Genii Weblog

Na´vetÚ vs. 1968: Racism rears its ugly head

Thu 31 Jan 2008, 09:25 AM

by Ben Langhinrichs
For those who know my daughter through this blog, it is likely apparent that she enjoys and embraces diversity.  Growing up in Shaker Heights, that was fairly acceptable and reasonable, and she went out in the world knowing about racism mostly through anecdote and hearsay.  Even when she was featured prominently in an ABC special on race relations in Shaker Heights, her experience was primarily with what race relations could be rather than what they really are in many other places.  At college, and later in a border studies program on the U.S.-Mexican border, she saw more examples of racism, mostly against Hispanics, but it still seemed relatively systemic rather than personal or overt.

After graduating a semester early, my daughter is working at a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C., and I think she imagined that in a cosmopolitan, sophisticated place such as D.C. with incredible diversity of race, religion and nationality, she was less likely to encounter overt racism than in a border city in Texas.  I can only imagine that in her mind, the candidacy of Barack Obama must indicate a thaw in the racist attitudes of Americans.  Not a complete elimination of such attitudes, but at least a thaw.  So, yesterday, when a group of her fellow think tankers went to a bar after work, and one suggested she invite along anybody she wanted, she invited a fellow "cubicle-mate", who we will call Tyrone, who happens to be black with an accent that some in the office find a bit hard to understand.  (My daughter has grown up with many black friends, and has no trouble with it)

As my daughter describes the scene, it was a swanky bar, and they were all dressed well.  Tyrone, in a conservative suit, was probably the oldest looking of the group, but they are all in their early to mid 20's.  My daughter is 21, and looks young, but she was not carded, nor was anybody else in her group of approximately 15, except Tyrone, the only black person in this particular group.  When the waitress took drink orders, she blatantly ignored Tyrone, and walked off without his order, even after carding him.  After about 20 minutes of trying to get somebody to take his order, Tyrone finally got a waiter to listen, and the waiter demanded proof that Tyrone could pay.  After Tyrone showed him his money, the waiter was still resistant, and Tyrone told him to forget it.  My daughter was upset, but Tyrone didn't want to leave or make a scene, so she ordered a drink for him.  She was served immediately, was not asked for id or proof she could pay.  In deference to Tyrone's wishes, she stayed while he finished his drink and then she left when he did.

Nobody else in the group seemed particularly surprised or upset.  The person who arranged the visit to the bar apologized and said she should have known it might be a problem at a nice bar in the South.  Tyrone thinks my daughter's naïveté is endearing, but appreciates it.  My daughter is appalled and upset, and obviously won't go to that bar again, but doesn't know how to handle the next such invitation when it comes up.  Many of her friends might trigger a similar reaction, but not going out with them seems an even worse reaction.

It is hard to believe that it is 2008 and not 1968, but then I guess I share my daughter's naïveté.  I wish she didn't have to have it challenged so harshly.  Even more, I wish things were different.

Copyright ę 2008 Genii Software Ltd.

What has been said:

668.1. Roberto Boccadoro
(01/31/2008 08:05 AM)

What I find scary in your post is the sentence : "Nobody else in the group seemed particularly surprised or upset"

668.2. Elijah Lapson
(01/31/2008 09:33 AM)

I agree with Roberto. I admire your daughter's compassion for her friend and willingness not to leave. I do not know if I would have been able to stay. Leaving would have had the biggest impact socially and financially. It potentially can also expose racial bias to those whose choose to ignore it.

Elijah Lapson

668.3. Nathan T. Freeman
(01/31/2008 10:28 AM)

I'd have gotten the manager, refused to pay for any drinks and left them on the table. What are they going to do? Call the police? You think the guys from DC Metro that showed up would be accepting of Tyrone's treatment?

And Ben, why haven't you included the name of the bar in this post? You want to get rid of these kinds of attitudes, then you have to enact consequences. You have thousands of readers. The place that permitted this kind of experience for your daughter should be shamed because of it.

You didn't mind doing it when it was Staples, y'know.

668.4. Ben Langhinrichs
(01/31/2008 10:32 AM)

My temptation would have been to leave, making a fuss, but my daughter felt that she needed to respect the wishes of the person most impacted. Since there is a sense of pwerlessness inherent in being treated that way, the most thoughtful thing is sometimes to give the power to the person to make the decision what to do.

As for naming the bar, I'd be happy to, but she didn't tell me. If I can get her to tell me, I'll gladly add it to my post.

668.5. Joe Litton
(01/31/2008 10:53 AM)

wow. WOW. I have such a mix of emotions now. Shock that this kind of thing goes on. Shock at how ignorant I must be to not have realized that this could be happening in 2008. Anger at the folks working at the bar. Dumbfounded that everyone ELSE in the group apparently paid no mind. That is so sad.

Kudos to your daughter!

668.6. Nathan T. Freeman
(01/31/2008 11:07 AM)

Well, I wouldn't want to lecture Tyrone on how to handle it, of course, but if I were in that situation, I would at the very least ask him to allow me to get the manager to find us a different server immediately.

Whatever your daughter's reaction was to that particular situation, I hope she reads this and takes a suggestion: do not ever tolerate bad service in a restaurant. Wait staff works for tips -- period. If they don't have enough class to treat you well, whether it's because they're racist, lazy, stupid or just plain hungover, there's never any reason for you to suffer through it. Start subtle, but if things don't straighten up, simply ask the manager for a different server (never eat or drink anything brought to you by someone that you just had reprimanded.) If you can't get a different server, leave.

Especially in a place like D.C, where a different bar can't be more than 50 steps away!

People only act that way because they're allowed to get away with it. :-/

668.7. Christopher Byrne
(01/31/2008 07:00 PM)

Your daughter, unfortunately, got a lesson in DC/Any City Restaurant 101. It is not about racism, it is about tips. Waiters and waitresses in restaurants in DC (and other cities) do not want to wait on a party being paid for by a black man or woman because they feel they will not be tipped well, if at all. And the same thing will happen regardless of the race of the wait staff. I have heard this story over over and over from service workers in different restaurants.

They should have just walked to the bar next door (after expressing their displeasure to management).

668.8. W^L+
(01/31/2008 08:21 PM)

We have experienced similar incidents in my family, in such places as restaurants, theme parks, and video arcades. Our usual response is to walk out immediately and never return.

Yes, this still happens in 2008. Surprising, but true.

668.9. Kerr
(01/02/2008 02:31)

"It is not about racism, it is about tips."

That's all a bit circular isn't it. Bad service, because you don't expect a tip. Don't get a tip because of bad service.

668.10. Dan King
(01/02/2008 02:56)

I have been shocked by this. While I think everyone knows racism exists, I certainly wasn't aware something like that could happen in this day and age.

My first thought (after getting over the shock of it) was why didn't Tyrone stand up for himself, but then I guess it's hard to tell how one would react if put in the same position, especially if this is a common occurrence in somewhere like DC (good reason not to go there I'd say)

@7 Regardless of the reason behind not serving him, it's racism clear and simple and no reasons/excuses should be made (not that I think you're personally trying to make excuses, but the waiters and waitresses might be using this as an excuse, ignoring the racism aspect of their actions).

I think your daughter acted in the best way she could FWIW, personally I think I would have tried to start a fight (not physically of course)

668.11. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/01/2008 04:09 AM)

Chris - Racism is racism, no matter what the race of the wait staff. Assuming a person will not tip well based on the color of their skin is still racism. For that matter, not serving somebody because you suspect they will not tip well is unacceptable as well, but if the only reason for your suspicion is the color of their skin... I don't see any justification.

668.12. Christopher Byrne
(02/01/2008 07:02 AM)

I am not saying it is right, far from it. It is just that you will hear the same thing from service staff, black or white or yellow or green. And yes, it is circular. At the same time, it is based on their "real experiences", not on a preconception based on ignorance.

If I am a regular in a restaurant and I can't get service because they know I don't tip or because I always order cheap to keep the bill down (which I do), what am I supposed to claim? They are chrisist? Now if I don't get service because I wear a goatee and jeans, well that is a different story. If I don't get quicker service because I do not have the cleavage of the person sitting next to me, then I am a victim of sexism. (Rule one of getting a bartender's attention: stand next to the patron with the most cleavage and ride her coattails).

We have to be careful to label everything that happens as racist on its face. In this case there is a perhaps an economic context that is based on judgments about a class of customers who belong to a particular race.

Tyrone's best response would have been to speak to the manager, demanded service from the staff who bypassed him, and tipped accordingly.

668.13. Kevin Pettitt
(02/01/2008 08:47 AM)

I live in DC and while I don't get to bars as much as I used to, I can't recall witnessing or hearing firsthand about a similar incident before this. I'm as disgusted as everyone else and would certainly not tolerate it were I in that party. I DEFINITELY want to know which bar it was.

That said, Chris also makes a good point about being too quick to call things racist. It is possible that whatever caused the discrimination in this case was more complex than skin color. You mentioned Tyrone's accent, I assume because it might be the sort that many people associate with a lower class, less educated background. A "redneck" accent might generate the same associations and perhaps the same reaction but would never be called racist. "Classist" or "culturalist" or "snobbish", perhaps.

There are lots of outward clues that people might interpret when forming a first impression of someone, and yes ethnicity is one. How you dress, your speech, the company you keep, table manners, and other behaviors are all others. Considering that most observers would give Tyrone high marks in all but one (speech) of these areas, it appears that the restaurant staff will have a hard time defending their actions on any non-racial basis (assuming they would even try to).

As a DC resident, I've given a fair bit of thought over the years to this issue, and the fact is that class distinctions here still mostly parallel racial and ethnic distinctions. This makes it harder for folks to avoid the racist label when deciding what neighborhood to live in, what schools and churches to attend, what movie theaters to go to, etc.

For example, we stopped going to one theater because so many people in the audience talked loudly during the movie. They happened to ALL be black, but it was their behavior not their skin color which caused us to stop going. Of course not all black people behave this way, and there are many who shifted their patronage elsewhere for the same reasons.

Not sure how coherent or relevant any of that was, but I hope it provided a little additional context regarding racial issues in DC.