Silent, Deafening Subtleties of Race

COMMENT

July 31, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Judging by the letters to the editor written in response to a column I wrote three weeks ago, I somehow managed to throw in everything but the kitchen sink in my supposed tirade against the Crab Shanty restaurant in Ellicott City.

From my pedestal of "righteous indignation," as one respondenput it, I called forth comment on everything from the denigration and stereotyping of blacks, to white women grabbing their purses on an elevator when a black man gets on, to the O. J. Simpson case.

All, say my critics, was done in an unfair attempt to paint one

local eatery as a racist institution. Why, lamented one letter writer, had I not gone over the cliff and mentioned Denny's restaurant?

That, partly, was my point. Mentioning the situation involving the Denny's chain -- which last spring agreed to pay $46 million to blacks in Maryland and California for cases of discrimination in the largest monetary settlement in the history of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- would have said more than I intended. There is no correlation between Denny's actions and the one I experienced while trying to get seated at the Crab Shanty one Sunday.

My incident was a subtle one in which a manager of the restaurant injected the issue of race by offering, as an assurance of his good intentions, that he considered my money "as green as anyone else's."

To the reader who questioned whether the green-money comment was necessarily a reference to race, as I first wrote, I asked the manager whether he was referring to my race and he confirmed that he was.

I can understand why some might not understand the restaurant manager's offense. Wasn't he simply saying that he would not discriminate against me? But the manager was saying much more than that.

He was saying that there is a black man in front of me complaining -- he must be crying racism. I never raised the issue of race.

I was simply arguing that as someone who had been waiting to be seated, I should not be forced to go to the back of the line behind patrons who had not been waiting at all.

What distracted the manager that afternoon was that my face is black. His comment put me in a category, diminishing me to the stereotype of an angry black male and dismissing my real point, which was that he should have apologized, picked up a menu and sat me at a table.

In recounting the incident, I realize I have given some the ammunition to say that I am being disingenuous. That, in fact, I am leveling a charge of racism. That I really am that angry black man.

The truth is I am not happy with what occurred. I believe the customer is always entitled to be treated with courtesy and respect.

William King, the owner, agrees. He has assured me that he has talked to his employees and made it clear that "we should never get into a confrontation with a customer."

Where he and I disagree, however, is over whether the manager's green-money comment was offensive and whether the inappropriateness of the remark should be explained to employees. Mr. King appears to take the manager's viewpoint that no offense was intended, therefore no counseling is required.

It's like the old proverb that asks whether there is a sound when a tree falls and no one is there to hear it.

Likewise, some people seem to believe that nothing more occurred than a misunderstanding; that I have engaged in unfounded accusations and character assassinations.

The reaction the July 10 column generated goes to the heart of why it is so difficult to have a reasonable dialogue about race in this country. The defensiveness is out of proportion to what is really being said.

It is as if I must now apologize for being angry and then shut up. The message seems to be to simply grin and bear it. If we don't talk about this, maybe it will go away.

It won't go away, not until we are willing to look at our prejudices regarding skin color in all their subtle and not-so-subtle forms. It's these lingering subtleties still tying us up.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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