It has been a tradition in my family that everyone gets a birthday dinner at the restaurant of their choice. For me it’s a chance to drag the family to some new restaurant they would probably not otherwise have tried. Some of these are complete duds but some become new favorites. Even the duds pay dividends depending on how insanely bad they are. Years later we still laugh about the restaurant that brought straws with the wine.
Last weekend while out shopping my wife suggested we stop for lunch. Since it was my birthday I knew I’d be able to go someplace new but I hadn’t scoped out the choices so we just drove down Harris Boulevard looking for options. The first place we stopped at was a Mexican restaurant but when we went inside it turned out to be fast food cleverly disguised on the outside as something more upscale. We got back in the car and drove until we saw a sign for Bistro 60, an establishment which was hidden behind a hill with a cluster of other restaurants. It turned out to be closed so we picked the restaurant next door: Rebecca’s Taste of the South.
Rebecca’s turned out to be the real thing. I grew up in rural Florida and the menu evoked memories of dinner at friends’ houses. Fried chicken, catfish, mac & cheese, ribs, wings, pork chops, fried okra, collard greens and more. Yum! We gave our order and chatted about recent family events until the waitress returned with our drinks. We sipped and took advantage of the conversational lull to survey our surroundings.
“Hey,” my wife said leaning over in a conspiratorial whisper, “I think we’re the only white people here.”
I looked around and saw she was right. Every patron, the wait staff, the bus staff, the host and manager staff, even the people we could see in the parking lot, were all black.
There’s an aspect of white privilege at work in making this observation. As a member of a majority population, any public gathering I stumble into tends to range from a mix that reflects the local demographics to all-white. People of other ethnicities are much more likely to find themselves the only person of color in an all-white public gathering than a white person is to ever find themselves the only white person in the group.
I claim there’s an element of privilege here because as a matter of economic necessity people of color need to be prepared to participate as the only non-white person in many settings, but particularly in the classroom and at work. The reverse is usually not true and, as long as we use skin color to define Us and Them groups and assign relative human worth on that basis, this distinction grants me and people who look like me a certain amount of privilege.
My wish is to live to see a day when this distinction doesn’t matter. I try to abolish that distinction in my own life through words and deeds. I don’t want to assume anything about anyone’s character based on how they look. I hope to live up to that consistently and even better if the example I set inspires someone else. Unfortunately it is still the case that many people finding themselves in this situation would feel alone and vulnerable. It’s my belief that the only way we can ever change that is to talk about it, hence this post.
“That’s comforting,” I replied.
“Comforting?” I’m sure she wasn’t expecting fear and a hasty retreat from the restaurant out of me but neither was she expecting this fact would somehow reassure me.
“Sure,” I said sweeping my hand to take in the room. “These are our people.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look around you Honey. We’re among Democrats.”
We laughed and moved on to other topics. Lunch was tasty. I haven’t had decent collard greens in years and these were worth coming back for. I should have ordered the fried green tomatoes since she’s never had those but we will save that for next time.
Other than a few seconds of curiosity when we first noticed it, the fact of being the only white people in the room was a non-event. Just as it should be. The other patrons ranged from young couples who might have been on dates, to large families, to seniors, and the room was alive with all the conversations and the smells of Southern cooking.
As we finished up our waitress stopped by to check on us.
“Can I get you any dessert today?”
“No thanks,” I replied. “We’re ready for the check though.”
“How did you like your meal?”
“It was delicious” my wife said. I echoed my agreement.
“Will that be separate checks, then?”
“What? No! Why?”
“I just thought…” She trailed off.
We never found out what it was she thought because I handed her my card and she disappeared faster than my collard greens had.
“We’ve been married 34 years” I pointed out to my wife. “Don’t we look and sound alike by now? Does she think we’re on a date?”
“Maybe she thinks we are office workers out to lunch.”
“On a Sunday?”
“Probably not. But you’re too autistic for us to ever sound alike.”
I looked around the room and saw one other table settling their bill. It was a family and a couple of the kids were obviously too young to pay their own way so separate checks wasn’t an option. The couple in the booth behind my wife had received a single check when they settled up about 10 minutes back. The numbers are against us but the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions and nobody else looks like they are about to finish up.
Nobody has ever offered us separate checks. Are these two extremely unusual events related. Is there some white stereotype that led our waitress to offer us two checks? If so do they get so few white diners that such a misconception can survive intact?
Or was it a fluke? Perhaps because we didn’t argue with each other like an old married couple? Should we have spent our time staring into our phones like modern couples do? Maybe texting each other across the table? Did she take one look at me and one at my wife and decide I was so far out of her league that I must be in the Friend Zone?
Now I have to take my wife back and not just for the collared greens and fried green tomatoes. I’m dying to see if we’re offered two checks again.
Rebecca’s Tate of the South. Go there for the food. Go back for the mystery.