Confronting Racist Aggression Big and Small: When You See Something, Say Something

 photo restaurants.jpg
by Tikia Hamilton

“You think about race too much,” a friend recently messaged me in response to one of my social media posts.  A Latina woman from New York, she insisted that, were I to adopt a more “color-blind” outlook during my interactions with people, I’d find greater peace. It’s possible.  Given the absurd racist encounters I seem to experience quite frequently, perhaps it is true that I need to take my friend’s advice and “see race” less. Then, too, I must learn to mind my own business, as she also urged me to do. Perhaps in this way, I will avoid the type of blow-ups that seem only to occur to folks, like me, who just might be living our lives with a bit of a racial chip on our shoulders.

Like what happened to me the other day, while I was sitting in a popular restaurant-café chain, having lunch with my mom, whom I just snagged from D.C.’s Union Station.  Two bites into my delicious Asian Wonton salad, I overheard a bit of a spat between the restaurant manager, white, and an African-American couple seated at separate tables. Looking back over my shoulder, I could see a man dressed in a sporty black jacket and jeans, with what seemed like braids peeking from beneath his wave cap.   Occupying his table was at least one coffee cup, several notepads, a cell phone and a laptop.  Across the aisle sat his wife, unmistakably pregnant, dressed in a red and white “What’s Your Status?” t-shirt, signaling her support of the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign that is so desperately needed in D.C. and various black neighborhoods across the country. Several note books were positioned in front of her, as well, although she had been greatly immersed in a phone conversation, prior to having the manager, a blonde man ostensibly in his mid-thirties, interrupt her to demand that she and her husband leave the cafe.

“You’ve been using that same coffee cup, but you’ve been sitting here for hours,” an irate manager informed her husband, who, at no point raised his voice. With a sort of defeatist look on his face, the young man calmly suggested that the manager, call the police if he felt that he had reason to do so. His wife became a little more indignant, however. Apparently, Dave, the manager, had interrupted a very important phone conversation, causing the caller on the other end to remark upon his rudeness. “We’ve purchased food and coffee every time we come here!” the pregnant woman reminded Dave. “So, I

don’t understand why you have a problem with us all of a sudden,” she fumed, while simultaneously packing her belongings.  Turning to me, she then sighed, “I feel like it’s racism.”  

“It might be,” I sympathized with her plight. The reality is, as a dissertating student, I often spend hours on end in these cafes, fully engaged by some book or my laptop, but often purchasing no more than a cup of coffee.  In fact, I always assumed that we, the general public, were encouraged to utilize these establishments as quasi-work space, because the food and dessert temptations are much too strong, and, as would-be loiterers, we will eventually feel compelled to purchase something.

“What do you think?” I wondered aloud to my mom, who reasoned that a call to the corporate office was perhaps most appropriate.  “Sure,” I conceded, though feeling as if the situation warranted more immediate action. Suddenly, I grabbed my wallet, in the hopes that purchasing an additional cup of coffee or a meal for the couple would settle the question of whether they were simply loitering.  Yet, looking around the café, I quickly spotted several patrons hovering over laptops, while others remained engaged in quite audible cell phone conversations, like the “professionally-dressed” man who occupied the seat directly behind the young African-American man.  They were all white.

“Some of these people were here before way before us!” the young African-American woman had previously informed the manager. Recalling this information, I decided to save my money.  Instead, I would find out why it was that Dave decided to single out this couple. Had they engaged in some type of disreputable behavior to which I simply was not privy?  In my rush to judge this as yet another instance of discrimination, perhaps I had been guilty of making faulty assumptions based on the manager’s skin color.  Consequently, in my efforts to allow Dave the benefit of the doubt, I moved to address him directly.

"We sometimes get panhandlers," was Dave’s seemingly knee-jerk response, one that he offered within earshot of  the predominantly black wait staff, who shuttled back and forth between the kitchen and the their assigned tables.

"But, what about the couple you asked to leave? Do they ever beg for money?" I pushed.

“Well, I'm not speaking about those two, per se. But, they do come in here a lot. And they sit for hours without buying anything. At least, that is what the waiters tell me," the manager struggled for yet another excuse.

Panhandling? Hmmm…Dave’s words quickly reminded me of my recent encounter with a downtown market owner, who sought to justify his surveillance of my purchase by utilizing a similar excuse.  For nearly two years, I had patronized the elderly gentleman’s small corner store, as rather than grant Starbucks or some other conglomerate my money.  Over this course of time, the old man and I also enjoyed several delightful conversations about, above all things, his desire as an Asian-American to understand learn more about African-American history.  It is for this reason that I was shocked to find him peering over the counter, eyeing me surreptitiously, on one particular occasion.  Caught red-faced, he quickly averted his glance, causing me to experience both sadness and frustration, almost as if a dear friendship had just ended.

“I often get bums in here begging for money and kids stealing,” the store owner replied upon my return the next day. Having taken twenty-four hours to contemplate his actions, I truly wanted to believe that I had been imagining the whole ordeal.   Yet, clearly, I was not homeless, and I was also about twenty years past being a kid.  It is at that point that my frustration evolved into righteous indignation. Since he apparently could not tell the difference between a loyal customer and the occasional thief, I justly informed him that I would no longer patronize his business.

 "Alright. Can you show me where in your company policy customers are only allowed to remain in your establishment for a predetermined amount of time?"  I asked Dave, since it was now obvious to me that he had targeted the African-American couple unfairly. The fact that I donned a purple jogging suit, sported neon pink sneakers and closely -coiffed French braids only increased my resolve.   Dave would soon realize the absurdity of discriminating against an individual based on his physical appearance or her relaxed attire.

"What’s that? Company policy? I don’t have time to look that up right now, but you can!” Dave replied, perhaps not realizing the degree to which his arrogance betrayed his utter ignorance.

"So, you are telling me that if I review your company policy, it will clearly state that individuals are not allowed to sit in this restaurant for an extended period of time?" It was a simple question, though sufficient to save me the type of research that I conduct on a daily basis as an historian. (Ah, Dave did not know this!)

"Do you know them? Why do you care? Are you a lawyer?" he stuttered, making visible his growing frustration with the girl in the purple jumpsuit.

"No, I don't know them, and I'm not a lawyer. But, I do care about social justice and I hate racism,” I calmly informed him.

“Why are you being so difficult?" Dave sighed, after assuring me that he was in no ways racist. In fact, he hadn’t even taken into consideration the fact that the couple was black.

“Well, I am also studying for my PhD, and I happen to use your establishment as my personal work space all the time. In fact, I was just in another your locations for about 6 hours last week!"

Evincing a similar look of defeat as the young African-American couple he previously targeted, Dave retorted, "Fine then!" With that, he offered me a handshake, and walked off.  Afterwards, I informed the couple that they were free to remain as long as they wished (or at least as long as I was there).

"I'm sorry.  I know I should mind my own business sometimes, but I just can't help it,” I apologized to my mother.  She simply hunched her shoulders, since, knowing me, she understands fully well that it would have been impossible for her daughter to sit there quietly crunching the noodles in her Wonton salad, while an injustice of this magnitude was being perpetuated only inches away.  The reality is, whether the couple shared my skin color or not, I still would have “interfered,” because that is just my way.

The problem is, all too many times, others will not intercede because they assume that, if it’s not affecting them directly, racial discrimination is somebody else’s problem.  Like the group of about five who were seated behind my mother. Clearly, they had overheard the entire conflict, but just decided to continue absorbing their meals, as if they occupied some parallel dimension.  To the credit of one diminutive, middle-age white woman, after the manager fled, she did speak privately with the couple, to make sure that there were alright. Of course, it was the human thing to do. But was it enough? Condolences after the fact matter very little, from where I sit.  Forms of social justice that are packaged and made comfortable and convenient for you probably ain’t justice at all.

But, perhaps even more egregious is pretending to be oblivious to race as a social construct, because, in so doing, you unwittingly support those who would use similar ideas about color-blindness as a convenient escape hatch to explain away their racist actions.  Although, the seemingly well-meaning claim that one does not “see race” might soothe some ears, we must remember that, used broadly as a term to characterize group identity, race often serves as a carefully masked “imposter” for racism (as a well-known historian long-ago discerned).  On the one hand, acknowledging racial differences does not a racist make. However, racial indifference makes it all too easy for us to become as well indifferent in the face of discrimination.  Rather than choose indifference and apathy, however, it is imperative that we speak out against these all too frequent instances of racial injustice, whenever and wherever they occur.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Tikia K. Hamilton is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Princeton University. A Chicago native and former educator in New York City, her research focuses on racism and public education in Washington, D.C., where she currently resides. You can follow her on Facebook or on Twitter at @TikiaKHamilton

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