Are you a student?’ It sounds like a relatively innocuous question. But it’s not, it’s loaded.
I’m asked this question all the time in my job as a waitress. Sometimes I say ‘No.’ and elaborate: ‘I’m an actress’. Other times I say ‘No.’ and leave it at that. The responses to both are equally frustrating. If I say ‘No.’ They blink at me, tilt their heads enquiringly and eventually ask: ‘so, is this your full-time job?’ This sounds like another innocuous question, but the inference that comes with it is anything but neutral.
There seems to be an unspoken consensus, within a certain demographic of the population, that it isn’t okay to ‘just’ be a waitress. That it’s fine if you’re supporting yourself on the road to something better, but it shouldn’t be a vocation. The other route confirms this theory. ‘No. I’m an actress.’ Invariably followed by a relieved ‘We thought you must do something else.’ Or worse. ‘We knew you weren’t just a waitress’. When people say this, most of the time they truly believe they’re paying you a compliment. So it’s well-meaning. But it’s not a compliment. It’s insulting. We are no longer a nation that exists within the realms of 9-5. We haven’t been so for a long time. Yet there exists an outdated class system within the infrastructure of employment. It’s dismissive, prejudiced, and inaccurate. In a world where job security is at such a plummeted low, it is also unrealistic. Isn’t it time we challenged this construct?
It’s hardly surprising, however, that the upper middle class clientele of a Soho seafood restaurant often consider these jobs to be menial and unskilled when the authors of the Brexit settlement scheme, our own government, have deemed them exactly that. And the double standard doesn’t stop there. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the way in which we classify professions within a hierarchy is utterly flawed. Particularly striking is the way in which the government have begun celebrating frontline workers. Rightfully so. Every one of us owes them a debt of gratitude, but the timing of this newfound affection rouses my suspicion.
A recently resurfaced clip from 2017 claiming to show Tory ministers ‘voting againsts nurses payrises’ could suggest that this government hasn’t always revered NHS staff to quite such an extent. In fact the ammendment that was rejected -by the DUP and all but four conservative MPs (the other 4 didn’t vote)- called for the public sector pay cap to be lifted. Which although wouldn’t have directly resulted in a pay rise for anyone, would have put considerable pressure on the government to end the cap of 1%. They didn’t just vote against it. They cheered at the result. You can watch the footage here. Some of those very same politicians now clap on the street each thursday. The very same politicians who, four years ago, were at war with the junior doctors. Widely perpetuating the false notion that strikes were in aid of securing higher salaries rather than protesting contractual revisions threatening patient and staff safety. A view unsurprisingly supported by the tabloid press. ‘The sun says Sack the Docs’. The Sun are since demonstrating a previously unseen devotion towards the would-be sacked. Shocking.
Prejudice festers. Especially sleepy, latent prejudice. Throughout history, whenever prejudice has been allowed to thrive, destruction has inevitably followed. A fickle, insidious prejudice lies at the heart of this double standard. A prejudice exploited and controlled by both the media and the Tory cabinet alike. The means by which we measure skill and worth change periodically to whatever suits best, and as a result ‘worth’ itself has become a commodity.
I could elaborate endlessly on just how skilled the hospitality profession is. But that’s not the point. I never received such scrutiny when I worked as a Teaching Assistant. Because working in education falls into the bracket of ‘worthy career choice’. Shame we don’t pay teachers accordingly. The point is: we have come to appreciate only certain types of skills. If they don’t belong to a noble -or lucrative- enough faction, the world isn’t interested. And yet where would we be today without the so called ‘undesirables’?
I hope that going forward, there will be a newfound appreciation for those on whom we have depended. I hope the cleaners, the checkout assistants, the postmen, the warehouse operatives will be accepted and appreciated for their role in society. I hope people will take it upon themselves to challenge the outdated perceptions that govern our way of life. In the future, when I book a doctors appointment, I will do so only if I am sure that I really need it. I won’t ever take for granted the frequency of Victoria line trains, or breezing into Tesco’s as and when I choose. I will remain grateful to the people who make this possible. I pray we are all brave enough to challenge our own prejudices, and rely no longer on the governing powers to feed us our opinions in accordance with their manifesto.
I hope things don’t go back to normal. I hope they change.
Either way, please don’t ask me if I’m a student.