West Side Dining, one of Stony Brook’s five dining halls. A survey by a Chicago based labor advocacy group found almost two-thirds of Hispanics in the restaurant industry work in the back of the house, while almost 80 percent of whites work in the front.  ZACHARY DYER/STATESMAN FILE

Food service is one of the most straining forms of unskilled labor. It’s a stressful, fast-paced industry, filled with drug abuse from workers struggling to cope with the tension. But what strains the kitchen more is the unavoidable existence of a racial gap between chefs and servers. Employers don’t want a racial gap to be physically visible, but what separates the “back of house” and “front of house” is usually melanin.

A survey from a Chicago labor advocacy group  documented the segregation present in the restaurant industry. It found almost two-thirds of Hispanics work in the back of the house, while almost 80 percent of whites in the industry work in the front.

Anthony Bourdain, the now deceased chef and TV personality, made numerous remarks on this racial divide. One of his more famous quotes, made towards Houston Press’ Robb Walsh, reads: “The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board.” With such rich and diverse experiences within the food industry, Bourdain’s words have a strong sense of credibility.

Such rigid division is inherently racist, placing the “hard work” on Hispanic employees and quartering them to the back. This design is reminiscent of the structure of Southern plantations during the height of America’s slave-based, agrarian economy. The lighter your skin tone the closer you were to the main estate.

There are of course many other factors contributing to the quantity of Hispanics working in kitchens, like skill-sets, job scarcity and economic inequity. These factors are insignificant since they are well agreed upon as a product of racial marginalization. According to the Center for American Progress, the wealth gap between people of color is “due in part to a long history of employment discrimination and other discriminatory practices.” This is a vicious cycle. When colored employees are denied good work, they are economically disadvantaged; and when you’re economically disadvantaged, it’s hard to find meaningful work. You are stuck with whatever makes ends meet.

Also, when employers look at applications, their prejudices are not hidden. In a country that only recently got desegregated, it’s not hard to believe that a residual preference for white employees in higher positions is present. The existence of a glass ceiling is undeniable. This sort of structural racism keeps ethnic minorities in a small, hard to escape box.

Stony Brook University, CulinArt specifically, is not exempt from these discretionary practices. In my brief experience working at West Side Dining, I could not believe what I saw, which is why I quit after my first day. It was not surprising that the majority of employees in the kitchen were Hispanic or people of color, but the attitude towards them explains exactly why they are in the “back of the house.” More explicit forms of racial prejudice towards the chefs included speaking unnecessarily slow towards bilingual employees who were fairly well-versed in English. Head chefs and those in administrative positions would jokingly say “hola” and wave when Hispanic, English speaking employees were absent-mindedly staring off or not focused on work. The employees in administrative positions characterize their employees strictly by their ethnic identity, which is dehumanizing. It exposes that these employers are conscious of an ethnic difference; therefore complicit in the process of discretionary employment based on race.

The racial gap is not something we should crucify anyone for. There are many overarching, fundamental flaws within our systems of employment and thought, and unraveling a culture to fix its issues takes time. Blame is decentralized and progress is incremental. Still, it is vital to draw attention to these issues so we can make progress. Shedding light on these flaws in food service kitchens and talking about it enough can catalyze change. In the meantime, it is time to be conscious of this marginalization and be conscientious of the workers when in dining halls or restaurants where this trend exists. Be tactful and considerate with the words you use, understand the position that the workers are in, and don’t treat them poorly just because they provide you a service. Clean up after yourself, avoid using slurs in your everyday speech and above all, be kind and courteous.

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