“Look at where you be in hair weaves like Europeans/ Fake nails done by Koreans.”—Lauryn Hill, “Doo Wop (That Thing)”
“[W]e need to show how capitalism operates in the United States to occlude the racism of its practices by creating social structures that pit people against one another.”—Vijay Prashad, “The Merchant is Always a Stranger,” Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting
I had a brief stint as a waitress and line cook at a small bistro at the foot of the Philadelphia Art Museum a few years ago. The owners—a married straight couple—both had other jobs, and the guy’s mother would come help out around the kitchen. She and I had a good rapport, and we often conversed while I swept and refilled ketchup bottles, talking about Philadelphia of the 60s and 70s or my family back home in New York.
One Sunday morning, a group of about 8 people came in for brunch after a night of partying. They’d arrived before the restaurant had opened, and I rushed in at the start of my shift to take over serving. They left $4 and loose change as a tip on an order of about $100. Later that day, Mary’s husband accused me of stealing money from the business, saying that his mother had seen me pocket all the tips for the day even though his wife had taken the first table’s orders. He then accused me of stealing $20 from the register the day before. This humiliation, in addition to the irregular hours (I had to be on call almost day-to-day for my next shift), and that my tips rarely met the minimum hourly wage (and I was never paid the difference as per the law), was the last straw.
More recently, as a bartender at the landmark Fat Cat Billiards and Jazz Club on Christopher Street, the never-there owners were so concerned with squeezing every last dollar out of the business that pipes would be held together with duct tape; we used the same dish rags for years, air drying them in a moldy hallway because there was no dryer; and, they pocketed all our tips—amounting to $3 million over the last few years. For the customers (hipsters, Wall Street frat boys, college students, and tourists), our crappy work environment was just part of the “dive” ambience where they could enjoy their $3 PBRs and feel like they were part of New York in all its former grit.
In addition to tip theft and unsafe conditions, many female staff left over the years because of abuse from male customers and resulting inaction by the manager and bouncers. Female bartenders would frequently be working the front of the house while the male bartenders chatted with the manager or checked their phones in the back—earning more of the tips that would be shared with the male bartenders, who typically had the choicest shifts. On two separate occasions drunk and aggressive customers made violent threats at me from across the bar. The manager’s solution was to tell me to go stand 4 feet away from the customer and “leave him alone” because “the customer is always right” and “we need our customers”.
What both of these very different businesses had in common—and the nail salons recently in the news—is that they all “emerge through a complex chain of customer demand for cheap, quick services, lack of regulation, lax enforcement of existing laws, globalized labor migration flows, and ultimately, the bottom line of profit-driven, winner-take-all markets and mentalities,” to borrow from Miliann Kang’s recent response to the New York Times expose on salon practices (Kang, “Trouble in the Nail Industry“).
Rather than coopting the wage theft frame (an anti-capitalist framing victory) by recasting it as primarily an interethnic conflict (always a reliable disguise for white hegemony), the conditions Times writer’s Sarah Maslin Nir describes are symptomatic of New York City as “neoliberalism-on-crack” (h/t May Takahashi). NYC is/has been/continues to be devoured by private developers, gentrification (and its accompanying “quality of life” policing), and gentrification’s incessant demand for cheaper and cheaper amenities (think Groupon).
As with the $5 dollar shoes for sale along 82nd Street in Queens, or .99 cent discount stores on Fordham Road in the Bronx, we as consumers have to ask ourselves how much the factory owner is paying that worker for those shoes to cost $5 (and perhaps why we can only afford $5 shoes).
The same goes for those of us who “need” get our nails did and brows threaded every week: how much is the owner paying workers if your mani-pedi is under $20 and your brows are only $5? As with anything within a capitalist patriarchy, third world women usually pay the highest price for first world luxury or self-maintenance (and the growing interchangeability of the two)—whether they’re from down the block or across the globe.
The endemic labor abuses of nail salon workers by exploitative “middle men” small business owners—what Nir irresponsibly labels an “ethnic caste system”—is symptomatic of a mutual class struggle (through interaction) in which the primary beneficiaries are shielded from view.
Instead, Nir relies on every anti-Asian trope in the book—Nepalese workers are crying, enduring victims of exploitation; Koreans are greedy, decadent, shrewd, and conniving; Chinese workers are crammed into tenement-style apartment with strangers or extended family members. Nir’s sensational portrayal of Koreans smacks of media coverage around the time of the so-called L.A. Riots (and, for that matter, early 1900s representations of Japanese and Chinese Americans, whichever was more politically convenient) and does nothing to dismantle familiar paradigms of racial triangulation that “ultimately serv[e] to reinforce White dominance and privilege” (Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans“).
The danger with these tropes are that they are lasting—embedded in narratives that can be found anywhere and easily accessible in the minds of most Americans—and construct a lasting stereotype of a monolithic group.
Rather than an ethnic group that includes workers (many undocumented) struggling for basic rights in the workplace, like those at Kumgansan Restaurant who are organizing alongside their non-Korean coworkers to fight against 18-hour shifts with 7-day work weeks, Nir’s Koreans are two sides of the same model minority coin. Her attempts to distinguish good immigrants from bad immigrants among the “thickets of young Asian and Hispanic women on nearly every street corner” are sloppy and irresponsible. I’m just saying, White-on-Other White Wage Theft is rarely called out in the news.
By emphasizing interethnic conflict rather than labor organizing, Nir’s framing does serious harm to the tentative work of solidarity building across ethnic lines in what is, at its core, a class struggle. Because the players are non-White, Nir racializes this struggle in her portrayal, distracting from the enlaced roots of capitalism and white supremacy. For example, in describing the living conditions and overcrowding faced by Chinese workers, Nir completely excludes the role of private development and the housing crisis in Asian communities in Flushing, Queens and Chinatown.
The powerful story of nail salon workers’ organizing should be front and center, but is overshadowed by Nir’s tale of “those who would prey on their own kind”. By the time Nir wraps up the article with a big American Dream bow, she has missed multiple opportunities to expose the collusion of unjust labor/housing/immigration policies in an interlocking system of oppression—one that millions of workers are rising up to tear down across the country.
For more information on the ground up efforts of nail salon workers in New York, visit the NY Healthy Nail Salons Coalition, Workers United, Adhikaar, and New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health.