Will You Cut My Grass?

Image source: CC Brand

The other day my 13 year old son was out in the front yard pulling weeds, which is a weekly occurrence in the summer. He’s a good kid and took on the responsibility of cutting the grass, weed-whacking, trimming bushes and doing other yard maintenance. Carlos appreciates his help since he’s physically tired from work and our son does a good job.

So, the other day while our son was pulling weeds where the lawn meets the street, I didn’t think anything of it until I checked on him and found him engaged in a conversation with an elderly man who had stopped his car in the middle of the road. The man talked to him out of his rolled down window, my son stood with a hand on his hip, the other arm he pulled across his forehead to wipe off the sweat that rolled into his eyes. I figured the old man was asking for directions.

“Guess what?” my son said, coming into the house, the screen door slamming unintentionally behind him.

“That guy offered me a job cutting grass and pulling weeds at his house. He lives on the other side of the neighborhood.”

I was happy that my son had the potential to earn some spending money since he’s been bothering me lately about letting him get a job when he turns fourteen next month. (Carlos says it’s out of the question because he wants him to focus on his studies – but that’s a discussion for another day.)

While I was happy for our son, I couldn’t help but wonder if the elderly Caucasian gentleman would have stopped to ask the blond-haired white boy down the street to cut his grass if he’d seen him out pulling weeds. I’m not offended that the man asked, but I can’t pretend the question didn’t enter my mind. You could say I’m being too sensitive or too paranoid, except that last year when Carlos was out cutting the grass, another Caucasian neighbor stopped their car and called out to him.

“Excuse me!” he said, waving his arms to flag Carlos down.

Carlos shut off the mower and walked over to the car.

“Excuse me,” the man repeated, “Do you cut grass?”

Carlos took a moment to understand what this guy was thinking.

“I cut my own grass,” Carlos said, “This is my yard.”

“Oh,” the man said, “…Would you want to cut my grass? I’ve been looking for someone.”

“I’m sorry,” Carlos said, “I have enough work doing my own yard.”

“Okay, I understand,” the man said, “…Do you know anybody who would want to cut my grass? Do you have any friends that might want to?”

“No,” Carlos said, becoming annoyed.

“Oh, okay,” the man replied before driving away, “Thanks anyway.”

Would these Caucasian men have asked another random white person to come cut their grass? There’s really no way to know, but somehow I doubt it.

Posted on July 8, 2012, in Issues, race, racism. Bookmark the permalink. 46 Comments.

  1. Of course they wouldn’t have asked a Caucasian guy. That would be like me asking a white guy where the best tortillas are sold. Like my Dad (who’s a landscaper) says, “Hay que aprovechar”. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have 100+ customers. But I do see where one would get offended. You should have your boys where this t-shirt: http://www.zazzle.com/mow_your_own_lawn_tshirts-235977541906395082. That should ward off any unwanted requests ;) But congrats on the oldest getting his first paid gig! *thumbs up*

    • I’m liking that shirt jajaja

      As for not asking a Caucasian where the best tortillas are sold – At least in my case, if you didn’t ask me, you’d be missing out. LOL … Goes to show you, you never know just by looking.

  2. Carlos was too nice! That was very offensive! This happened to one of my college professors, now boss- mentor and friend, when he moved into a very rich, and mostly white, neighborhood… People kept asking him how much he charged while he was working on his yard, once he got tired he told them: ” I don’t think you can afford to pay me! I have a PhD from Stanford in Urban Planning and my wages go from $500- $800 an hour” :P

  3. we sometimes only think about racism as outright discrimination (hiring practices, housing sales, rentals, name calling, etc), rather than the insidious and pervasive practice of everyday profiling or stereotypes. We are all unique individuals and while we are proud of whatever culture or ethnic identity we come from, and are proud of our collective heritage, no one wants to be lumped into a category based on physical appearance, accent, or whatever. Great story Tracy. I think you are right. They would not have stopped to ask the white guy to cut the grass.

    • I agree that sometimes racism isn’t obvious – you hit the nail on the head. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I don’t think they would have stopped. This has nothing to do with grass but it reminded me of two different incidents within the last 2 weeks while at the grocery store. On both occasions we had someone go up to my husband and asked him to help them choose a watermelon, the first time he helped but the second he pretended not to speak English lol. I asked him later why he did that he said look around the store there were people closer to them both times then we were but we were the the only Latinos. He said he felt like they were stereotyping and went on with his list of reasons. At first i didnt see it that way but i must say he planted a seed.

    • Wow, Yanet, that is such a weird situation to be in. And twice!

    • I am confused, is there a stereotype that Latinos are experts on watermelon ripeness?

      • Tracy López

        This might seem strange, but because migrant workers who pick fruits/vegetables are largely Latino, perhaps some people then form the stereotype or assumption that Latinos are good at judging the ripeness of produce.

        Those who work picking watermelons for a living are skilled at this of course, but it would obviously be wrong to then assume by looking at someone that because they are Latino they are a migrant worker and therefore could tell you if a watermelon is ripe.

        Here’s a link about how farmers in Georgia are short of skilled workers who know how to pick a proper watermelon just in case you want to read more on the topic: http://www.walb.com/story/18734346/migrant-workers-still-in-need?clienttype=printable

  5. I was asked once in that situation, but that was a family friend who was getting older and couldn’t keep his yard cut himself. Being that this man was a stranger, I have no doubt that if it was a blond haired blue eyed kid he wouldn’t be asking.

    Do I think he had any ill will, no but it is easy for all of us to group people. We all do it, we find out that one person is in a religion/political party/or other group and we get a pre-set of ideas of what this person is and what they are about.

    Thanks for sharing this. I have always felt I was open minded and nonjudgmental, but I think I better double check myself to make sure I really am not.

    • Thanks for such an honest comment, Jarvis. The situation also made me reflect and think about whether I had unintentionally done something similar. I couldn’t think of any specific incident but I would say it definitely isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Sometimes we just aren’t sensitive to the fact that things we say/do could be offensive or interpreted as racism. It isn’t intentional and yet it can hurt people all the same.

      It’s a good reminder to be mindful and careful with our words and actions.

  6. A valid assumption, but I hope that’s not true in your son’s case. However, I would make sure the man is who he says he is and that your son doesn’t go into his house.

    • After some thought, I tend to agree with those that say in the case of my son, it was just an elderly man asking for help from a younger person.

      We will definitely escort our son to the man’s house and wait around the property while he works. We’re kind of protective like that ;)

  7. Sometimes people have backwards stereotypes too. As *disgusting* as it sounds, a seriously older guy might assume the kid needed the money. It’s still a terrible assumption to make, but somehow more innocent. But then again, you never know. I’d say I’d encourage your son to tomarlo por lo bueno, because if you go through life paying attention to everyone’s groserias, you’d be pretty unhappy.

  8. Well at my old house I was always on the hunt for a kid who might pull my weeds be he any color under the sun but given Carlos’ experience I can understand why the thought crossed your mind. In that instance it was horribly bigoted but with your son I’d like to think like me the elderly man saw a kid and knew they liked summer jobs.

  9. I understand your paranoia.

  10. Heart In Hand

    I think what we can reasonably assume is that white people don’t like to cut their grass!

    :)

    If I saw any kid, regardless of the color of their skin, doing yardwork, I think I’d fall over dead from a heart attack. You have a good son.

  11. I know exactly what you mean… I don’t think you would have the same after-thought in Canada though, where the stereotype of the Mexican (*label all Latinos as Mexican of course*) gardener/landscaper doesn’t really exist to the best of my knowledge.

  12. Here’s a story, one time one of my former classmates was in the Iowa airport with his sister (they are Cuban American from Miami), and he was telling her a joke in Spanish. Suddenly he realized that everyone was staring at them. Then an older white man came up to him and asked if he’d like to cut his lawn. My classmate, confused, said no thanks (he was on vacation, why would he want to cut anyone’s lawn? lol). The man said, “But you’re Mexican, aren’t you?” And he said “No, I’m Cuban American.” The guy then said “Oh, Cuba, is that next to Mexico?” LOL…some people…

  13. Okay, in Texas, with year round summer…there are lots of Latinos here who own their own landscaping companies and I only ask those hauling landscaping tools in the back of the pickup trucks or in trailers. No one has ever asked me if I wanted to mow their yard :( and I need the money.

    I hope he saw a young man who was working hard and offered him an opportunity to expand his customer base. I mean it could be a valuable lesson in business for your son. Negotiating terms, contracts, garnering feedback, etc.

    I get that everyone is upset about this and I am not trying to say it is right but I mean there is some huge money to be made in Landscaping Design. Just watch the DIY network with Yardcore and Indoors Out. Is it offensive because we consider it menial and blue collar work thus creating the Stigma that we are above it? What about others who do it for a living and may I add make some good cash out of it.

    My yard guy ischarging me 750 dollars to cut my trees and that is the cheapest estimate. Yeah, so, I am one customer. Imagine ten or twenty. I think we devalue these professions but they are business men just like any other business. But, that is my opinion. My grandfather was a trade worker as is my husband. Does that demean them in any way? Just my two cents.

    • Tracy López

      I agree that there’s good money to be made and this is a great opportunity for my son.

      As for thinking landscaping work is somehow below my husband or son – Jamás! The part that is offensive is someone assuming something about an individual based on the way they look, (stereotyping) … It would be just as offensive if a white person said to a tall black man, “Wow, can you show me how to play basketball?” without knowing anything about them or a white person saying to a Chinese person, “Can you help me with my Calculus homework?” Assuming someone is good at basketball or math isn’t normally taken as an “insult” – but in these cases it’s stereotyping based on preconceived notions and jumping to conclusions based on someone’s race or ethnicity – that part isn’t okay – that is the offensive part, because the person is not being seen as a unique individual.

      I respect all kinds of professions. My husband is a blue collar worker and I have so much respect for those who work such physically taxing jobs – it isn’t easy and not everyone is capable of it. Besides the physical aspect, landscaping in particular takes a lot of smarts. I can barely plant a small vegetable garden and keep it alive so people that are good with plants hold a lot of knowledge that I don’t, not to mention, you have to be artistic and have an eye for design for some parts of the job.

      I’ve never seen Yardcore or Indoors Out, but I’ve watched Dirty Jobs and I don’t think I saw a single episode where I thought I was above any of the work being done. It’s a big, complicated world and someone has to do some of these jobs – and most of them are a lot harder than what I do, (sitting at a desk and writing!)

      Excellent comment and great points. Thanks for giving your two cents :)

      • I understand the perceptions of what happens and as a dark skinned Latina as I have been detained more than once for looking a certain way.

        It is something we will all encounter and is it unfortunate, yes. However, I believe it depends on how the person is asking and if they correct their behavior.

        We have to be careful to always jump to conclusions about a person’s motivations but I am just sort of one of those laid back types in an extremely conservative state. I try not to overthink anythinga nd hope my demeanor and knowledge will change people’s minds and help to dispel the stereotypes, that is all.

      • Tracy López

        I like your perspective. This is similar to the conversation I had over on Facebook when I posted the link to this blog post. Someone had some thoughts similar to your own. Basically a lot of it boils down to one’s sensitivities and how thick a skin they have. Sometimes it’s better not to let little things like this get under one’s skin – I’ll admit I’m sensitive to it because it’s my son and my husband – I can get very “mama bear” ;)… On the other hand, when I encountered very blunt racism towards myself, (a man called me a “race traitor” for marrying a Latino), I actually laughed out loud because it just struck me as ridiculous.

  14. An elderly neighbor we don’t know well stopped to ask my daughter (who is very light skinned) if she was interested in mowing his lawn for pay, when he saw her working on our yard. I suspect that your elderly neighbor saw a kid that actually displays a work ethic, a rarity these days (seriously, good job mama!)

    There is possibly an interesting under tone of how we value minorities as much as we value pre-teens.

    • Tracy López

      Thanks – work ethic credit goes to my husband – he has definitely instilled that in our boys, (I’m a bit more laid back, but I’ve made sure they’re very polite, so we both do our part in parenting them LOL.)

      “There is possibly an interesting under tone of how we value minorities as much as we value pre-teens.”

      Wow, now that’s interesting to think about it.

  15. I can understand your anger, my husband had experiences in NYC with older white women grabbing their handbags for dear life when he walked by. However, I would try and focus on the positive. You should be proud of having a hard working son, and proud that Hispanic people are revered for having a great work ethic. I think lots of people would pick him because they would assume a white kid would not get the job done properly. I hope he makes lots of money – that is a great way to get started in business.

  16. Great post tracy and way to go for your hijo, i recently turned 14 and my mom and dad really and I mean REALLY want me to work with my dad (landscaping), it’s just my laziness.
    Good Luck!!!!

  17. My hubby (Honduran) has also been asked to pick out ripe watermelons for people lol! Once by 3 different people on the same shopping trip….2 were Latina women and one was an Asian woman so maybe it’s because he’s a male? Or maybe they saw him doing his “thump test” and figured he knew what he was doing? We laughed about it because I was waiting for him in the car and when he finally came out I was like “What in the world took so long? You were just going in for a watermelon!” Neither one of us took offense….even if it would have been a Caucasian, African, Middle Eastener etc.

    I don’t think the elderly man was stereotyping….probably just saw a kid doing yard work and figured he may want to earn some extra money. Who knows….but we usually try to give people the benefit of the doubt. :)

  18. Hi Tracy,

    I just saw your Facebook post about being featured in BlogHer – Congratulations! You rock.

    This topic is very near and dear to my heart, but I tend to fall on the forgiving side of the spectrum, because I catch myself stereotyping people all the time. I truly believe we all do it, but the key is to ALWAYS challenge your assumptions about people.

    When I see a white, chubby, middle aged guy wearing a baseball cap with camouflage, sleeveless shirt tucked into his shorts, driving a pickup truck, I immediately assume a huge chasm between us, when in reality, he might be the nicest, most open minded person in the world. And the list goes on and on.

    As for personal anecdotes: I live in a very diverse neighborhood in Minneapolis: People of all races and ethnicities and wide range of incomes living often on the same block. We love it. Once, I had an old, white man who owns an apartment building two houses away from mine come up to me while I was mowing my own lawn and ask me if I mowed lawns, and if I could mow his. BUT WORSE: There is a duplex next door to my house. When we had just moved in, the Mexican guy who lived in the downstairs unit (who, by the way, was married to a white woman) came up to me while I was mowing my lawn and also asked me if I could mow his. Noticed he (unlike the old white man) didn’t even ask me if I mowed other people’s lawns. He just assumed.

    So I would say that you shouldn’t be offended that Carlos and your son have both been asked if they could mow other people’s lawns. What we should all be concerned about is creating a culture where we constantly challenge our assumptions about people – but that’s very hard to do.

    Rubén

    • Rubén, I can always count on you for an insightful comment. Everything you said here is so very true. Thank you for contributing your own anecdotes and unique perspective to the conversation.

      I’m going to be thinking about your last sentence for awhile now.

  19. I’m going to set down a dare. I hope that’s okay — of course you don’t have to take it if you don’t want or don’t feel comfortable with it. My dare is this: Meet the elderly man for yourself and find out who HE is as an individual. Then you can find out the answers to the questions in your mind. Maybe this simple invitation to a summer job can be turned into an opportunity to change an unknown neighbor into a good acquaintance or even a friend.

    I realize the date now is weeks later when you made this blog post, so my dare might be too late. Has your son done repeat work for the man at this point, or was it a one-shot job? Maybe your son has already had a chance to get to know the man a little bit.

    (I came here via BlogHer, by the way!)

    • Hi Virginia – Thanks for coming over from BlogHer and leaving a comment :)

      My son and the elderly gentleman exchanged phone numbers and my son is supposed to call him in a couple days to talk further about possibly doing yardwork for him.

      I (or my husband) will be meeting/talking to the man because we don’t like to let our kids just head over to random stranger’s houses and we want to get to know him a little in case this becomes a regular gig.

      I’m willing to bet the elderly gentleman is not racist, maybe not even aware of the stereotype about Latinos and landscaping. He’s probably a perfectly nice old guy — but as I said, I couldn’t help asking myself the question due to past circumstances. That’s the sad thing – that due to real racism, we can’t help but form our own preconceived notions in self-defense – a precautionary measure of sorts to protect ourselves, (or our children.) That’s human nature.

      Anyway, I am more than willing to give this man the benefit of the doubt.

  20. Can’t say for sure about the man who asked your son. But real life makes it hard not to view things through a lens that causes the thought to pop in the mind.

    As for the man who asked your husband and then asked if he had any friends who might want to mow his lawn, that is just really awful and the sad thing is that the man who asked is probably too clueless to understand how and why he was being a total racist piece of shit to even pose such a question.

    • “…real life makes it hard not to view things through a lens that causes the thought to pop in the mind.”

      — Exactly. That, at the end of the day, is what this post is about — not really about whether the man who asked my son to do yardwork was racist — but about how the question came to my mind in what most likely was a harmless situation simply due to the “conditioning” that occurs having to deal with real racism.

  21. My two white nephews, ages 18 & 21, are asked to cut lawns whenever they are doing yard work and they love being asked and getting additional work ($$$). The same thing happens when they are shoveling snow. They live in a middle class neighborhood with people of all backgrounds.

  22. My blue eyed blond haired son has been asked about lawn mowing while out doing yard work for our family. And I have been asked on more than one occassion about ripe watermelons in the produce section at the store. Maybe it was race based. OR Maybe someone saw what appeared to be a hard working young man who might like to earn a little cash for a man who can’t/doesn’t want to/is too busy to do it himself.

  23. Wow! The very question entered my mind too when my nephew was offered a job. My nephew who is Mexican American with blue eyes and blond hair was asked by a neighbor to help. However, after working there for two weeks my nephew couldn’t continue as it was very hard labor to maintain a 3 acre property for the amount of money the owner was offering. I think sometimes people are just cheap but you can’t help to wonder at times.

  24. Really interesting post and responses. Here via BlogHer. I’m a rubia hispanohablante, so anything having to do with Latina/o culture tends to interest me. ;-)
    (& I’m not fluent yet, but I’m trying to work on it!) ;p

  25. I was surprised when I read these comments. I would have never thought a question like this would be racist in a zillion years. I’ve been in the position of needing help in my yard. And if I’m going to pay somebody to do it I’d much rather pay a teenage boy who may be interested in earning spending cash. And if I could find a teen boy who lived in my neighborhood that would be even better. I didn’t know all my neighbors. I didn’t know who had older teens who knew how to push a mower! ()It’s kind of a dying art. So upon seeing a teen boy mowing you betcha I’d stop and politely ask.

    I’ve stopped and asked house painters for a business card.
    I’ve asked teens in my neighborhood to feed my dog for a couple of days, or water my flowers. I’m happy to pay.

    And I’d be just as happy if someone asked MY son to mow. Or walk dogs. Or wash cars. Or paint a shed. All these things have happened.

    I never dreamed it was a sexist/racist/insulting thing.

    • I don’t think the act itself is racist or insulting – it all depends on the attitude of the person asking.

      Some people have experienced racism before and so they may be paranoid and perceive racism where none was intended, as I now I feel I did when this particular man asked my son to cut his grass.

      The man is a war veteran and has been really kind to my son. He’s not strong enough to do the work himself but he still tries to work alongside my son when he works on his yard. He paid him fairly and provided him unlimited iced tea all day to make sure he didn’t get dehydrated. I misjudged him because I have seen my husband and son be treated with blatant racism before, (like when a different man asked my husband to cut his grass) and because of that, I’m now over-protective.

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the practice of asking teenagers to do yard work, dog sit, etc. — it’s the person’s attitude that shapes the situation into a positive or negative thing.

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