A Lesson in Privilege, from an Awkward Steakhouse Dinner

It was Broncos game day. John Elway and Rod Smith were on TV, working some mile-high magic, as they say in Denver. My husband, Trevor, and I were 1000 miles away from home, at a ministry conference in Chicago. But our team was on the road to the Super Bowl, and we weren’t about to let them down by failing to don our jerseys that week. So we put on our fan gear and watched the playoff game in our hotel room.

We were anticipating a move to Alaska, where Trevor had landed a job as a youth pastor and I would telecommute as an editor for the publishing company where I worked in Colorado. Among the other conference attendees was the pastor of the church who had hired Trevor and a youth leader who was working with the kids who would soon be in Trevor’s charge. We were all eager to get to know each other better, so the pastor offered to take us out for dinner.

That evening after the game, we met in the hotel lobby, ready for a casual dinner. The pastor told us, “I asked the concierge for a recommendation, and he suggested a nearby restaurant. Unless you have someplace in mind?”

We didn’t. So we squeezed into the rental car and drove down the street to the restaurant the concierge had endorsed. Fortunately, the place was close by, since the ride itself was a bit awkward. Our new Alaskan friends insisted that Trevor, who is extremely tall, ride in the front. So he folded himself in, long legs and all, next to the pastor, while I rode in the back with a man I barely knew.

But considering the awkwardness that followed, we would have been better off if we’d kept on driving.

I realized the restaurant was a bad choice when we drove up and I saw the sign: it was a steakhouse. As a vegetarian, I try to steer clear of such places, for obvious reasons. But when I go out with groups, I find myself at these restaurants more often than I’d like, loading up on iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots at the salad bar for the sake of peace with others. So as I typically do, I kept my mouth shut and started weighing the merits of French versus Italian dressing.

Our next clue–which should have convinced us to abort the mission–was the collection of celebrities’ pictures hanging in the entryway. They were all smiling like they had just enjoyed the best steak in Chicagoland. And they were all wearing jackets, ties, and dresses. This was no ordinary steakhouse. This was a place for special occasions. I remembered my jeans and football jersey and glanced over at the Alaskan youth worker in his leather biker vest. I whispered to Trevor, “I don’t think we’re appropriately dressed.” He gave me a panicked look that reminded me of John Elway when he got drafted by the Colts.

I was right: we weren’t appropriately dressed. The host who seated us noticed it too and stiffly took us to a table at the back of the restaurant. At that moment, I faced a dilemma: proudly display my Ed McCaffrey jersey or continue to wear my brightly colored, puffy coat, which I knew would make swooshing noises every time I moved my arm.

I opted for the jersey and looked around for the salad bar. I was still looking when the server showed up, raised an eyebrow at our clothes, and handed us the wine selections and menus designed for occasions much more special than this one. I felt a surge of gratitude that I wasn’t paying for the meal . . . then a wave of pity for the pastor, who was also staring at the menu–but with the awful realization that he would be the one picking up the tab.

The ensuing moments were as awkward as any first date I’ve ever had. We barely knew each other, couldn’t afford the meal, and pretended we were perfectly at ease while desperately searching for prices on the menu and wondering how long before we could get the heck out of there.

Things only got worse when I attempted to order a baked potato and a side of asparagus. The server proudly displayed the cuts of meat and encouraged me to select one. “It will be the best steak you’ve ever tasted,” he boasted. When I sheepishly explained that I was a vegetarian, his dismay and disapproval were palpable. He curtly accepted my order of side dishes and moved on to the meat eaters, who also disappointed him with their undiscriminating tastes.

I don’t remember the food at all–I just remember that at one point we apologized to the server for the way we were dressed, and Trevor and I apologized to the pastor for the expense of our meal. I remember watching a large and well-dressed party celebrate the birthday of a family patriarch, who looked like he was too old to enjoy his steak any more than I would have. It was a meal tainted by the suspicion and disdain of the people around us, who were technically courteous but very clear in sending the message that we shouldn’t have been there. And they were right. I remember my relief when it was over and we were out of there, back in the bitterly cold air of the Chicago winter. Back at the hotel, where no one cared how we were dressed.

This story stands out in my mind partly because it was embarrassing then and it’s funny now, but also because in the course of my life, it’s unusual. What made it so painful was not so much that we stood out, but the feeling that we were just wrong. Rarely have I been made to feel as if I don’t belong.

I’m an unmistakably grown-up, suburban white woman. While each of those descriptors comes with its own kind of flak, each comes with privilege as well. I’m a mentally stable, able-bodied, post-college-educated, average-size mom with a birth certificate that says I was born in the United States. Put all those elements together, and I can go nearly anywhere in this country without much more than common-sense precaution, a credit card, and good manners.

Now, I’ve spent plenty of time feeling vulnerable. And I’ve been in a lot of places where I truly didn’t belong. Like all the other steakhouses people have dragged me to in almost 20 years as a vegetarian. Like the Vera Bradley store in the mall, browsing with my daughter, even though I have no intention of ever buying myself a $60 bag–let alone one that reminds me of my fourth-grade 4H projects. Like when I was a teenager living in poverty and in the shadow of my mother’s schizophrenia, working at Burger King and living on food stamps and free government cheese–then on the weekends, browsing through swanky downtown stores, daydreaming of a different kind of life. Like the time a few summers ago, when my family spent a few hours in the lobby of a posh hotel, hiding out from a thunderstorm. No one questioned our presence there, even though we were actually staying in our pop-up at the campground a few miles away.

In such situations, my internal knowledge–that I was a misfit–usually was not reflected on the faces of the people around me.

When people are looking for someone suspicious, I’m nearly always invisible. When they’re looking for someone with money, they figure I’m a pretty good candidate to suck up to. When they’re looking for someone who can help them, someone they trust, I stick out like a vegetarian in a steakhouse. Whether or not I believe I’m powerful, this puts me in a position of power. And it subconsciously affects the way I feel about myself, the confidence I feel and project when I walk into a room full of people I know will receive me with nothing but polite smiles.

Ironically, I feel somewhat powerless in the face of this realization–what am I supposed to do? I suppose some think I should vow to be the one person who will change things. But I’m not a humanist; I don’t believe I really can change widespread subconscious and institutional discrimination. But I’m not a fatalist either. I believe my awareness can make a difference to someone. And that’s where I’m convinced most real and lasting change happens: in individual encounters between regular people.

So I guess I can start by knowing and acknowledging my experience is not everyone’s. I can’t always see the rewards I receive. But I can refuse to ignore what I do see. I can refuse to believe I deserve more kindness than anyone else. And I can do my best to treat others as if they do belong where I belong–because they do.

1 Comment
  1. Candace says:

    So very well said, Amy–as always.

© 2013 Amy Simpson.