Last month, I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in an academic conference for higher education scholars and a weekend long professional development opportunity for aspiring university presidents. I was surround by experts in the field, current and former influential university presidents, and hundreds of notable scholars and practitioners in higher education. As a first-generation, Latino scholar who grew up in a low-income household, entering these spaces both excites me and terrifies me. Despite my academic and professional accomplishments, I still experience feelings of inadequacy—like I have nothing to bring to the table. Unfortunately, this feeling is provoked more often than not, especially when I am constantly overlooked as a participant or mistaken as a service worker.
During my third day in Houston for the Association of the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Conference, I excitedly made my way to Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry’s keynote speech. On my way to the hotel ballroom, I passed a hallway of vendors setting up their individual booths. As I made my way through the hallway, an older White woman asked me, “Did we order coffee service? I think it’s a good idea to have coffee here.” I politely responded, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” and showed her my badge that listed my name, school affiliation, and the conference branding. I continued to walk down the long hallway before encountering another older White woman.
“Excuse me, where is the coffee? Can we get some? It’s too early in the day not to have this around.” I didn’t even bother turning around and said, “I don’t work here, can’t help you!” She responded, “Oh, you are wearing similar attire to the staff here.” By then, I had been at the conference for 3 days and was certain that my dark grey suit, white shirt, dark grey tie, tie-clip, and black shoes did not match the brown and black attire that the conference hotel staff wore.
Fast-forward one week later, and I was at the Inn at Penn—a Hilton hotel affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. As a research associate for the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, I had the great pleasure of participating in a forum for aspiring presidents of Minority Serving Institutions. I helped support the program over the weekend and had the opportunity to engage with exemplary higher education professionals. During the last day of the event in between sessions, I ventured to the vending machines of the hotel and then headed to the elevator. A white older couple stopped me and said, “Can you let us in our room or do we have to go downstairs to the front desk? I don’t know why we were given a key that doesn’t work.” Again, I was mistaken as hotel staff. I lifted my nametag and said, “I can’t help you, I don’t work here.”
When situations like these occur, I’m not often affected immediately. But these experiences do stick with me.
Harris-Perry’s powerful speech at ASHE, however, has empowered me to change the way I see these instances; to not only disrupt my own thinking of feeling less than, but to also elevate and honor the experiences of those who hold the jobs that I am mistaken to have.
During her speech, Harris-Perry shared the occasional experiences of being mistaken as a maid or service worker. And instead of being annoyed, she said that she felt a sense of honor, adding that her ancestors who were maids, butlers and janitors—were hardworking people who did whatever it took to provide for their family and to give opportunities to their children. She argued we are often conditioned to make assumptions about people based on the color of their skin or the occupation that they hold. During her presentation, she tactfully demonstrated how these racialized assumptions have permeated college campuses and have perpetuated the assumptions that are constantly made towards students of color while also devaluing the experiences of the people who hold these jobs. For example, several institutions have adopted “clean-up crew” community service programs that are assigned to students as a judicial sanction. By associating janitorial work as a sanction for a judicial case, we are saying that these types of jobs are like punishment.
I will not argue that the incidents I experienced had nothing to do with my race. It had everything to do with my race. Each time I was stopped, I was wearing professional attire with a clearly identifiable nametag that included my school affiliation. At ASHE specifically, there were many other people around me, and yet I was the one stopped, twice. What else could it be? However, rather than constantly questioning why this happens, I will take a moment to correct the person, appreciate the confusion—as service workers are often given no credit—and then go on with my day, recognizing the hard work that was behind getting me to where I am today.
Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.