

We live in a society that ostensibly aspires to, and sometimes achieves in some limited domains, an egalitarianism of sorts; we supposedly ascribe ‘dignity’ to labor, to wage work; we supposedly recognize that today’s lowly are tomorrow’s esteemed. For isn’t the road to the top available to anyone and everyone? But, I think, these little run-ins show us we’ve got a long way to go till we are ready to accept being confused with a ‘worker.’