#DiningWhileBlack: An Awakening of Economic Self-Advocacy
There’s a restaurant in my hometown that has been a local landmark since the 1920’s. Every summer, families flock by the hundreds to enjoy hot seafood, cold drinks, and some of the best tartar sauce and sides this city has to offer. My memories of sporadic trips to this place stretch as far back as I can remember. I’ve enjoyed breaking bread with my family in the same space that hangs pictures of our close ancestors holding silver trays, at a time when we were welcomed to serve but not to spend our money or leisure time in this place. Tonight, while staring at those same photos, I had my last fish plate with extra tartar.
It’s Friday, and the restaurant was a packed house as expected, both inside and out. I first noticed a questionable vibe when we were repeatedly passed by all the servers, despite there being several open tables, as we waited to be seated. One finally stopped to say that she was not ignoring us, but that she was cut – a term in the restaurant industry meaning that a server is no longer taking tables because they have been permitted to close out those remaining, finish their side work, and go home. Others continued to pass without a word.
One scoffed under her breath that the cut server was “full of shit,” and hurried past us once more before snatching up some menus, and waving our party of three to sit at a table fitting six. My mother and I both raised an eyebrow at the accompanying eye roll. Our server softened as we sat, so I decided to disregard her sharp demeanor as being directed toward her colleague and not us.
The meal began. Our order was taken, followed by a table of two that was seated a few seats back. We waited. A couple arrived about 10 minutes later and seated themselves at the booth next to us, completely disregarding the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign that everyone else had stopped at for service prior to sitting. Their orders were taken without pause or disgruntlement, and they were eating within 10 minutes. We noticed, but armed with a unique patience that comes from the experience of restaurant work, we continued to wait our turn.
Shortly after, the table that had ordered after us also got their food. It was at this time that I began to scan the room seeking anything that might indicate a rational explanation for the serving order. Perhaps the kitchen was fulfilling orders in an odd way due to the volume. Or, our server was a bit older and moved a little slower than some of the others; so maybe she was having trouble keeping up with running the food. Even in trying to rationalize, I knew my attempt was likely in vain.
I’d been to this place enough times to know that the meals served still came with a legacy of border-state race relations. Louisville, KY is just North enough to be liberal in terms of elections, but still far enough below the Mason Dixon line for confederate monuments and the subtle attitudes of those secretly hoping that “The South with rise again.”
Like I said before, this restaurant serves as a clear example of that. Pictures still hang of the good ol’ days when African Americans’ only formation was a standing in a tight line with white gloves, prepared to pour the next drink and serve the next plate. There’s even remnants of the “house worker” mentality on display, personified by the lone Black male server who refuses to speak to or acknowledge the presence of Black patrons, but bends over backwards, laughing and performing for white ones.
I won’t waste my time arguing whether or not I believe the servers working tonight at this establishment were racist. Truthfully, I don’t know what the situation might have been behind the scenes that held our food up. I don’t know that the staff’s leisure in acknowledging us was intentional prejudice. But I can speak about the facts.
I do know that I am a five-foot-three, plus sized woman with a huge, natural ‘fro who stands out in predominantly white spaces. So, I’m hard to miss when waiting for a table, especially on that side of town. I do know that there was a personal connection between the server and her clients who sat down and were served quickly, without protest. I also overheard their conversation, in which the server made the distinction that while some of the other servers don’t want to wait on certain tables or groups of a certain size, she “serves everybody.” Additionally, I know that she didn’t get personable with our table until it was time to pay and, most importantly, tip.
So it was no surprise when I confirmed the last piece of evidence: the fact that the one commonality amongst those of us being skipped over in the distribution of orders — including a family that had been sitting without entrees since before we arrived — was that we were all Black.
Our food finally arrived, delicious as always on the tongue, but leaving a bitter aftertaste because of my observations throughout the entire experience. I told my mother that I would have to savor this meal, because it would be the last time that I spent my money in this local landmark until further notice. I scanned the room again, everyone finally eating, and thought out loud,
“It’s just a very clear reminder that no matter what, some people still get to eat first.”
Honestly, that’s how it is in our society. It doesn’t matter how early you arrive, if you follow the rules, if you’re respectful, if you’re patient, if you’re nice, or if you have just as much hard-earned money to spend as anyone else treating their family to a night out.
The fact remains that the intersections of privilege, personal connection, and entitlement will always ensure that certain people eat before others— in restaurants, in jobs, and a plethora of other opportunities in life. It’s a harsh reality with which we, Black Americans, are all-too-familiar; and it’s one that I was harshly reminded of this evening.
I find myself being much more impatient and intolerant of others’ ignorance. The truth is that living in Donald Trump’s America, as exhausting and irritating as it is, has woken another layer of agency within me; and tonight placed the seal on my personal decree.
From now on, I pledge that no business disdaining my Black presence will receive my Black dollars. No matter where it is, or what sacrifices I have to make as a result of that decision, I am finished. I will no longer support businesses that only tolerate my presence for the sake of fiscal gain. I’m done, and I encourage you to consider being done, too.
“A man who stands for nothing, will fall for anything.” -Malcolm X
(This goes for women, too.)
Take a Stand. Act. #StayKultured.