Recently my partner and I decided to check out a new bistro in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. I am a black, 52-year-old, nonprofit executive and my partner is a white, 51-year-old library administrator. As we entered, a waiter led us to a table and took our drink order before I went to the restroom to wash my hands. On my way, a young, white waiter stopped me and asked, "Can I help you? We don't have any public restrooms. They are for customers only."
Startled, I looked around at the other customers and noticed I was dressed similarly, within the same age range and seemingly of the same hygiene level. I also noticed I was the only black person there. Then the owner came over, apologized and explained that what the waiter said had nothing to do with my being black. "In fact," he told me, "they asked two bums to leave earlier and they were both white." In a matter of seconds, I was reduced from being a customer in the restaurant's eyes to a black bum.
My hope is for this uncomfortable incident to serve as a teachable moment to them -- and others. Instead of denying the waiter's reaction to my presence was based on bias, why not own up to it, apologize then reflect upon it further so that it doesn't happen again? That way, the next time a black man walks in and has a similar presence as everyone else there, the staff would assume he's a customer and act accordingly.
Some say we live in a post-racial America. Others think the pot of bigotry stew is just about to boil over and still others believe there's a middle ground where racism's more subtle form thrives. In the middle is where many of us regularly experience racism -- with the implicit biases that have been passed down. While it is often less blatant and more politely nuanced than the discrimination many experienced decades before, this "new face of racism" is just as harmful.
So, instead of seeing black skin as a threat, let's all live up to the very words posted on that bistro's website, "Please come as you are!"