Is Discrimination Wrong ?

A clever holiday display from Veselka in New York's East Village. Photo: Allan Stevo

A clever holiday display from Veselka in New York’s East Village.


In Defense of the Customer

September 7, 2016

Allan Stevo

Last night I went to my favorite Slavic restaurant in the United States, where I have all of my favorite servers. For some reason I ended up with a Jamal serving me, some guy I never met before.

I don’t go to that restaurant for Moroccan tagine or Tex-mex fajitas or some generic American food like corned beef hash, I go there to feel more in touch with my Slavic roots and to eat some of the soul food of the Slavic kitchen.

I want that to be accomplished by a Vitali or a Piotr or a Jano, or at least some guy who’s trying. Though I recognize that there are Slavs named Jamal, and that Bosnia is Muslim and Slavic, the Middle Eastern Jamal doesn’t fit that restaurant or my needs when I walk into that door. He’d be great at some personality-less Denny’s or at a place that isn’t a cultural experience for me. He would also be great in a place where I want Muslim culture, especially Middle Eastern Muslim as opposed to Nigerian Muslim culture or Pakistani Muslim culture. But ultimately, for the reasons I step foot in that place, Jamal does not belong at a Slavic restaurant.

Is that wrong of me to say? Absolutely not. I know what I want and need and if I keep getting a Jamal I’ll just stop going to that restaurant. Discrimination is good. It is proper. It is the act of distinguishing between a greater experience and a lesser experience and stating an interest in moving toward the greater.

Is it illegal of me to say? Not yet. Only employers can get in trouble for hiring or firing based on the wants of their customers. Customers can’t get in trouble for hiring or firing a business based on their personal wants. While I love my favorite restaurant, being served by Jamal a few more times would be enough for me to start going to the competitor where Jana, Kristina, and Ivana are always serving. I would essentially fire my favorite restaurant.

I would have been happy to get served a beer by Jamal or to get served a generic American hamburger by Jamal.

My favorite Pakistani restaurant is staffed by a henna haired old man from Khaber. My favorite Mexican restaurant is staffed by people from Pueblo. While a recipe is a recipe and therefore should be easy for anyone to read and produce consistent results with, Mexican food made by Chinese immigrants is surprisingly inauthentic tasting. New York is filled with such establishments, and a good Mexican place took six months for me to finally find after getting here, something that my home town of Chicago would never have required, as good Mexican food cooked by Mexicans is ingrained in our discriminatory local culture.

I recognize that many people, if properly trained and supervised, can do a good job making food that they did not grow up around and can even tweak that food in ways that a native of that culture would be unlikely to ever consider – because in your own culture you generally realize that you don’t mess with a classic, and the definition of that classic tends to be how your mom or grandma or dear old aunt cooks that dish. In my favorite Slavic restaurant, I know that to be the case – the kitchen can be staffed from all over the world and because they are properly trained and supervised the kitchen staff are an amazing part of the whole experience for me. Just like any customer-facing personnel, the customer-facing server has even more discriminating standards to live up to.

Servers are furthermore not a basic commodity for me, unlike some people I do not view my server as an interchangeable automaton. They are individual humans with personalities who I am thrilled to interact with and are an important part of the dining experience from me.

Though infrequent, sometimes if a server is good enough his or her number will end up in my phone and we’ll continue a relationship outside of the restaurant because I love surrounding myself with excellence and passion. In the much more common dining experience where a customer doesn’t even bother to learn the server’s name, I understand how unimportant and un-discriminating most customers are likely to be, because it simply doesn’t matter whether a human or a machine is serving the food. The server is merely acting as a vector to transport information and then food between the customer and kitchen. I get it. From the most utilitarian perspective, that is what a server is present for. I just don’t tend to view a server like that.

I have a limited numbers of meals I can eat in a day – usually only 1 or 2. I have a limited number of days in my life. The world is so full of near perfection. I want every meal every day of my life to be as close to perfect in every aspect that it possibly can be. I won’t settle for second rate. I want excellence always.

Jamal watered that down. Jamal gave me a Slavic experience that wasn’t Slavic with the exception of the food he brought me. Good however is not the only reason I go out for a meal. I want and expect more.

Discrimination is not only appropriate. It is good and should be desired. The grounds for that discrimination does not make that discrimination any better or worse. Whether it’s the dirty fork that Jamal brought my guest that night, or the issue of religion or ethnicity, my grounds for not wanting to be served again by Jamal are irrelevant in weighing how important it is for me to be able to choose how my money is spent. Society is benefited by people seeking out the highest and the best. Discrimination benefits society.

Business owners (consumers of labor) are never allowed to hire and fire in that way. They are not allowed to discriminate on many grounds. If someone isn’t doing what is needed for your customers the person should be fired.

Later I found out that Jamal, who had an open table in a very busy and crowded restaurant, wasn’t willing to let me be served by one of my favorite waiters who I walked in the door and requested. He wasn’t willing to let me, the customer, be served by who I wanted. This is a far cry from “the customer is always right.” Instead the newly hired Jamal felt it was his place to push his will on me and my party. He had a right to serve me, he believed.

While I made sure the entire experience was lovely and that everyone who came with me was enjoying themselves, it renewed in me a lesson that I, as the customer, can be even more diligent in ensuring I am never again served an experience I don’t want.

Bad food should as a personal policy be sent back to the kitchen or not paid for – servers with bad juju get replaced through a quick word to the manager of “I’d like someone else serving me please.” if my favorite server is working I want him and no one else. Everyone working there should be viewed and treated like a human who cares about their work – encouraged with good words and good compensation and criticized as openly and fairly as the decorum of the situation permits, and while encouragement and criticism are two sides of the same coin it is good to remember graciousness and compassion tend to encourage a light heart in response.

Many people, in traveling the world a little, recognize that at the heart of American customer service – a beautiful level of customer service society-wide, unparalleled in its same form anywhere else in the world – is this openness the American consumer has for sharing their discriminating tastes combined with a profit motive the diligent entrepreneur has in showing an eagerness to please.

American culture, the polyglot melting pot that it is, in this way provides constant proof that discriminating tastes are really a very good thing that can bring about many positive results.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

Photo credit: Allan Stevo

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