You're Not Just A Visitor
I recently went on a trip to the Dominican Republic to a music festival called Dominican Holidaze. Let me first be clear: it was an incredibly fun weekend full of music, ocean, relaxation, and meeting our favorite musicians. I would totally recommend it to anyone who needs a change from the twenty-something camping festival and prefers a good shower and hotel room. Attendees come for the weekend to escape reality, to enjoy their time-off in mindless pleasure. Being a visitor to a resort is a exciting reward for so many Americans.
However, as a Sociologist, I couldn't just be a visitor. I typically analyze and observe people and places, trying to understand an underlying social and cultural dynamic. So, as soon as I arrived at the hotel, I noticed and tracked the sharp socio-economic and racial divides between the guests and the workers (in Sociology, social observation without judgement is called tracking). The guests were mostly white Americans, late twenty-to-thirty somethings on vacation from work or graduate school. The workers were mostly darker-skinned Dominicans, twenty-to-thirty years of age earning around $300 per month. To have people with completely different opportunities and life trajectories serving me for a weekend certainly made for an interesting dynamic and social observation.
This reminded me of my thesis from graduate school when I studied a similar environment on the South Side of Chicago. My thesis, Well That Was Awkward: Navigating Mixed-Status Interactions in Campus Dining Halls, researched and analyzed interactions between low-waged, non-white workers and mostly white, affluent college students in campus cafeterias. My study showed that affluent groups typically defer to the group deemed "lesser" and feel discomfort in the interactions. The disadvantaged group typically does not feel affected by the affluent group, mostly because they are used to mixed-status interactions on a daily basis (this is their life, basically). Middle class and wealthier groups usually interact with people like themselves so when placed in a mixed environment, it becomes more awkward and uncomfortable.
But back to the Dominican - all weekend the workers cleaned up our trash, served us beer during the shows, kept the grounds immaculate, all with smiles on their faces. The Americans escaped their everyday lives to be served by people living their everyday life. A few times I caught workers dancing in the crowd while they held trash bags. I thoroughly enjoyed that. I really cannot say anything bad about the Americans; I did not experience any rudeness to the workers at all. Most of the Americans we were with are socially conscious people and were amiable to the staff. In fact, I saw instances where people went of their way to be nice or say "thank you." Were they examples of my theory or are they just really nice people? Maybe both.
Some of you might be saying, "So what?" Or, "What would you expect in the Dominican Republic?" True. I wouldn't necessarily expect anything different but it's important to notice certain dynamics and pay attention to who is still serving who. Whether we are in the South Side of Chicago, the Dominican Republic, or in your office, there are robust societal patterns that embed themselves throughout cultures and countries. There are patterns we must track and pay attention to so that we begin to question the status quo, rather than being mindless humans who simply act as visitors to society. People should strive to be engaged members of society each and every day because we are not visitors, we live here. We all have the power to change something even through a small interaction or encounter with someone else. It is important that those with power and privilege notice systems that favor some and disadvantage others.
There's a piece of me who believes that some of those workers do not like their situation. They wish they could live in America and have better opportunities. There are probably others that are happy and feel like this is the best job to have. Either way, it's important to notice our environment and discern that "what is" is not necessarily "what ought to be." Sometimes discomfort is good and it's important for those with privilege to feel it in times where the privileges are felt the most. Sometimes you cannot just be a guest or a visitor, and you must allow your conscience to take you to a place of guilt, discomfort, anger, and even action.
There are patterns we must track and pay attention to, rather than being mindless beings who are simply guests in society.
Tracking is the first step to awakening. I share my perspective because it's a step to move others to higher consciousness. Instead of simply being a visitor to society, strive to be more. What patterns do you notice? Does your tracking lead to discomfort? If yes, then good, keep going. That's a great place to start.