Two Dimensions of the Low-Wage Worker: White vs. Minority

When I first read “Nickel and Dimed” in high school, I focused on Ehrenreich’s challenges as a low-wage worker, but now, I am drawn to the tribulations of the silenced and invisible laborers, which is mainly consisted of minority workers such as Lionel, George, and Carlie. Lionel, George, and Carlie only become visible when a criminal activity is involved or when they are perceived as a threat. On a regular basis, they are strangers who are so removed from the lives of the people they serve. Their jobs are performed in the shadows of their customers and are largely unrecognized and unrewarded. George, a 19 year old Czech dishwasher, is literally invisible to the customers as his job requires him to continuously perform an act in a space that is not accessible for customers. Thus, the only interaction that he has with the customers is scrubbing their lipstick smeared cups and greasy plates. He becomes noticeable when he is caught stealing from the dry storage room, in which Vic, the assistant manager, simply refers to him as “the kid with the buzz cut and the earring, you know, he’s back there right now.” (40) The fact that Vic does not even know the name of his employee but refers George to his physical appearance and his spatial location, serves to emphasize how immigrant workers are expendable and forgotten. Furthermore, Carlie also says, “They don’t care about us, in fact, they don’t notice us at all unless something gets stolen from a room.” (44) Again, immigrant and minority workers become persons of interest once they perform an act that defies the standards and rules of their superiors and “power holders.” With the case of Lionel, a teenage Haitian busboy, his labor is also  “hidden” as he does not and cannot interact with customers, but becomes noticeable when Stu says, “I feel like I’m the foreigner here. They’re taking over the country.” (23) The expression of his racial attitude resonates with the controversial debate on immigration reform that has gained widespread publicity, leading to the high visibility in the media, politics, and institutions.

            Compared to the white low-wage worker, minority workers have less opportunities simply because of their skin color and background. Ehrenreich states, “I have the further advantages of being white and a native English speaker. I don’t think this affected my chances of getting a job, but it most certainly affected the kinds of jobs I was offered.” (6-7) Though Ehrenreich does not use the term “white privilege”, this is a prime example of how one’s skin color determines one’s worth and employment opportunities. Hence, even though Ehrenreich applied for housekeeping, employers believed that her skills were better suited somewhere else, and so she was “promoted” to try for a better position like waitressing. Furthermore, because Ehrenreich can read the newspaper in English, she has the option to pick and choose which jobs she wants to apply. Thus, she eliminates waitressing, telemarketing, and hotel front-desk clerk. Even when she was offered the job at Winn Dixie’s, she chose not to accept the job because the “wages were not enough to compensate for this indignity.” (14) Ehrenreich also chooses how she presents herself to her future employers by wearing a respectable looking outfit, but it is ultimately her white privilege that lands her a “better” job.

Unlike Ehrenreich, minority workers who speak minimal to no English simply do not have the luxury to pick and choose jobs. They settle for menial jobs that will allow them to put some money in their pocket and often endure oppression and prejudice because of their status. Additionally, even if they wore a respectable looking outfit, they are perceived negatively because of the social/political/historical trends and so employers may be biased during the hiring process of minority workers. 

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One thought on “Two Dimensions of the Low-Wage Worker: White vs. Minority

  1. I’ve been thinking about these issues too upon re-reading the book. I think it’s conspicuous that BE leaves out meaningful discussions of undocumented labor in the book: I think if it were written today, the book would have to tackle this issue to be taken seriously.

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