The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Temping is quite stressful because you never know, from one day to the next, whether you’ll have a job. This invites paranoia. You don’t get a call for a few days and you begin to think, “Did I do something wrong? Will they ever call again?” It’s all rather mysterious. How does the temp agency decide which jobs to offer me? If I keep smiling and being generally agreeable, will I start getting the higher paying gigs?

Why did they hire me at all?

In a previous post, I speculated that being white helped me get hired as a temp (if “hired” and “temp” can even be used in the same sentence). Then, while working at a law firm the other day, I read an article about how the temp industry began in the 1960s with a company called Kelly Girls. The company sold temping as an option for bored, white, middle-class housewives who wanted to get out of the house and make extra money – temporarily. The industry sought to profit from the “feminine mystique” in a way that Betty Friedan definitely didn’t intend. This is how they were able to create a new model for precarious employment that bypassed cultural norms which, at the time, favored full-time jobs and strong labor protections (for men).

I guess I’m a 21st century Kelly Girl, even though I am not a housewife, not bored, and I have a PhD.

A new piece of the puzzle, which confirms some of my suspicions about how far we haven’t come since the 1960s, was revealed to me today. Or, shall I say, I discovered it by being extra curious.

This week, I am back at Fancy Wall Street firm. I am at the reception desk, doing reception-y things. Mostly that means greetings guests, answering phones, and acting as a liaison between the big shots who work in the offices with the windows and all the working-class people who deliver their food and their packages.

Yesterday, I happened to see the bill for my services that the temp agency sent to Fancy Wall Street firm. (Actually, I opened the envelope that contained the payment, read it, and sealed it back up; judge me how you will.)

For one day of labor last week, I earned $100. Guess how much Fancy Wall Street firm paid for that day? $780.00. No, I am not joking. Pretty staggering, isn’t it? First of all, I am getting royally screwed. Secondly, What do you think makes me worth that much, considering that I have zero experience as a secretary/receptionist?

I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a white thing. Maybe I am reading too much into this since I read the article about the Kelly Girls, a company that specialized in placing white women in temp gigs. Maybe it’s my liberal guilt. There are millions of brown and black people (some of whom have accents) desperate for work in this city. I’ve managed to get temp jobs precisely because I have tapped into a market that funnels white women who don’t have a chip on their shoulder about centuries of racism, and who smile and act ladylike, to employers – on a temporary basis.

I don’t know what this means for me, really, except it haunts me a little bit. And then there’s the irksome knowledge that someone who isn’t me is reaping financial benefits from my symbolic capital (yes, I am referencing Pierre Bourdieu, for all you academics). How interesting, how incomparably post-everything, that whiteness is worth so much, but not always to the actual white person?

I feel like Lily Bart in The House of Mirth: “I may be poor, but I’m very expensive.”

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