Arriving about 30 minutes early for my meeting I choose to run over to the Cabela’s sporting goods store nearby to marvel at the large selection of animals that are positioned in scenes that make you feel like you are in the forest, jungle, or desert. It is a treat for me to visit a store like this because I’m not a hunter. I like to explore things I’m not familiar with and I get lost in the camouflage, the deer stands, the camping gear, the meat preparation tools, and the animal traps. Before I know it I am now late for my meeting. I turn and walk briskly by the elephant, the tiger, the deer, the rams, and many animals I don’t recognize. In less than 5 minutes I arrive at Bob Evans and find my friend of over 40 years, Mike, sipping coffee and checking his phone for emails at a small table for two. We embrace with a man-hug and I sit down across from him.
We exchange stories of family, talk about our careers, share our concerns with the state of our Detroit Lions and 15 minutes evaporates before we look up. In those 15 minutes the waitress fails to stop by our table. I did notice her floating from table to table around us like a bee pollinating flower after flower but never put much weight in the lack of attention she is paying to us. I am too engrossed in catching up with a good friend. Mike notices it and points it out to me and calls the waitress over. I order an orange juice and Mike and I decide to look over the menu and advise her we need more time.
We dive back into our exchange and another 15 minutes floats by and the waitress fails to pollinate our table…again. Mike is now furious and speechless. He comment s on how attentive she was before I arrived. It must be stated that Mike is white, we are in Dundee Michigan, which is a very White city and I am black and the only person with such a rich skin tone in the restaurant. We both know why the level of service has quickly declined and neither of us is shocked. As a person of color I‘m accustomed to this type of treatment and my level of irritation is well below Mike’s. He can’t complete sentences as we talk about why we are being purposefully ignored. “Can you believe this?” He asks me. “Yep, it happens all the time. I’m used to it.” Today, I’m not in the mood to fight it. Today, I am not in the mood to dissect it and today I just want it to go away. No matter how often it happens there’s always some element of surprise. This wasn’t something I was expecting to have served with my pancakes. I fight to not concentrate too hard on it because it has the power to ruin my day and I don’t want to concede that power today.
Mike is at a loss and upset about what is happening and feels compelled to do something. He gets up and goes to the front counter and asks for our waitress. He advises her we are ready to order. She follows him back to the table and we order. She never returns after the food comes out to check on us, refill our coffee, or ask if we need anything. Finally, when she returns to the table to drop off the bill she appears this small act is like scaling Mount Everest. The energy and attention this requires is obviously a burden to her. Mike looks at me with a look of disbelief and is once again speechless. His reflexes are still intact though because he is able to grab the bill before I do. He insists on paying and won’t let me argue.
Ironically, our purpose of the meeting was to discuss a project we were working on that had to do with the conversation of race and poverty and the effects of both. Part of me expected Alan Funt of Candid Camera or John Quinones of What Would You Do to come out. It was that over to top, that unbelievable. I was sure someone was playing a joke on us.
We both gather our keys and phones from the table and walk to the front where the cash register is located. Mike states he will meet me outside after he pays and I think this is strange and can’t help but feel dismissed. I leave, he pays and we meet out at his car. He apologizes for what happened over our pancakes and I tell him he has nothing to apologize to me for. He shares with me that he wanted me to leave so he could have a conversation with the person behind the register. He told the young lady he would not be leaving our waitress a tip because of the treatment we received. He made it clear this was obviously racially motivated and that is how we interpreted it. He shared the waitress will no doubt deny this but advised this was our experience in their establishment. When stated this way it closes the door for the typical rebuttal that would argue we misinterpreted the waitresses actions.
On the ride home I had mixed feeling about the exchange. I was upset that it happened. I was upset that this exchange tarnished an otherwise great reunion. I was upset and conflicted with what Mike did. Part of me felt small almost childlike because someone was speaking up for me and I was triying to sort out how that made me feel. Part of me felt honored that Mike choose to say something on a day where I wasn’t up for fighting it and part of me felt that I didn’t need someone to stand up for me.
Often, I get asked what Whites can do to counteract racism and quickly I respond, “Be an ally.” That day in Bob Evans, Mike was an ally and he did the right thing. He knew the impact of two whites having a conversation about an obvious racially motivated action would be more powerful just between the two of them. In that conversation he clearly stated, “I saw what you did and there is no way for you to convince me otherwise.” There was a level he could take the conversation that I couldn’t. If I would have complained they very likely would just dismiss me as the uber-sensitive Black guy. Here is where the power of an ally is most concentrated. When I came to that understanding it was easier to step back; It was easier for me to be humble and push ego out of the way. I had to realize I can’t request help in one conversation and then when I get it be uncomfortable for getting what I asked for.
So what does an ally look like? It requires whites to do what people of color can’t always do. It means being courageous enough to pull other whites to the side and call them out on their racism. As a white person, the impact you can have with others like you can be more impactful. As a person of color I have to understand and trust that when I request the assistance of allies I must be humble enough to let them do work where I can’t and understand that doesn’t make me a child or child-like. Some times I have to concede my ego in hopes of a bigger change.