WHILE BLACK SERIES | RACISM
Are We Being Served? Eating Out While Black
True stories of racism when eating out around the world
There’s a long list of innocuous things Black people do that can trigger racist behavior from white people. You can add eating out to that list. For my white friends, it’s a simple matter to grab a sandwich, visit a cafe or pub, or sit down in a restaurant. If you’re a Black person living and working in a place where you’re “minoritized”, it can be anything but. I’ve got a few personal stories to share that illustrate my point.
Are We Being Served?
Let’s start with my trip to Uzès in the late 80s. It’s a small town (closer to a village, really) in the South of France. A German friend and I stopped there, hoping to grab a bite before continuing our local sightseeing tour. We saw a cafe with outdoor seating in a cobbled courtyard. It seemed perfect for the late spring day.
There were a couple of people waiting to be served, so we sat down to wait our turn. As we sat, I saw a couple of funny looks, but I attributed them to locals being surprised at the presence of strangers in “their” spot. While we waited, we chatted, and chatted, and chatted, till we realized we’d already been there for almost an hour without being served.
We caught the waiter’s eye and beckoned him over. He looked at us, and appeared to acknowledge that we were requesting his presence, but he never actually showed up. My white friend was puzzled, but I knew what was happening. They didn’t want to serve Black people. She was indignant, and wanted to confront him, but I was happy just to leave. I didn’t think making a fuss would get us anywhere.
That was the first time that happened to me in France, but it wouldn’t be the last, and I had similar experiences in other European cities.
It’s All About the Optics
Some racists aren’t quite as obvious as that French waiter. They’ll let you in, but you can tell they don’t really want you there. You know how when you go to a restaurant and they’re trying to make it look busy, they’ll put new people that walk in near the window, where passers-by can see them? It’s a common tactic, according to my friends in the hospitality industry.
But that doesn’t always happen if you’re Black. A few years ago, my sister and I wanted to eat at an Italian restaurant in New York. It was pretty empty, so we figured we’d get a table with a view of the street. But no. They seated us right down in the back, where nobody could see us. We weren’t quite sitting next to the restroom, but close. A few minutes later, a white couple came in, and they got a seat near the front. Spot the difference.
Of course, what we should have done was leave, but we’d been walking all morning and we were hungry, so we mentally rolled our eyes, and took the table we were offered. While the food was good, the service was shoddy, as if they couldn’t be bothered to put in any effort. We both agreed that we’d never go there again.
A Tale of Two Restaurants
Sometimes the racism is even more blatant. The year is 2018. Picture two restaurants within a few yards of each other. One of them is empty; the other is bustling. Three Black women come to the door of the empty one. Admittedly we don’t have a reservation, but there is literally nobody in the place.
Do they offer us a table? Do they heck! They claim that all their tables are reserved, so we move on to the place next door. That restaurant is bustling, but they don’t let that be an issue. They ask us to wait a couple of minutes while they organize something. They find us a table, and we’re soon enjoying a delicious meal.
How do I know the first situation had to be racially motivated? Because when we walked past on our way home after our meal, the first place still wasn’t full, and the maitre d couldn’t look us in the eye.
These are just a few of the instances that happen when you try to go to a nice place to eat as a Black woman. Depending on the location and the mood of the staff, they may assume you’re a sex worker looking for trade, or that you can’t actually afford to eat there. All of that affects whether you actually make it through the door.
What Happens When You Get a Seat at the Table
If restaurant staff DO let you in, they may try to rush you through your meal. From the outside it looks like super fast service, but if you’ve been through it before, you know they just don’t want you there. I’ve had people bring the bill before offering me dessert, and whisk away drinks I haven’t quite finished.
It’s even more noticeable when I’m in a group of mixed ethnicities, when the standard of service I personally receive is sometimes noticeably worse. That can mean staff assuming I don’t understand the menu, being served last or having inexplicable problems with my order. Admittedly, poor service can happen to anyone, but it’s a pattern that’s been repeated with Black people many, many, times.
Microaggressions in Dinner Table Conversation
In those groups, there are also other issues to deal with. Dinner table conversations can be fraught with microaggressions. The double take from people who weren’t expecting a Black person to turn up at the table. The questions about where you’re really from. The surprise that you’ve traveled or studied, or have excelled in your profession.
Granted, these experiences don’t happen every time I eat out or everywhere I go, but every Black person I know has a couple of stories similar to these, so they happen often enough for it to be a problem.
The bottom line: as a Black person eating out isn’t always a simple matter of picking the nearest place and walking in. You’re always aware that racism may rear its ugly head, and you may have to put on your mental armor before walking in, if you get in at all.
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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020
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