After enduring the Texas blizzard of 2021, I was ready for the warm temps that crept in during the following weeks. One morning, after having showered, I realized my feet were in need of some care, and my toe nail polish was from fall of 2020. Giggling, I thought to myself, “today would be a good day for a spring pedicure,” and I grew excited to see my friend, and nail technician, Tina–we just clicked. I go to “U Nails” right here by the TCU campus and they’re always as happy to see me as I am to see them. I got dressed and headed over there. Tina, who is Vietnamese, asked, “Where you been? I scared you move.” She was using her hand to do the go away gesture to complete her thought. I told her “Oh, no, my program runs another two years. Don’t worry, I’ll be around for a while.” and we hugged. She took my hand to look at my nails, and asked, “What you want?” and I told her, “Just a pedicure, I haven’t had my feet done since you did them last.” She replied, “They look bad then,” and walked away laughing. I followed her to my seat.
I know that having my feet done, especially during the last year with the increase of crime against Asian Americans, may seem in poor taste, but for me it wasn’t. There are several reasons for this. First, to enter Asian owned places of business is to be in solidarity with my Asian American siblings and embody my resistance to the terroristic propaganda of fear and blaming as generated by the last administration. Second, after the strict quarantine was lifted Tina was asking her clients to come in; she and her team needed to reopen their doors for financial reasons. And third, I personally value Tina as a human being, and the sense of community I feel when I enter her shop. It’s easy to say I value her humanity, but it makes me cringe when I think of saying I value her service and hospitality because there is a place within my sensibilities that realizes service and hospitality within the White elitism of American culture are weighted terms. This nation was built upon religious and political ideologies that have ingrained in some people that Other is inferior and unwanted, unless Other can be enslaved, interned, or commodified. And from personal experience, the oppressive essence of commodification is most easily discerned in areas of service, and hospitality. And so, it is with great care, and awareness that I textualize my gratitude for Tina and what she does for a living. In my course work we have been in discussion about Black, and Brown people in the service industry, and its inherent complications, but this story is not about dismantling service industries; it’s about how we, as human beings, enter them.
I took my seat and opened my textbook, The Struggle Over Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. Tina was running my water, and I sat back to read when it dawned on me that I hadn’t asked how they were doing in light of the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans. I spoke loudly, not aggressively, but clearly above the shop noise, because I wanted everyone, clients and all, to hear my question. “Hey! So, how have y’all been doing? Has anyone harassed you or tried to harm you? Do you want me to come sit down here with y’all sometimes?” Tina looked up, patted my leg, and said, “Oh no, no, not here, but yes, thank you. It scary.” The rest of her team also answered, “No, nothing here.” At that time there were two women in the shop with me, and one turned around and asked, “What do you mean? What’s happening?” I responded incredulously, “You don’t know what’s been happening to Asian American’s since this time last year? She spun around completely, stood up, and walked over, “No. I don’t. What’s going on?” I told her, “There’ve been like 2,800 documented crimes against Asian Americans in the last year. You really should take some time to read about what’s happening.” “Oh, I will! I will!”
Many people are oblivious, or simply indifferent to the death-dealing realities of Black, and Brown people. So, there this woman was, sitting in an Asian American business, receiving a very personal form of service, and had no idea about the real threat these women were currently facing at the hands of other Americans. Her feigned ignorance reminded me of post-racial theory which purports that systemic racism is a thing of the past, and so attempts to quiet demands for justice by shouting a counternarrative. When something happens, violent or otherwise, post-racial theorists either ignore it altogether, rename it, or find fault solely with the individual without holding the nation accountable for its racist propaganda, state sanctioned violence, and leniency on White domestic terrorists. What’s familiar and dangerous about this is how the dominant culture is again re-writing history, familiar, and not being held accountable for the Black and Brown people who will suffer because of it, dangerous. Post-racial theory is also insidiously clever in that it declares #AllLivesMatter, which is a wonderful notion, and so when Black and Brown people cry out that #BlackLivesMatter, and #AsianLivesMatter, their passion, and discourse are intentionally regarded as being divisive, or anti-all. We haven’t done the work of deconstructing systemic racism, and to behave as though we have is dangerous, it’s like ignoring cancer. #AllLivesMatter is a nice banner hashtag, and I wish it were true, but it does not reflect our reality.
My time at the nail shop wasn’t over. As I was sitting there with the musings I’ve just shared, in walks another woman who immediately called out for Tina as if she were a pet. A tech approached her, but before she spoke the woman said, “Hi, yes. I have a one o’clock appointment with Tina.” I looked at Tina and observed she had no intention of getting up. She started pointing and speaking, giving instructions in a dialect I didn’t understand. I was grinning behind my mask because it was easy to discern that the woman was becoming agitated, and I like to see privilege sweat, but ultimately she would win, or so it seemed. The tech, guided the woman toward a pedicure seat and said, “Please, sit here. Penny take care of you.” Penny attempted to take the woman’s bags, but she pulled them out of her grasp, and tucked them into the seat she would be sitting in. By now the woman has seen Tina, and she looks at me, and then says again, “I believe I scheduled this hour with Tina.” Tina didn’t respond, and I can feel the woman’s frustration and confusion. Why they sat her directly across from me when there were six other seats open, I’ll never know. At this point I’m thinking one of my professors has set me up for this social experiment.
Penny is running the water and the woman complains about the temperature of the water. “Could you heat up some water in the back? I like my water extra hot, that’s what Tina does.” I look up, and we make eye contact. She doesn’t hold the stare long; she couldn’t keep up with my Black woman rage. I was no longer grinning behind my mask. She’s throwing her energy around and I don’t like how disrespectful it feels. She was developing a counternarrative that would get her what she was being denied—deference. Penny literally scurries to the back and heats up the water, and I don’t like that either. She returns with the kettle of hot water and is pouring it into the tub, and the woman asks for a pillow, the tech grabs the pillow from the chair closest to her, and the woman says, “No, not that one. Where’s the green one? It’s fluffier.” Penny looks around, and scurries across the room to get the green pillow and handed it to the woman before heading to put the kettle back. She returns and sits down to begin the woman’s pedicure. Immediately the woman calls out to the front desk tech, “Um, excuse me. Excuse me. Yes, I also need a manicure, but I don’t have time for one hand at a time. I need a person on each hand.” The room erupted again, a tech came from the back, and the front desk tech was pulled from her station.
I suppose fifteen minutes passed and the woman got a call. She pulled her hands away, put the call on speaker, and began digging through her purse for her planner. The two techs stood there, patiently, and waited for her to finish her call. The woman settled in again for a few minutes and then said, “Is there anyone who could do my eyebrows when y’all are done? The tech responded, “Yes, I do for you.” The woman asked, “I don’t have to go in the back do I? Can’t someone do them right here?” The tech told her, “No, we do in the back.” The last straw for me was when Penny asked her did she like her color, the color the woman had picked out, the woman looked down and said, in her sweet Texas accent, “You know what? I don’t like that red, do you have something red, red?” The tech turned, quietly opened her box, and pulled out polish remover, while another scurried to get a polish that was red, red. This woman never said, “please,” or “thank you.”
It was time for me to leave, and with a heavy heart I headed to the front to pay. Tina saw my tip and said, “No. No. Too much for you. Too much for you.” And I said, “No, Tina. You deserve that and more. I’ll see you in a month or so.” We hugged and I went and sat in my car and cried. Why was I crying? Because this willful ignorance, and subtle violence is not only hurtful, but dangerous, and it’s at the heart of what’s wrong with America. If we cannot be respectful in the simplest of ways, in the ordinary spaces of our lives, then how can we be present for those among us who have been violently relegated to the margins? When we dehumanize people there is no way we can know what advocacy or justice is. When we dehumanize people it’s easier to harm them and deny how we are complicit in that harm. I could only imagine what Tina and her team endure on a daily basis as they sit at the feet of those who act as if they belong there. Once again, from my personal experience, the oppressive essence of commodification is most easily discerned in areas of service, and hospitality. This story is not about dismantling service industries; it’s about how we, as human beings, enter them.