Standing While Brown: A White Lady Tried To Get Me To Valet Her Car

I was not dressed like this. Photo by Pulpolux.

By Guest Contributor Lalo Alcaraz, cross-posted from Pocho.com

Representing Pocho.com, I was a panelist along with a table full of young, savvy Latino digital media types as part of last week’s Digital LA Latino Content event.

Afterwards, I finished up networking and headed outside to leave. As I waited to get my car in front of the host restaurant in Beverly Hills, you’ll never guess what happened: A white lady tried to give me her car valet ticket. Twice.

You’ve heard this story a thousand times before; it’s a Latino cliché. Or is it a tradition?

Anglo person assumes brown person is a worker, there to serve them.

An old Chicano chestnut goes something like this:

I’m a Mexican-American, am married to a white woman, and I was mowing our lawn in front of our nice, big home. A white lady pulled up in a car and asked, “How much do you charge to mow a lawn?” My answer: Nothing. The lady of the house lets me sleep with her.

One of my own family members, a brown-skinned attorney, was approached demandingly by a white office worker in their high-rise parking garage. “Where’s my car? Where’s my car!?” she shouted at him. He answered, “Hey lady, I’m an attorney!” I guess she took that as a legal threat, because she ran off in fear.

I posted about my Beverly Hills incident on my Facebook page, unleashing a flood of responses of similar anecdotes, some biting and muy funny. This is just a small sampling:

  • I know that one
  • Where did you leave it?
  • Should’ve took it for a spin and left it on Pico Blvd for the less fortunate.
  • Jeez… It never ends.
  • There’s so much work still to be done! If I only had a dollar for each time I’ve heard, “You’re the principal?”
  • You should have check out her car and perhaps ‘upgraded’. At least she didn’t ask if you did yards on the side.
  • People are always asking me where to find things in stores…a little more subtle prejudice, at least.
  • Dude you should have taken the ticket and then let her try to explain to the valet why she doesn’t have one to get her car.
  • Happened to me once. B-Hills / Took the keys, waited for them to be seated, and asked if the car was my tip.
  • You should have driven it right into the nearest telephone pole.
  • If the lady had ever seen the way you drive Lalo, she never would have done that.

And perhaps my favorite:

  • White people will hand over their keys and their kids… but driver’s licenses or amnesty? not so much.

At our Latino digital content panel, we discussed how Latinos are ignored in mass media portrayals. I chimed in about how lame the forced “positive” PC portrayals end up being unrealistic and never entertaining,  and how we can address that by making our own media to set the record straight.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with working in a service job. We should all respect the working class more, and pay them a living wage. The problem is the assumption that if you do not have light skin and blonde hair, it must mean you are there to serve the people that do. On my FB page, Jose Torres summed it up perfectly:

Why do so many white folks think Latinos are their servants? Because too many of us are their servants. And that is the real issue not the slights we receive at restaurants, stores etc. I agree that these slights are f’ed up….. but they pale next to the lousy schools, high drop out rates and a variety of social problems facing the Latino community.

Give that man a new Mercedes!

So, back to the sidewalk last night. I was not dressed like a parking valet; I was wearing a suit coat and a nice shirt and carrying my own laptop bag. And I wasn’t standing behind the valet stand.

But that white lady was not getting served fast enough.

She just looked for the first available brown person. Of course I was asking for it, standing there, looking all Mexican. In front of a Mexican restaurant, no less!

Once I realized what was going on, I just stared at the lady and looked away. Two times! She finally stopped waving the ticket toward me after she realized her mistake. Not much would have been achieved had I yelled at her and made her feel stupid. She already was.

I waited for my car, wished her a good night (tipped the valet generously) and soon, instead of SWB (Standing While Brown), I was now DWB (Driving While Brown).

I made it home through treacherous Beverly Hills without further interruptions. This morning, after I finish posting this, I will go outside and mow my lawn.

Nothing could go wrong, right?


  • April Yee

    “She just looked for the first available brown person. Of course I was
    asking for it, standing there, looking all Mexican. In front of a
    Mexican restaurant, no less!”

    Thanks so much for relating this frustrating and discouraging encounter with such humor and compassion. It sucks that this happened to you. Man, #reallife.

  • Mickey

    The stories I am reading here are un-fucking-believable. I cannot see HOW someone can mistake people in business attire or a nice outfit for being, basically, “the help”.

    This happened to Vanessa Williams once. She had just finished singing for the president many years ago at a gala event. Once she left the stage to enter the buffet line, she grabbed a plate and as she was turning to get in line, an older white woman proceeded to grab the plate from her hands. Shocked, she told the woman that it was her plate and the woman was like, “Oh” and looked at her funny and left. Vanessa’s conclusion is that even though she was in full hair and makeup and had just finished performing onstage, the woman could not see past her preconceptions on Vanessa or did not pay enough attention.

    It is pure racism, through and through.

  • K N

    This is not limited to Latinos alone. As an Indian man, I’ve had this happen to me, even when I’ve been dressed rather impeccably. A few weeks ago, I was standing outside a hotel waiting for a friend when this guy shows up in a Gordon Gekko suit (and hair), and asks me to bring his car. When he realized his mistake, he did not even have the good grace to apologize, and walked off in a humph. So, I turned around and asked him, “What can brown do for you, eh?”
    I mean, at the very least, he could have mistaken me for a supervisor. Always a valet, not even a supervisor. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. :-(
    And I know the lawnmowing joke is old, but some guy made fun of the fact that I was wearing a Harvard sweatshirt and mowing the lawn in front of my wife (who is white, and also a Harvard alum). She, of course, was livid. He was throwing out some Spanish phrases to mock at me, until my wife responded back in kind (she speaks Spanish and French). The guy was very confused.

  • Diallo_Jamal

    When I lived in ‘liberal’ Northern Virginia (not a slight against liberals, but rather Va), I got locked out of my apt. I was calling my roommate to find out when she would be home, when one of my neighbors interrupted my call to ask me to move my vehicle. The vehicle was an 18 wheeler moving truck, I work in Financial Services and was dressed in a suit.   

    When taking the shuttle from one of my employers sites to another, it was not uncommon for me to be mistaken for the driver despite the fact I would be wearing a suit and more often than not working on a laptop. 

  • it is said

    There’s a similar article on CNN.com that talks about a hispanic woman’s experience as “the nanny”. 
    http://edition.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/07/18/arce.latino.mother/index.html

  • Keke

    I once was babysitting for a woman who lived in a nice area  for extra cash when I was in college.  I told her to not worry about dropping me off and that my friend would come and get me.  My friend is Mexican American  comes from a well-off family, and is never seen in anything that isn’t designer.  So when my friend came to the door, the woman opens the door, ignores every tell-tale sign and says “Hi.  Come around the back so you can start cleaning.  I have a ton of things for you to do back there.”  My friend was taken aback and stammered a bit and the woman was saying “Did you hear me?  Go to the BACK.”  I realized what was going on and got up and said, “No! this the friend I was telling you about.”  I was so angry but my friend was just like “Happens to me a lot more than I’d like it to.  But what can I do?”  It was funny how classism, racism and sexism intertwine to create static stereotypes.       

    Even when there is anything that signifies that “Hey!  This person does not work here, but is here to chill/shop/drink/relax,”  people ignore it anyway.  And it’s not so problematic that there is any one person of color in service industry, as such a job is not shameful or bad,  it’s that the service industry has often become racialized, and as such has been used by many as a signifier about any individual’s personal situation.  It’s problematic because people then begin to believe that certain individuals SHOULD be in x,y, or z occupation and anything else is wrong, or somehow misguided.  That’s what’s so damn damaging about these situations.  It never occurs to some individuals that a Mexican guy standing in front of a restaurant may be there just to EAT. *smh*   

  • Sam

    Not to belittle any of these experiences but, as a white guy, I’ve also had this happen. Several times when I was younger and first working in an office my awkward white shirt and tie combination would have people at supermarkets asking me to help them find stuff. I also had a, white, friend who was visiting from abroad be asked to valet someones car at his hotel because he was wearing a (foreign) military uniform, that was mistaken as hotel livery…apparently the medals didn’t give away the fact that he doesn’t park cars for a living. Lots of people are just really stupid and lazy, when they want help they will ask anyone for it. 

  • Sam

    Not to belittle any of these experiences but, as a white guy, I’ve also had this happen. Several times when I was younger and first working in an office my awkward white shirt and tie combination would have people at supermarkets asking me to help them find stuff. I also had a, white, friend who was visiting from abroad be asked to valet someones car at his hotel because he was wearing a (foreign) military uniform, that was mistaken as hotel livery…apparently the medals didn’t give away the fact that he doesn’t park cars for a living. Lots of people are just really stupid and lazy, when they want help they will ask anyone for it. 

  • Sam

    Not to belittle any of these experiences but, as a white guy, I’ve also had this happen. Several times when I was younger and first working in an office my awkward white shirt and tie combination would have people at supermarkets asking me to help them find stuff. I also had a, white, friend who was visiting from abroad be asked to valet someones car at his hotel because he was wearing a (foreign) military uniform, that was mistaken as hotel livery…apparently the medals didn’t give away the fact that he doesn’t park cars for a living. Lots of people are just really stupid and lazy, when they want help they will ask anyone for it. 

    • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

      It’s not the same thing. 

      When whites are mistaken for the help, there are other external signs that lead to that assumption (in your case, how you were dressed, in your friends case, a military uniform mistaken for valet uniform). When this happens to minorities, the only sign that is used is our skin color, and in fact, other external signs pointing to the fact that we’re not the help (i.e. dressed in a suit, sitting down at a table for dinner etc). And to compound the insult, when we point out that we’re not the help, often times people become angry and rude. It’s almost as if the fact that we’re not there to help them is an affront. It is, an affront to white privilege that assumes that any minority present is there to serve you. Trying to equate the two situations is essentially derailing.

      I have no problem with people making understandable mistakes, in fact if someone assumed I was the help and when I politely corrected them they apologized, I wouldn’t mind it so much, it’s when they take umbrage at the fact that I’m not there to help them that in my mind it crosses into the ‘definitely racist’ zone.

      • Anonymous

        Awesome response to a classic derail.

        They don’t get that we could be wearing a crown and still be mistaken for the help, which definitely doesn’t happen to them, and as you mentioned, people get ANGRY that you aren’t the help, which is completely illogical.  A white person’s “no, I don’t work here”  is heard and the person moves along.   A black or brown person’s “no, I don’t work here” is still equated with surliness, impudence, and bad customer service.  They actually think you are REFUSING to do your job when you say, “no, ask someone who works here.”  We get no apologies for the assumptions and the attitudes that they give either.  No one has EVER apologized for thinking that when I’m wearing really nice clothes in for example, a Home Depot, that I don’t work there.  The employees wear smocks and jeans.  I’m wearing business clothesl and no apron.  How is that not clear?  

        So it’s suddenly your fault as a black or brown person that their racist stereotype has been disproven, and there is no way that they give the same attitude to the rare white person mistaken for an employee.

        It takes TOO many attempts at correcting the assumptions per single incident and many white people just don’t get that.  

        But I will happily give a rude response to get the point across.  Those kinds of assumptions don’t deserve any restraint on my part.  

        • Anonymous

          Nice post, very educational. As a (very) white person, I could try to say that people’s tendency to mistake me for an employee at wal-mart and sporting goods stores is the same thing, but it isn’t. First, I look like I should be working at a wal-mart (did for a year, so sometimes I answer their questions anyway) and second, I always get an apology. I like the South Park take on it; I don’t get it, I never will, and that’s okay so long as I don’t use “not getting it” as an excuse to perpetuate bad behaviour.

        • Anonymous

          Nice post, very educational. As a (very) white person, I could try to say that people’s tendency to mistake me for an employee at wal-mart and sporting goods stores is the same thing, but it isn’t. First, I look like I should be working at a wal-mart (did for a year, so sometimes I answer their questions anyway) and second, I always get an apology. I like the South Park take on it; I don’t get it, I never will, and that’s okay so long as I don’t use “not getting it” as an excuse to perpetuate bad behaviour.

  • Anonymous

    The funny/sad part is that when they do it, they still have the nerve to act like you were being uppity for not serving them.

    So they are being racist jerks and assuming that no matter how your are dressed, you must be working at Home Depot instead of shopping there, and they still seem to have the attitude that you were somehow being an unruly, uppity black/brown person b/c you didn’t decide to become a volunteer employee who waited on them.

    That is what always gets me.  And you know that the person who did it to you will continue to do it, and will continue to consider the black/brown help to be unruly and difficult b/c of the black/brown customer that they wrongly assumed to be an employee.  I bet that lady didn’t bat and eye and probably did complain about the service.

    I remember being in grade school and my mom had called a plumber of something and my sister and I were sitting on the front steps when he came, and that racist loser actually had the nerve to ask my mom for the “woman of the house” when she answered the door.  

  • Anonymous

    The funny/sad part is that when they do it, they still have the nerve to act like you were being uppity for not serving them.

    So they are being racist jerks and assuming that no matter how your are dressed, you must be working at Home Depot instead of shopping there, and they still seem to have the attitude that you were somehow being an unruly, uppity black/brown person b/c you didn’t decide to become a volunteer employee who waited on them.

    That is what always gets me.  And you know that the person who did it to you will continue to do it, and will continue to consider the black/brown help to be unruly and difficult b/c of the black/brown customer that they wrongly assumed to be an employee.  I bet that lady didn’t bat and eye and probably did complain about the service.

    I remember being in grade school and my mom had called a plumber of something and my sister and I were sitting on the front steps when he came, and that racist loser actually had the nerve to ask my mom for the “woman of the house” when she answered the door.  

    • Keke

      ^^This!!!!  I remember when I was trying to get my baby registry together.  My boyfriend and I were pointing and clicking away with the little gun and a White woman came up to us and was like “Could you price check this for me?”  She was acting angry and impatient and we were like “Um…this is for a baby registry.”  I can’t believe she didn’t get that considering we were dressed in everyday clothes and I was about eight months pregnant.  She STILL got angry and was like “But you still can price check something for me?”  I pointed to about two store associates nearby and told her to ask them.  By this time my hormones were raging and I was two seconds away from snapping on her.  She kept insisting we price check the damn thing I finally said “We are here for a baby registry.  Not to price check your items!”  Finally some associates came over.  If not for rules of decorum I would have really let her have it.  It made me so ANGRY!!!!

  • Anonymous

    The funny/sad part is that when they do it, they still have the nerve to act like you were being uppity for not serving them.

    So they are being racist jerks and assuming that no matter how your are dressed, you must be working at Home Depot instead of shopping there, and they still seem to have the attitude that you were somehow being an unruly, uppity black/brown person b/c you didn’t decide to become a volunteer employee who waited on them.

    That is what always gets me.  And you know that the person who did it to you will continue to do it, and will continue to consider the black/brown help to be unruly and difficult b/c of the black/brown customer that they wrongly assumed to be an employee.  I bet that lady didn’t bat and eye and probably did complain about the service.

    I remember being in grade school and my mom had called a plumber of something and my sister and I were sitting on the front steps when he came, and that racist loser actually had the nerve to ask my mom for the “woman of the house” when she answered the door.  

  • Anonymous

    The funny/sad part is that when they do it, they still have the nerve to act like you were being uppity for not serving them.

    So they are being racist jerks and assuming that no matter how your are dressed, you must be working at Home Depot instead of shopping there, and they still seem to have the attitude that you were somehow being an unruly, uppity black/brown person b/c you didn’t decide to become a volunteer employee who waited on them.

    That is what always gets me.  And you know that the person who did it to you will continue to do it, and will continue to consider the black/brown help to be unruly and difficult b/c of the black/brown customer that they wrongly assumed to be an employee.  I bet that lady didn’t bat and eye and probably did complain about the service.

    I remember being in grade school and my mom had called a plumber of something and my sister and I were sitting on the front steps when he came, and that racist loser actually had the nerve to ask my mom for the “woman of the house” when she answered the door.  

  • Medusa

    Wait, you mean sitting down at a table isn’t an indication of not being a customer? Wearing clothes other than a uniform isn’t an indication of not being a customer? I’m not talking about manners.

    Also, when you’re in a developing nation, the waitstaff will be comprised almost entirely of local staff, or migrant workers from neighboring countries. When white people hear me speak in an American or British or Canadian or whatever accent, they really should know that I’m not a waitress. They also make these same racist-ass assumptions about customers who are also locals, regardless of how they’re dressed or the fact that they are behaving like customers (sitting down and waiting to be served).

  • Kitadiva2

    This happens way too much to people of color.  Do you see a vest or a name tag that usually indicates that the person works at the establishment or do you see regular clothing?  THIS is your first clue that maybe they do not work at the store or they are not the valet.   Really, it is common dang sense – look for signs of being employed by the business first before finding that you need to next insert foot in mouth. 

    Also, Latinos, Asians, Blacks, Native Americans – oh and let’s not forget poor White folks because they can catch hell too - etc.  well, we own homes and try to the best of our ability to take care of them.  Stop assuming that we all carry guns, sell drugs from our homes, have cars in our yards, stand on the outside smoking a little weed, argue and fight with our neighbors or have unruly children who run all over and threaten folks all day - nope!  We own homes and cut yards,  plant gardens, clean gutters, fix other issues, raise our kids to be respectful etc.  like everybody else. 

    Let’s all  try something radical.  Let’s treat folks with respect and leave our stereotypes at the door and start asking questions instead of assuming things based on the amount of money they make, the color of their skin or their culture. 

  • Kat

    @ Baiskeli: That coffee story! I had something similar: Multinational seminar. I was asked by a dude to get more cookies (they were laid out next to coffee and tea in front of the seminar rooms). The idea being: I’m young, female and have longer hair (ZOMG, not the usual businesswoman crop!). Since only older White dudes can KNOW stuff, I of course must be from catering.

  • http://exm.nr/zIfnUN RCHOUDH

    I like the comment by Jose Torres where he shows that as long as institutionalized racism is alive and well these racial microaggressions will continue to persist in society.  

  • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

    Hah!, BTDT

    This happened to me a couple of times (mistaken for valet) along with numerous being mistaken for staff, no matter how I’m dressed.

    And it’s not in the U.S. I was in Kenya (I’m Kenyan), on vacation, in an upscale safari resort, where a white woman mistook me for the help and actually got rather rude when I told them so.

    Them: There is no more coffee!
    Me: I don’t work here.
    Them: (Louder, as if I didn’t hear them the first time) I said there is no more coffee, you people never have cofee out on time!
    Me: Sucks to be you.
    Them: (A moment of indignation, perplexed silence as wheels click in her mind) Oh, so sorry….

    There are innocent mistakes, and there is assuming anyone brown is there to service you.

    • deni

      I’ve often been mistaken for help at retail stores, no matter how I’m dressed as well. I prefer online shopping for that reason alone. I just can’t understand the amount of priveledge someoneone must have to assume that those of a darker complexion are there to serve you.

      Once, my husband (Ugandan) noticed a woman dropped her purse in a restaurant and bent down to retrive it. The woman — convinced that my husband was trying to steal her purse — started screaming, quickly grabbed her bag, and ran outside. I wish these kinds of things simply didn’t happen.

      • Anonymous

         Oh my god, the bag story.

      • Keith

        Sometimes I regret trying to be nice to people because of those types of reactions. The other day I noticed a young dog in an intersection in my neighborhood. I knew it was only a matter of time before someone came along and ran it over. So I took my belt around it’s neck and rang 2 door bells and asked the folks if it were their dog, and in a really nasty tone they said no. One house which I thought the dog might have come from I let the dog loose and it ran around in the front yard. I rang the door bell but no one answered. So I went to my car and drove off. I thought to myself that I would probably just take it to a vet which was in the nearby town. It’s a trip and I didn’t want to waste gas so I decided that maybe I will try one more house. I see a bunch of cop cars at the house. Then after I checked the house of a neighbor I kind of knew, I noticed the Cops left. I rang the doorbell again and a women came out I explained what happened and even though I showed her the dog she still was acting weird and looked at me like she was angry at me. I came across a cop and explained what happened and it turned out that this women’s mother called the cops on me and said I tried to break into her house, and that she was going to shoot me which the cop said with a smirk on his face. He ended up doing a background check on me then he let me go.  Although I live in a predominantly white neighborhood and the folks in my subdivision are cool, it’s the folks that live around the subdivision pro republican tea bag types you got to look out for. I ended up letting the dog loose in a nearby subdivision.

      • Anonymous

        I worked as a bartender where a white woman went to pay for her drinks and realized she didn’t have her purse, saw a black man near her and started swearing that he took it, and patted him down WITH his wife looking on in horror, i ran for my boss (should have known better) His wife was so livid she was seconds away from beating the woman down, even though the husband kept saying he had no idea what the woman was talking about she kept insisting that he had stolen her wallet, my boss *a white woman* called the cops, cops show up, they check the woman’s car and there is her purse, she left it there. She didn’t even apologize to the man for patting him down. then my boss tried to make up for it by offering to pay for the black couples food; after embarrassing them in front of the entire restaurant by calling the police O_o the wife told her to take a flying leap, they weren’t so broke that they would accept charity after she called the cops on them. they left  & they wrote to corporate about her behavior. 

        • Anonymous

          Dreadful but not surprising…did you boss get reprimanded in any way for treating black customers like criminals on the word of a white lady who had no proof?

        • Anonymous

          Dreadful but not surprising…did you boss get reprimanded in any way for treating black customers like criminals on the word of a white lady who had no proof?

        • Anonymous

          Dreadful but not surprising…did you boss get reprimanded in any way for treating black customers like criminals on the word of a white lady who had no proof?

        • Anonymous

          Dreadful but not surprising…did you boss get reprimanded in any way for treating black customers like criminals on the word of a white lady who had no proof?