Justin Vahl of Montgomery speaks during a press conference on Tuesday about how he was asked to move at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Naperville, Ill., because a nearby couple didn’t want to sit near blacks. Associated Press
Kiki Monifa and Dahleen Glanton, Tribune News Service
It’s hard not to be reminded, on a daily basis, that racism in America is alive and well.
One recent instance to make the news took place on Oct. 26 at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant near Chicago. A group of about 20 family members and friends, including several children, were approached by an employee who purportedly asked group member Justin Vahl, “What race are you?”
When Vahl asked the relevance of this information, he says another employed explained, “We have a regular customer here who doesn’t want to sit around black people.”
Vahl’s wife posted an account of the incident, including a photo of the back of the customer who complained. It went viral, an attorney was retained and a press conference was held.
Buffalo Wild Wings fired the two employees. “We take this incident very seriously,” a company spokesperson said. “Buffalo Wild Wings values an inclusive environment and has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”
The company also promised sensitivity training for its employees.
But for some black people, the most surprising thing about the incident is that anyone was surprised by it.
“Why is everyone so shocked by the racial incident at Buffalo Wild Wings?” asked Dahleen Glanton, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. “This sort of thing happens every day.”
I agree. As a 62-year-old black woman who grew up in the South, I can remember the signs explicitly stating “Whites only” or “No coloreds.”
Now, in 2019, I live in Oakland, Calif., a liberal progressive community, and I travel extensively in the United States.
In my opinion, the “signs” are still there. They are no longer openly posted, but in any public place they are still apparent.
It may be a glaring look by an employee or a customer. It may be me being invisible in a line and seeing a white person who arrived after me being waited on first. It may be witnessing white folks recoil in an elevator when a black man walks in. It may be witnessing white folks literally cross the street to avoid walking by a black person.
It happens every day, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
I am not asked my race, but I am sometimes asked about my nationality or the origins of my government name, Akilah Monifa. And while I am pleased with the emergence of sensitivity trainings, and increased awareness about diversity and inclusion in response to racist incidents, clearly it’s not enough.
Such training should occur as part of new employee training and recur on an annual basis, at a minimum.
Additionally, all places of business should have a sign posted in multiple languages: “We value inclusiveness and have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind on any basis.”
And then they should act like it.
We don’t know much about that white guy in the red T-shirt, except that he doesn’t like sitting next to black people when he is eating his chicken wings.
He was once a regular customer at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Naperville, but now that he has given the restaurant chain its own chapter in the divisive Donald Trump-era debate about race, the corporate office has banned him from all of its restaurants.
We haven’t seen his face, only a picture of his backside that Mary Vahl posted on Facebook after she and her group of 17 other children and adults of multiple ethnicities were asked to move to another table because this white guy in a red T-shirt didn’t want to be seated near them.
This white guy, with a bald head and dressed in a red T-shirt and jeans, is now the international poster child for racial intolerance in America. He has become our latest racist demon, someone to point to as a symptom of the bigoted and intolerant society that Trump has created.
That’s where we are wrong.
Trump may have emboldened symbolic white guys in red T-shirts, but they were here long before he was elected president in 2016. And as much as we would like to believe otherwise, they will be here long after he leaves office.
That poses a dilemma for the rest of us. What are we going to do about it? How can we get these white guys in red T-shirts to climb under a rock and never raise their balding heads again?
I’m afraid that we can’t, at least not anytime soon. We are going to have to live in this world alongside white guys in red T-shirts for years to come. The most we can do is let them know that we are as intolerant of them as they are of other people.
Racism is as much embedded in American culture as fireworks on the Fourth of July. We might be able to hold racists at bay if we educate ourselves, and our children, about this country’s history. We would better equip ourselves for the fight if we understood how racist policies of the past ensured that future generations would never experience a post-racial society. Then we could start knocking down those barriers.
Eleven years ago, some of us naively thought that we had seen the last of white guys in red T-shirts. We convinced ourselves that the election of the first black president signaled the defeat of their mighty army. Barack Obama convinced us that we had the power to do that.
Perhaps we still do. But it won’t be as easy as we thought in 2008. We never had the final confrontation. White guys in red T-shirts simply retreated to a corner and waited for the right time to reemerge. Trump lured them into the open more energized than they were a half-century ago.
No one should be shocked anymore when a white guy in a red T-shirt declares that he doesn’t want to sit next to black people. These folks try to assert power over people of color all the time.
Just last week, a white man threw battery acid on a Latino man in Milwaukee, saying, “Why did you come here and invade my country?” The 61-year-old suspect was arrested and authorities are investigating the incident as a hate crime.
In Denver, federal officials last week arrested a known white supremacist, who repeatedly espoused anti-Semitic views, in a plot to bomb a historic synagogue.
No one should be surprised that managers at Buffalo Wild Wings chose to validate the Naperville man’s racist behavior. People in authority tend to side with white guys in red T-shirts, sometimes unwittingly perhaps, over people of color all the time.
It happened recently at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Memphis. An African-American couple was celebrating their anniversary at the restaurant when a white man at another table yelled the N-word at them. In a video posted on Facebook, the husband is visibly upset and responds by using profanity and demanding that the man who used the derogatory term be removed from the restaurant.
At one point on the video, an employee tells the black man, “Be the bigger person, dude.” Security eventually forced the black couple and the white patron to leave.
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