Friday, February 26, 2016

Response to Yelp Employee Letter is a Study in Privilege

You've probably heard about the Yelp/Eat24 employee who wrote an open letter to the company CEO about her struggle to survive on her paltry wage in the San Francisco Bay area and got fired for it hours later. You've probably already seen a lot of speculation on the implications of her letter and the subsequent firing. Is she just an entitled millennial or is Yelp a corporate monster that feeds off of the souls of low-level employees to keep its shitty review company going?

I for one have seen a lot of eye rolling and pontificating about millennial entitlement. This is nothing new. Older generations need no excuse to call my generation a bunch of entitled brats who need to shut up and start buying cars and houses, or whatever. I wasn't really interested in reading more of these out-of-touch musings of mostly upper-middle class white men. But then I came across another open letter from someone only two years my senior, this one to "Millennials like Talia..."

Despite it being grossly condescending, I read the entire thing out of a fascination over how someone could be so oblivious to their own privilege. And somehow, this 29-year-old woman's open letter to Talia was re-published in Business Insider and getting a lot of attention despite the fact that it blatantly missed so many plainly-stated points.

Allow me to demonstrate.

The first giant red flag of privilege denial came early in the telling of Stephanie Williams' story. She discusses how she was "let go" from an office job at the dawn of the Great Recession, when everything was coming crashing down. Woe was her, as on that fateful Halloween, she wandered into a bar being tended by a family friend, looking for comfort. Instead, she got an interview for a job as a hostess and landed the job after one interview.

Huh. A white woman getting a job via someone her family was connected to. Isn't there a word for having connections like that in the job world? What is it again?

The next flag was even worse. Williams talks about making little money, only being able to work two days a week, and being unsuccessful at finding any other paid work. How on Earth did she survive? Oh, here we go:

Nine months later, after living at home with my mom and commuting on the LIRR each day to stand at a hostess desk and bring patrons to their tables...

I repeat, " at home with my mom..."

Wasn't there something in Talia's open letter about her family situation?

I also desperately needed to leave where I was living — I could get into the details of why, but to sum up: I wanted to die every single day of my life and it took me several years to realize it was because of the environment I was in. So, I picked the next best place: somewhere close to my dad, since we’ve never gotten to have much of a relationship and I like the weather up here.

This was right after college. Now, I may be speculating here, but being in an environment for several years when she's only 25 makes me think that this was likely family. And wanting to die every single day of one's life certainly points to an unsustainable situation. I'm guessing if Williams read this and decided to still berate Talia for choosing not to live with her parents, she's probably never been in an abusive environment that made her suicidal. That's privilege #2.

Williams then goes on to complain about how hard it was to suffer the embarrassment of being seen as a lowly hostess and later waitress by former classmates and friends who had "good" jobs that she speculates they really hated. How she cried because of the humiliation of "cleaning the plates of people I went to high school with."

This is a weird side-topic for an article that's supposed to be addressing Talia. Because Talia didn't complain about the indignity of her job. She complained about eating nothing but rice and company snacks because she couldn't afford groceries. She complained about waking up from hunger pangs and having to take the $6 she didn't have from a CVS employee because she needed it to pay for the train ride to get to work at all.

Williams doesn't mention any experiences like that. Instead, after saying she "paid her dues" (while living with her mother and probably eating plenty well) and mocking her former classmates for being addicted to coke (wow), she doubles down on her privileged obliviousness by saying "I did what I had to do in order to survive, with the help of my family."

Yes, with the help of your family. That's the key. Talia clearly did not have family that could or wanted to help her much. Or maybe they would have, but with conditions that abusive families always hold over you when you have to crawl back to them for help. She does seem to have a father, but isn't close to him, and probably hesitant to ask for help because it's very difficult to make yourself vulnerable like that to family when the rest of your family makes you want to die every day you're around them.

I don't think Williams quite understands that.

Williams then moves on to lambasting Talia for not looking for other/better jobs (despite having just said that she herself was unable to find other jobs while working as a hostess) and not moving in with "several" (yes, several) roommates to cut costs. Yes, Talia, just break your lease. Or invite several people to room with you in a single apartment.  Nevermind the fact that she emphasized that she was "firmly stuck" in that apartment. Nevermind that apartments have limits on how many people can occupy them per bedroom. My guess is that Williams has never been faced with the prospect of having to break a lease due to financial problems and the fees and hits to credit scores that come along with it. You can't just move out of an apartment.

And the whole "just get a better job" thing - are you 29 or 59? Not only is it still difficult to get any kind of new job in many areas of the country, it's even more difficult when you're so nutrition deficient that you collapse in bed as soon as you get home. I'm guessing that Williams is unaware of the effects of chronic hunger, like fatigue, brain fog, and depression.

Not only that, I know from experience what it's like to work at a call center. I worked in one. The emotional labor is staggering. Imagine if every one of your bar patrons came in angry about some problem the bar had caused and expected you to fix it, and often blamed you if the problem couldn't be fixed immediately to their exact expectations. Also, imagine if every one of your conversations with a customer was recorded to be reviewed later by a supervisor. Yeah. There's no energy left to send out resumes that are 90% likely to go straight in the trash.

Williams suggests that Talia should have taken a job at Starbucks, or a restaurant, or a fast food joint, because these places don't totally also pay pitiful wages. Even though Williams just finished telling the story about how her starting restaurant wage and starting schedule netted her only $168 per week. But she was able to survive off of that! How was that again? Oh yeah, she lived with her mother, who was apparently not abusive enough to make her want to die.

It's amazing to me how easily Williams is able to conveniently forget just the right parts of Talia's letter to allow her to make her point. She repeatedly claims that Talia refused to look for other jobs, not because they would have been no better, and not because piling on extra work would have been impossible considering Talia's already exhausted state, not because it was futile, but because clearly this "entitled millennial" thought she was too good to lower herself to the level of a pitiful restaurant job.

You're projecting, Williams. Talia never once mentioned feeling that restaurant or fast food jobs were embarrassing. You were the one embarrassed by your job. You somehow conveniently ignored the fact that a restaurant job wouldn't have helped because there's no chance they would have paid any better. You ignored the long section of Talia's letter explaining how she ate or just somehow were unable to make the connection between food and energy and/or energy and looking for jobs. You ignored the other long section where Talia explained how her coworkers were clearly just as desperate. Hungry, homeless, writing messages on company white boards begging for help. And somehow, you forgot that you yourself couldn't find another job even though you'd just written about that fact.

And you know what else? Getting a job at a call center like that is easy. They throw bodies at those phones. I was hired directly after my interview at the Nintendo of America call center and I've never seen a crowd of misfits and weirdos quite like that training group. One guy had been essentially homeless for years, couch-surfing at friend's places and taking odd jobs. He'd been hired and let go at Nintendo several times already. There was another who got so thin I seriously considered asking him if he needed help before he disappeared.

Starbucks? I couldn't get them to call me back. You think you can just get a job at Starbucks? Or any restaurant? Even fast food places can be hard to get into still. And if you don't have a completely open schedule for them to work with? Ha! Did you ever try to get a second food service job, Williams? It's impossible. But you didn't have to, did you?

What else? Williams hits Talia for a supposed Instagram photo of an expensive bottle of Bourbon. Because having one expensive thing ever as a poor person immediately proves you're not really poor, right? There's no chance that was a gift. Nobody ever gives alcohol as a gift as far as I know.

She also assumes Talia has a nice laptop for some reason. No evidence to support this, just assuming! And there's a whole separate issue of insinuating that Talia doesn't have the right to complain because she doesn't live in "third world" poverty and isn't coping with "post Haitian earthquake style hard times" (yikesville).

But the most fascinating thing about Williams' letter is how she's able to completely miss her many privileges - having a supportive family, getting an in from a family friend, being thin and attractive enough to get hired as a hostess at all, etc. - as well as conveniently ignore half of what Talia says to twist her call for help/economic justice into a whiny product of entitlement and elitism. When in fact, Williams is the one who felt like she was too good for her restaurant job, and Talia never mentioned feeling above that kind of work.

It's a study in both privilege and projection/mental gymnastics. Williams saw what she wanted to see in Talia's letter, wrote it down, and appealed to all the other people who wanted to see Talia's letter as "millennial entitlement."

Is Talia entitled? Yes. She's entitled to a living wage, real food, affordable shelter, and a little sympathy from those who've clearly had it easier than she has. That's all she's asking for. This has nothing to do with her work ethic (which is clearly stellar if she'd survived in a situation like that for any length of time) or her feeling "embarrassed" by other undervalued jobs. That's your issue, Williams. If you can't understand that other people have other issues, then maybe keep your mouth shut.

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