Although the subject can become repetitive, one of the ways I try to practice black feminism in my life is in my romantic life. I’ve been in St. Lucia for my ten day vacation between J-term and spring semester. During that time I’ve been going out to eat with a male friend of mine nearly every night. I’ve started to really notice a quirk in St. Lucian culture with regards to customer service. We all know about the stereotype of the West Indian shop owner or restaurant owner with a bad attitude. I’m a bit too comfortable here to be surprised or bothered by the abrasive attitudes of workers. I’ve grown to love having to work to give up my own money. What has bothered me is the way financial transactions are handled by people who work in customer service.
Now, I’m not a big believer in either the man or the woman paying every single time. Sometimes the bill is split, sometimes he pays, sometimes I pay. It may not be split evenly, I’m certainly not keeping tabs, but it’s split in a way that both of us are comfortable and satisfied with the occasional free meal and the occasional expense. Servers, waitresses and bartenders seem to have a more sexist idea about these financial transactions. Workers have a clear expectation that paying for meals is the responsibility of the man. I am not necessarily offended to the point of reaction, but it is tangibly sexist. Here are a few different situations this has happened in that I can recall, just from the past four to five days:
1. Ordering drinks and the bill is placed in front of my friend immediately.
2. I handed a fifty dollar bill to a server and she returned the change to my friend. (This has happened twice.)
3. I took my credit card out of my wallet and handed it to a server and she returned it to my male friend for a signature, despite the fact that I took the card out of my wallet in front of her.
These experiences have only occurred with female servers. This shows that sexism is not exclusively practiced by men. Women can play an equal role in enforcing patriarchal expectations. These experiences are negative for a few reasons:
1. (This is the obvious reason!) It’s offensive for people to assume that I cannot or should not pay my way. Why not place the bill in the center of the table? Or return my change and credit card to me?
2. It places external pressure on men to fulfill specific gender roles. This is not a gender role expectation that I placed on him; it’s an external pressure on our dynamic that neither of us agreed to, and as a result, I view it as an inappropriate invasion.
3. It makes it acceptable for women to enforce patriarchal ideas about gender roles. The cult of womanhood in St. Lucia is very powerful. Women here are very susceptible to the example and societal demands of women around us.
I don’t expect this to change when I go out in the future. I do have my own ideas about passively resisting this sexist intrusion. While most people may just “avoid the trouble” and give the man the money to pay at every occasion, I refuse to do so. I don’t make a lot of money — I’m still a student — but I’m proud of the fact that I am relatively independent. Instead of submitting to these expectations, I will force those working in customer service to acknowledge the fact that women can and do pay their way in this world. I will continue to hand money to waitresses as they look expectantly towards the man to pay. I will continue to use my own credit card, and proudly print my John Hancock on the line as they look shocked that a man would dare let me pay for dinner.
Until this becomes normalized, there can be no change. There’s nothing unfeminine about paying for a date. There’s nothing unfeminine about a woman handling her own money. Of course, undoing a sexist culture is not this simple. So, I’m not claiming to be some sort of hero or massive activist, but individual changes and convictions are important. When it comes to dining out, this is my contribution.