Monday, February 10, 2014

Scenes from a Restaurant: Why Eating Out Can Be Challenging When You're Black (It's Not What You Think!)

If I were to compile of list of things that make me uncomfortable enough to squirm in my seat during a meal, near the top of it would be when white people start policing each other's behavior in regards to race relations. (It appears to be a favorite pastime here in Cape Town, by the way.)

Not too long ago, I was having lunch with a white American in De Waterkant, a predominantly white, upscale-ish and touristy area in central Cape Town, when a large group of patrons arrived and joined the group that was already seated at the table directly behind us. I prepared myself for the worst, for I've spent enough time in restaurants to know that nothing good comes from the arrival of a large party that has nothing to do with you.

Apparently, they were so excited to see each other that they forgot they weren't the only people on the terrace. They started hugging and kissing each other, rubbing their butts into the back of my chair and practically sending me face forward into my burger. I turned around and shot them a WTH glare, which they were too busy fawning over each other to notice. My lunch date, however, couldn't miss it.

"You know, that's a race thing," he announced, his tone halfway between sympathetic and accusatory. "They're doing that, treating you like you aren't even there, because you're black."

"Oh. Really?" I know what it feels like to be invisible in an all-white crowd, but race couldn't have been further from my mind. "So how do you explain that black people in Cape Town do that sort of thing to me all the time, too, probably even more than white people?"

He couldn't. The large party with their behinds right behind me probably didn't even realize that there was a behind in my seat, much less a black one. To instinctively chalk up their ignorance as racially motivated would be like saying that the negligence of the driver who recently ran a red light at the corner of De Waterkant and Buitengracht and hit a black man on a bicycle was driven by some racist impulse. He probably was just being a typically reckless and impatient Cape Town driver.

More recently, I was having dinner with another white expat, this one from Scotland, who made an observation of his own about everyday white-on-black social crimes. He said he used to witness them firsthand every time he went out to dinner with his ex, who was black. From his point of view, the waiters and waitresses always seemed to hand the bill to my dinner date, not to his ex, because they presumed that the black man, no matter how finely attired he might have been, wasn't paying.

It's a familiar story that I've been told so many times by white men with black exes that it's almost become a cliche. Every time someone else tells it, I try to remember my own personal brushes with racism in restaurants. To be honest, I can vividly recall but one.

I was in high school, and I was a host at Red Lobster, Kissimmee, Florida's premiere "upscale" seafood restaurant circa 1986-87. One night a man of about 60 and his wife walked in, and I greeted them half-way between the front door and the host/hostess podium.

"Good evening. Welcome to Red Lobster. How many are in your party?"

Silence and a blank stare.

"Will that be smoking or non-smoking?"

More silence.

By this time Sue, one of my colleagues, had returned from the dining room. The man looked past me, still saying nothing. "We're a party of two, smoking," he said to Sue.

Okay, I thought. It's not like I was dying to seat them anyway.

"What was up with that guy?" I asked when Sue returned.

"Oh my God," she said, still in shock. "After I sat him at the table, he said to me, 'I didn't want that Jamaican nigger seating me." He couldn't even be bothered to place my Caribbean accent accurately.

There was no denying that particular man's agenda that evening, but I'm not sure I'm ready to lump the waiters and waitresses of Cape Town in with him. I've been eating out in restaurants around the world for years, and in my experience, the bill is rarely, if ever, handed to a patron. The waiter or waitress usually places it on the table in front of a party of one, or between the patrons for parties of two or more. If it ends up being closer to one over the other, it probably has more to do with whomever was closest to the server's reach. Most of them are too busy to exercise such subtle, subconscious forms of racism.

My friend Rob must have heard some of the stories. He's arriving in Cape Town from London with his boyfriend next weekend, and the other day, he asked point-blank what it's going to feel like as a black man in Cape Town.

"I'm curious to see how I deal with the whole race thing there. I really don't want it to give me a sour view of the city. I just imagine eating at some Camps Bay restaurant and someone refusing me service or something."
 
"No, that would never happen," I answered. "Apartheid was only 20 years ago, but they've come a long way in a short time. It's definitely not the Deep South in the 1960s" - which was an entire century after the Civil War but was much closer in racist, segregationist spirit to the 1860s than to the 2010s.

As far as I can see, as an outsider in South Africa looking in from the inside, a lot of damage has been done, and reparations should be made that likely never will be. I appreciate the sympathy of white people, but I don't mistake it for empathy. No matter how enlightened they might think they are, or how outraged they are by the evils or racism, they don't know how I feel. It doesn't matter how many black men they date. If they must pontificate, I'd rather it be about their own experience than someone else's.

The racial politics here are complex and intimidating, but I don't want to fall into the trap of assigning a white-black angle to everything. Isn't assuming that everything that happens to a black person happens to them because of their race, isn't that tiresome over-awareness that the person sitting across from you is black, exposing a bit of one's own racism? The great irony is that race sometimes seems to be more of an issue with the white people sitting across from me than it is with the white people handing us the bill.

I told Rob to relax and bring a big appetite. He's going to eat better in Cape Town than he's ever eaten anywhere else.
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