Dignity Transacted: Emotional Labor and the Racialized Workplace

In interactive customer service encounters, the dignity of the parties becomes the currency of a commercial transaction. Service firms that profit from customer satisfaction place great emphasis on emotional labor, the work that service providers do to make customers feel cared for and esteemed. But performing emotional labor can deny dignity to workers by highlighting their subservience and requiring them to suppress their own emotions in an effort to elevate the status and experiences of their customers. Paradoxically, the burden of performing emotional labor may also impose transactional costs on some customers by facilitating discrimination in service delivery. Drawing on the extant scholarship on emotional labor and ongoing research on full-service restaurants, we argue that the strain and indignities of performing emotional labor, often for precarious compensation, lead servers to adopt various coping strategies, including some that open the door to their delivery of inferior and inhospitable service. When these strains and indignities are coupled with culturally entrenched racial stereotypes and racialized discourse in the workplace, the result is that people of color—a legally protected category of customers—are systematically denied dignity and equality by being excluded from the benefits of welcoming and caring customer service. Discriminatory customer service often is so subtle and ambiguous that it escapes legal accountability. It nevertheless warrants our attention, because it contributes to the social and economic marginalization of people of color. Far from being a mundane or trivial concern, the dynamics described in this Article underscore the various ways in which particular groups come to be designated as suitable targets for a wide range of disregard and mistreatment. These dynamics also illuminate how structural conditions facilitate and promote economic discrimination, as well as the connections between workers’ rights and civil rights.