I wondered about this recently, and Zandria, at Keep Up With Me, happened to just mention it in a blog post. She’s talking about why she particularly likes a bar in her neighbourhood, a place called O’Connell’s, and she says this:
The bartenders. It’s an Irish bar, so all of the bartenders are Irish (I guess it must be a pre-requisite to get hired there). They’re nice, and they have cool accents. It’s nice to go to a place often enough [...]The context in which I was thinking about it was for sushi bars, where people expect to see Japanese chefs and Japanese waitresses. And that’s what one sees; I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience otherwise.
Now, surely it would be illegal for a business to hire only from one ethnic group. I suppose lots of Americans could pass for Irish, if they had to, with a bit of dialect coaching. It might not be a valid condition of employment to be Irish, but being able to sound Irish certainly could be. Think of it as an acting job.
But could it be a valid condition of employment to look Japanese? Would customers expecting a Japanese man behind the sushi bar or at the hibachi table be put off by, say, a tall blonde woman who looked more Swedish than Asian? Would a Chinese man be close enough? And could the restaurant be sued for turning an applicant down for this reason?
There certainly are exceptions for this sort of thing in acting jobs. If a Broadway role requires a slim, young, light-skinned man, the producers certainly are allowed to reject someone too fat, too old, too dark, or too female. A hibachi chef can arguably be called an actor. A sushi chef or a waitress or a bartender, not so much.
Why, then, do I never see variations? Is it that non-Japanese don’t apply for the jobs? Is it that Japanese restaurants (or Irish bars, or whatever) are unlawfully discriminating, and getting away with it? Or am I wrong: is it really completely legal to filter these sorts of job applicants this way?