Why the Arts Needs to Stop Hating on the Service Industry

Melody Nicolette

I see it in my social media feed, and I say nothing, mostly because I am afraid to. The fact that you do it in the first place makes me hesitant to think you’ll respond positively to being called out. You thought you were important enough to do it in the first place, and I don’t know if personally calling you out, no matter how gently, would be effective, although it permanently alters the way that I see you. No one else ever calls it out, either. 

To my friends in the arts, Broadway, equity, visual or otherwise: stop hating on the service industry, service jobs and the workers that do them. Stop.

When you tweet or post to complain about your how your coffee was made, when you make it clear you are so glad you’re not one of them but an ~artist~, when you make comments about your old job at the restaurant like it’s now beneath you or a stepping stone to get to your “real job” on Broadway you hold now,  when you make it clear that those people are beneath you when you hold the privilege and the luxury of working full-time in the arts-- you’re telling other people, who follow you on social media that you are better than they are. You’re telling artists who cannot afford to live off of their art quite yet, or ones who never will because of poverty or necessity, that you’re better than them.  Whether you’re fully cognizant of it or not. 

Maybe you, too, slaved away waiting on those tables, but that’s so far behind you. It was a temporary embarrassment. For many of those who hold these positions, this isn’t their temporary embarrassment, or part of their struggle to achieve their dreams. For many of the McDonald’s employees, the baristas, the busboys,  the fry cooks, the bartenders--- this is their real lives. Sometimes it’s between gigs, sometimes it’s not. That includes the buskers in the subways--the keyboard players, the soul singers, the child violin prodigies, the mariachi bands ---, or any other artists who haven’t quite “made it” as far as you.

I liken this in many ways to the proverbial glass ceiling; you may have made your way through the glass ceiling out of the service industry, but you kicked the ladder out from under you, to sneer at the people left to clean up the shards of glass. 

Someone’s position in life is, by no means, a measure of their talents, skills, or intelligence. The person who made your latte a few degrees off from your preference might not be the best barista, but they’re a killer stage manager. The girl who accidently made a mistake ringing you up at GNC might be the most incredible opera singer. That food service worker might be a brilliant music theorist and flautist. That factory worker is an amazing cartoonist. Some of these people may or may not hold college degrees,  but you don’t know that. The fact is, in a mere 140 characters, you made it abundantly clear, that, while you’re seeking their services, that your work is more valuable than theirs. 

This is not to say that you, as a member of the arts, are not valuable and don’t work hard. I understand, as someone who is a member of the arts, that the arts are hard work. They take the thousands of hours and  years of dedication. The reality of it is the arts needs to understand, while it holds an important role in society, the level of privilege you need to be in the arts is astounding. The demographics of those in the arts speak for themselves Your role in this world may be important, but it’s not more important the barista you just complained about for taking too long with your drink. We know that you work hard, but for God’s sake, stop acting like you work on the railroad or root around in the coal mines, especially when you look down on those who hold labor or service industry positions (openly on social media). You have a very special job of being in the arts. Use it to uplift. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked to get there, it’s not an opportunity to use your position now to denegrade other people. Your job is important, but so is theirs. Knock. It. Off.

There’s another thing. Many of us in the arts come from humble origins that provided us with seminal experiences from which we never fully recovered. Mine still haunt me. Those tweets read like the voices of the kids who used to torment me when my mother dropped me off at school, asking me if my mother was a maid because [she was a brown woman of color who] wore her work uniform when dropped her kids off. Because a maid was the lowliest thing my mother could be, (and they would know, because they all had maids,) regardless of how brilliant  or extremely talented my mom is, or how this job that required a uniform supported two kids as a single parent. 

That’s your legacy now. Forever. Your whiney tweet reads in my head in that nasty, nasily little voice of a rotten little kid. Remember that the next time you tweet about the temperature of the milk in your latte being a few degrees off. 

Stay humble.

- This essay doesn’t concern those who are now full time in the arts who used these experiences in the service industry or working hard  labour jobs as a reminder of humility and grounding them. We’ve all had those jobs, which have provided us seminal experiences. It’s how you refer to them and those who hold them after the fact that’s important. 

- This isn’t to say that there are times when yes, your service is very bad. Going through the proper channels isn’t what we’re talking about here.