Corporations want their workers to be soulless automatons.
Last week a Black man named Denzel Skinner went live on Facebook while in the process of being fired from his job at a Youngstown, Ohio Taco Bell for refusing to change his Black Lives Matter face mask.
Skinner, who had worked at Taco Bell for eight years, had switched to that mask—which allowed him to breathe more easily than his other—after the location's air conditioning stopped working. The video opens with Skinner explaining the situation from his car in the parking lot before his manager—who remains out of sight—approaches to talk to him.
She claims that it's not up to her, that there's "a company thing" dictating that face masks have to be plain and that the "political" message of Skinner's mask could not be allowed.
After Skinner and his manager argue about whether the statement "Black lives matter" should be deemed political—each insisting that the other doesn't "get it"—she incredulously asks him if he would "let somebody wear something that said something about white people on it?" Denzel responds, "If that's what they stand for, yes."
Taco Bell manager firing an employee for supporting BLM :/ #RIPTacoBell https://t.co/pFd6Wn4u2f— elijah daniel (@elijah daniel) 1592476789.0
#RIPTacoBell and #TacoBellIsOverParty
While the story received some local news coverage in the Youngstown area, and an edited version of the interaction had been spread around a bit since Skinner's June 8th stream, the video didn't really go viral until comedian and rapper Elijah Daniel shared it on Twitter Thursday morning.
Daniel, who has "@tacobell" tattooed on his hand and has been in Taco Bell commercials, was apparently unfollowed by the fast food brand's official Twitter account after posting the video and asking @tacobell for comments, and had no reservations about scrapping his former loyalty.
Soon the hashtags #RIPTacoBell and #TacoBellIsOverParty began trending. Along with harsh criticisms of the manager and the company, users shared the hashtag with DIY recipes for people to recreate their favorite Taco Bell delicacies at home, as well as full-throated condemnations of the American chain's hyper-processed take on "mexican" "food."
Baja Blast recipe at home: -8 ounces Mountain Dew - 3 ounces Powerade Berry Blast - 6 ounces ice BLEND BITCH!!!!… https://t.co/VvdTPOheX4— brooke ❁ (@brooke ❁) 1592481317.0
A few others came to the manager's defense, claiming that she was just doing her job and that Skinner should save his activism for his free time. It would obviously be easy to dismiss these users as contrarians—especially now that Taco Bell has issued an apology to Denzel Skinner and promised to clarify their policy on required face masks—but here's the thing: Those contrarians are right—she was doing her job—and that's actually the much bigger problem.
The Bottom Line
However stridently Taco Bell's parent company, Yum! Brands—which also owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Wing Street—insists that they "believe Black Lives Matter," they don't, because corporations cannot hold any beliefs at all.
As obvious as that is, it's important to point out, because it's at the root of the problem. Corporations are required to serve the interests of their shareholders—profit and growth—above all else. As long as they operate within legal constraints they are supposed to do whatever makes the most money.
Right now that means apologizing to Denzel Skinner to quell the backlash they're receiving, but last week (whether they'll admit it or not) it included making bigoted white customers feel comfortable in their restaurants. However innocuous the statement that "Black lives matter," to those people it is "political" and offensive, and that's who Denzel Skinner's manager was thinking of when she told him that he "can't bring politics into the building."
If Skinner's mask had ended up angering one bigoted customer, his "politics" would have interfered with Taco Bell's bottom line. This is why Starbucks had—until the recent backlash and reversal—banned employees from wearing clothes with messages supporting Black Lives Matter.
Corporations Over People
Starbucks' defense was that they weren't specifically targeting Black Lives Matter—they were banning all slogans. But is that really better? If Starbucks and Taco Bell aren't going to provide every item their employees wear, why should employees be restricted in how they express themselves with their clothing?
Short of nudity, hate speech, or something similarly disruptive, why does it matter what employees wear, do, or say as long as they're doing their jobs? Why do we expect these workers to stop being people while they prepare our food and drinks? Because they're being paid a whopping $9 an hour?
There is a sense in which, while you are wearing the corporate uniform, your behavior and demeanor are not considered expressions of a person with an inner life, but soulless, efficient extensions of a faceless corporate entity.
In exchange for minimum-wage pay, you are expected to become as depersonalized and inoffensive as possible. You are intended to operate as an automaton that betrays no sense of an existence outside of your corporate role—as processed and unnatural as their bags of mystery meat.
Oh no how will I live without my bagged warm water meat #RIPTacoBell https://t.co/TZNPEPQ50M— Calicon Jones🍥🇨🇮 🇺🇸#BaltimoreProud (@Calicon Jones🍥🇨🇮 🇺🇸#BaltimoreProud) 1592478961.0
Because anything about your behavior or appearance that might upset a customer is seen as a reflection on Taco Bell for allowing you to upset them—allowing you to exist as an individual while you wear their uniform. That's no longer a person who happens to have a job and also has a life outside of that job, for that customer it's "Taco Bell jamming liberal politics down my throat."
To flip the script, there is something fundamentally appealing about the idea of firing an employee who insists on wearing a trump or MAGA mask.
While they are hardly symmetrical views (Donald Trump is a hateful, dangerous, powerful person, while Black Lives Matter is a civil rights movement fighting for some of our society's most disempowered people), the fact that the person assembling your Crunchwrap Supreme holds one perspective or the other doesn't really affect the final product—it has nothing to do with Taco Bell or the real service the company exists to provide.
How Free is Free Speech?
So why does it matter? Can't we recognize that employee as someone we dislike or disagree with without involving Taco Bell? They're not ambassadors or mascots. They're just people working a job. So "if that's what they stand for," as Denzel Skinner put it, why can't we let them express that while they go about their work?
We—but especially wealthy white people who've never had to work service jobs (the kind who ask to speak to managers…)—are so used to this model of employment we don't even see how crushing it is.
Workers are meant to feel grateful for the privilege of getting paid for their labor and expected to subordinate their individual expression fully to the soulless system of corporate power.
We tell them to save their activism for after work, but after an eight-hour work day—along with the time that goes into nutrition, hygiene, finances, health, and all the other drudgery of essential life maintenance—how many people have the energy left to pour into expressing themselves? And without the opportunity to exercise free speech, how free is it?
Don’t let folks convince you that #BlackLivesMatter is political. Basic human rights for every single person walk… https://t.co/mJVlLzKCJH— Renee (@Renee) 1592484474.0
In exchange for a pittance—not even enough to live on without some extra assistance—they're expected to shut down their individuality for 40+ hours a week. It's not a deal that anyone but a desperate person would take. That's precisely why the status quo and powerful interests are safest when the people at the bottom are kept desperate—kept too busy surviving to be anything but quiet.
The George Floyd Protests
Isn't that at least partly why these latest protests have been so much more dramatic. Was the killing of George Floyd more horrific than the killing of Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor? That's debatable. But it came at a time when so many people were out of work with no real prospects—when they had more time and energy to devote to expressing themselves.
And in that context we got to see how much emotion and energy had been bottled up. We got to see how much righteous rage work and weekly routines had been subduing in the Black community and their allies.
If people like Denzel Skinner have to keep working—and don't have the option to pour the bulk of their energy into a cause they believe in—the least they should be allowed is a basic outlet for expression while they work.
It's not a solution to the world's ills by any means, but at least it's an acknowledgment of humanity in our increasingly soulless corporate hellscape.
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