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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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June 5, 2018

A Blatant Racial Incident

A visit to a nearby restaurant turns ugly

Few things bring out the stupid in people than trying to discuss race in America. Not only do stupid things get said, but people react to discussions about race with all kinds of stupid.  A few people here and there have a good understanding of what’s going on and express the problems well, but most of the rest of us tend to not talk about it because we are afraid of saying something stupid and we will have to deal with the consequences. 

And when I say “we” I mean everybody in America, not just this group or that group. However, despite the risk I’m taking, I’m going to discuss this apparently racist incident right here and now because I’ve already spread it across Facebook.  And since spreading this story can cause harm I have an obligation to take responsibility for it and explain it as best as I can.  It’s pretty cut and dried.

Since I Have No Photos Of Racism, Here’s A Photo Of Albany From The River Taken This Past Memorial Day WeekendSince I Have No Photos Of Racism, Here’s A Photo Of Albany From The River Taken This Past Memorial Day Weekend
Since I Have No Photos Of Racism, Here’s A Photo Of Albany From The River Taken This Past Memorial Day Weekend

At the end of May, the Saturday before Memorial Day, The Wife and I were in the mood to try a new restaurant for dinner.  We'd heard from multiple sources that the food was good at Sweet Basil Thai Restaurant at 370 Delaware Avenue, so we made a reservation for early, 5PM.

The dining area of the restaurant is small, much smaller than I remember it to be when the place was another restaurant.  I don’t think the interior can seat more than about 30 people, although there is more seating on the front deck during good weather. (And by the way, the weather was quite good that day and seating could have been available outdoors.) We’d tried to get a last minute reservation at the restaurant the weekend before and failed, but then again both of us forgot that we were trying to get a reservation late on Mother’s Day.

I mention this because when I called that previous weekend for a reservation, the fellow I talked to was amazingly clueless.  An example of the conversation: Me - “Can I get a reservation for 6:00PM?”  Him - “We don’t have any available at that time.”  Me - “So what time will you be taking reservations this evening?” Him - “We can take reservations at 5.”  Me - “Okay, I guess we can make a reservation for 5.”  Him - “No, we have no openings at 5.”  Me - “But you just said I could reserve at 5.”  Him - “Oh, we start taking reservations at 5 but we’re full up at that time.”  This went on for at least five minutes before I divined that there were no seats available that evening.

Vacant Apartment, Morton Avenue, Albany
Vacant Apartment, Morton Avenue, Albany

The folks who run the restaurant are South East Asian immigrants, presumably they are ethnic Thai. I mention this phone conversation because it shows that there might be a good deal of cultural cluelessness at play here by the staff of the restaurant.  It was not a language problem, the fellow I talked with over the phone had a good command of American English. 

So the two of us arrived right on time a minute before 5PM and walked inside.  Only one table was occupied by a couple, an asian looking man and a white woman, who looked like they were finishing up their meal.  The rest of the tables each had a placard that said “reserved.”

As we came in we passed another couple sitting in chairs next to the door.  I’d guess they were about forty, respectable looking, but they seemed a bit unsettled.  And it is important to mention that the man and the woman were black.

Now for the crucial defining moment in all this.  The Wife and I were immediately greeted by a woman who told us to sit where we wanted.  The Wife said, “We have a reservation.”  The woman said okay without asking for our names and checking to see if we really did have one.  Have I mentioned that the two of us are white?

Blooming Ornamental Apple Tree Shortly After Dawn
Blooming Ornamental Apple Tree Shortly After Dawn

We sat down at a table and the woman removed the “reserved” placard. But we quickly decided that the table we’d chosen was too close to the kitchen so we immediately got up and moved to a table on the other side of the room.  Without a word the woman removed the “reserved” placard from our new table and placed it on the table we had just vacated.  We were handed menus.

After a few minutes the other couple sitting at a table finished their meal and got up and left, leaving just us and the couple by the door.  The minutes ticked by as we studied the menu.  Finally the gentleman sitting by the door asked us, “Excuse me, did you have a reservation?”

Yes, we told him, we did.  I think I said that in a relieved tone of voice because this situation was already feeling uncomfortable.  I asked them how long they’d been waiting, not too long before us it turned out.  “They told us they didn’t have any tables available because they were all reserved,” they both told us.  So instead the couple ordered take out, which is what they were sitting there waiting for.

The minutes continued to tick by in the almost empty restaurant, just the two of us and the couple sitting by the door.  We talked to them a little, it seems they were in town for some event and had heard this was a good place to eat.  “But we weren’t expecting this,” the lady said.

Apple Flower Petals Covering The Sidewalk After A Heavy Rain
Apple Flower Petals Covering The Sidewalk After A Heavy Rain

Finally the woman emerged from the back holding a bag of takeout, and the couple got up to pay for it.  The man was angry.  “Why did you tell us there were no tables available?” he said.  The woman simply answered. “We have a table for you now.”  No apologies, no attempt to smooth over the situation, nothing.

As they turned to leave the gentleman said to us, “I can't believe this is happening in 2018.”  I looked at The Wife, we put down our menus and got up and left right behind them.  I made sure the other couple saw we were leaving.  There was no way we could have enjoyed our meal after something like that.  Anyway, I would have felt dirty giving that establishment my money.

As we were leaving several of the reservations were arriving, by then it was past quarter after five.  These people, all of them white, looked puzzled and alarmed at this angry and annoyed procession leaving as they were walking in.  At most half of the tables would have been occupied.  I do wonder what was said after we were gone.

If it was essential that these black folks walking in had to have a reservation, why didn’t the woman check to see if us white folks really did have a reservation?  If an unreserved table was about to be available, presumably the one where that other couple was just finishing their meal, why didn’t they tell the black couple that one would be available but they would have to wait for a few minutes?  Wasn’t outdoor seating available?  Why couldn’t they have at least offered an apology and claim it was all a misunderstanding?

The Wife Along The East Bank Of The Hudson Opposite Albany
The Wife Along The East Bank Of The Hudson Opposite Albany

We were forced to the conclusion that the staff did not want black people inside their nice restaurant, no matter how respectable those black people are.  If this couple really did look questionable, like they couldn’t afford to pay for the meal, then perhaps the reluctance of the staff to serve the couple would be understandable.  But they were willing to sell them take out.  We are glad to take your money but we don’t want you sitting here?   

It could have been cluelessness by this woman, who appeared to be in charge rather than a mere server employee.  As someone who has been socially clueless my entire life I might be sympathetic to that, but there are certain things like this that go well beyond ineptitude and don’t lend themselves to that excuse.  The woman, who was the representative of the restaurant did absolutely nothing to dispel that appearance of discrimination based on physical appearance.  That’s no way to run a business.

As we got in the car and drove away, The Wife said, “They seemed like nice people, I would have liked to talk to them.”  We were at a loss for where to go, but we ended up at another place we’d never been to, Tanpopo Ramen and Sake Bar at 893 Broadway, the old Miss Albany Diner that was restored for the movie Ironweed.  It’s a prefabricated “Silk City diner model” that has mostly been left the same as it was, it is after all on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The shu mai appetizer and the ramen dishes we had at Tanpopo were absolutely fabulous, and The Wife drank too much of the plum wine which she declared was excellent.  The service was good and we could see that they did not discriminate based on skin coloration.  I mention this because I want to point out that there are a lot of places in Albany to dine if one wants good food and does not like overt racism.

The Wife Along The East Bank Of The Hudson Opposite Albany
Interior Of Tanpopo Ramen And Sake Bar, Albany

I have been of the opinion since an early age that all Americans are racist, that it is one of our defining characteristics.  After posting this on Facebook my story got several comments that directed various discriminatory statements toward the people who owned and ran the restaurant.  Those comments made me feel uncomfortable somewhat like the incident at the restaurant made me feel.

One white guy who ought to know better said, without any evidence, that the restaurant existed to launder money, adding, “Those people are not there to move food.”  This quickly devolved into a discussion of the quality of the food, which I pointed out was not the issue here.

Such shady places do exist, if fact years ago there used to be a terribly dismal Chinese restaurant at 250 Delaware Avenue that served almost inedible food, about which I heard various rumors usually involving local cops and prostitutes.  One thing I knew for sure was that there was a lot of Mah Jong being played in the upper floors because I could often hear the tiles clicking like speeded up piano keys as I walked past.  That’s usually a gambling game.  But such misbehavior is hardly exclusive to any one group, and Sweet Basil gets consistently rave reviews for their food.

Carved Relief On The Exterior Of the Federal Building On Broadway In Albany, The Former Main Post Office
Carved Relief On The Exterior Of the Federal Building On Broadway In Albany, The Former Main Post Office

A woman whose opinion I usually respect, a black person who is very involved with police community relations, floored me with her comment.  “This is happening all over Albany. When foreigners come in and open businesses, Black Americans are treated less than even though their money is green.”

I very gingerly asked why she thought some foreigners acted that way, and was hit with this:

Because it is bedded in the DNA of America that Blacks are the lowest on the human being list. I hear Black women say all the time that when they go into a nail salon that the Asians are rude to them. But, they go back and spend $30+ a week.The 99cent stores are the same way. They cater to low-income communities and despise them at the same time.

Another white guy, who I know to be a very thoughtful person, responded with this very relevant question:

Could you clarify something? Are you saying that the DNA of America takes foreigners and makes them into thinking Blacks are the lowest on the human being list? Or is it that they bring that prejudice to this country and the DNA of America reinforces it?

The woman who made the original comment confessed that she leaned toward the latter, that foreigners brought their prejudices with them, but of course that’s not an easy question to answer.  She added, “When a person of color walks into a business they are usually under suspicion or [thought to be] going to do something criminal. We can't paint everyone with the same brush. But you also must know by now, that this is happening.”

Carved Relief On The Exterior Of the Federal Building On Broadway In Albany, The Former Main Post Office
Church Sponsored Marching Band Performing At The MLK Monument In Lincoln Park, Late September 2017

After hearing some of this sort of thing one begins to suspect that every individual in America identifies with some group or subset of some group and regards in particular members of certain other select groups as The Other, enemies that one is forced by circumstance to tolerate.  It would be so easy for some malicious manipulators to broadcast permission to your group to violently reject that The Other.  In fact, it happens all the time, the wonder is that it doesn’t happen more often than it does.

In other words, like I said earlier, everyone in America is racist.  Or, at the very least, everyone in America has the potential to become racist.  All it takes is the right kind of prod.

Well, a majority of people value a peaceful life above all and realize that tolerance and inclusion are requirements for peace and the resulting prosperity whether they like it or not.  Yet, according to studies, a significant minority of people are willing to abandon peace and prosperity if they feel that their privileges and assumptions, both real or imagined, appear to be threatened by The Other.  The problem that the rest of us face is how do we prevent that significant minority from disrupting our valuable peace and prosperity with their calls for violence.

But let’s not gloss over the lady’s complaint that “foreigners” discriminate against black people.  I did not ask the complicated question, what “foreigners” is she talking about?  I don’t think she means Canadians, nor do I think she mean Africans or Europeans.  But what about Hispanic people, for example Dominicans or Mexicans?  How about Arabic people or Chinese?  In this context she obviously means South East Asians, but who else exactly?

Some Young People Making A Point At Larkfest In Albany, 2017
Some Young People Making A Point At Larkfest In Albany, 2017

I have observed over the years that at least some immigrants to this country do indeed bring their culturally assumed negative attitudes about black people with them.  But if those immigrants actually express those negative assumptions in their new country then it is quite clear that somehow they have to have been given permission to do so by the new society that they have become part of.  Or to put it another way, they watch carefully their new neighbors and do their best to fit in.

Sweet Basil has been a successful business so we can assume the proprietors are good at running a small business.  If they have picked up the idea that it is not a good idea to have black people sitting in their restaurant then it seems hardly likely that they picked that up from their TV sets, from the rad righty propagandists that spout self serving lies all day long.  A savvy business person does not listen to advertisers blathering across the media if they want to understand how they should run their own business.

A savvy business person listens to their customers and to their potential customers, the ones they want to attract.  And if what they hear from those customers reinforces their own long held assumptions, the ones they brought with them to this country, then what they hear will become knowledge for them.  Perhaps this is what we encountered that evening at Sweet Basil.

South Swan Street At Morton Avenue In Albany Late At Night
South Swan Street At Morton Avenue In Albany Late At Night

It seems to me that there is a very good reason why race tends to engender stupid statements so frequently, in the final analysis it’s a stupid subject.  Race is all about one thing and one thing only, personal appearance.  All the subtle cultural differences between Americans of varying shades of skin tone derive directly from how a person appears to others and to themselves, nothing more.

Here’s why I know this to be a fact.  Anybody who so much as glances at me will identify me as lily white.  Yet like many white Americans I have African genes, I estimate ten percent. (I’m also about ten percent Native American but that’s another story.)  No, I have not spit in a cup and got my sputum tested yet, but I know my family history.

When I mention this to white people I’m met with embarrassment, to them it’s like I’m degrading myself by making mention of it.  But when I tell this to black people they also are embarrassed because to them it sounds like I’m slumming by trying to pass myself off as part time black.  But those are the facts, that’s what I am.  What is most important to people is that I look white, according to our society my appearance and nothing else is what determines who I am. Thus I am supposed to act white.

Isn’t that strange?  Aren’t physical characteristics over which one has no control a ridiculous way to categorize people?  Yet this is deeply ingrained in all of us whether we choose to admit it or not, and it has functioned as one of the pillars of our society.  And from what we are seeing here, apparently it is deeply ingrained in many if not most societies around the world.

Cutting Down A Dying Tree In My Neighborhood, April 2017
Cutting Down A Dying Tree In My Neighborhood, April 2017

So what is to be done about this situation that I’ve described, this incident on Delaware Avenue?  I don’t like to spread bad stories about people or their businesses behind their backs unless they’ve been acting in a deliberately evil manner to hurt other people.  After all, people casually talk crap about me all the time then pass judgement and never tell me what’s been said.  Yet that is effectively what I’ve done with the Facebook post about this incident.

But at the same time I don’t see how I can walk into the restaurant and lecture the proprietors about tolerance and diversity and expect to be treated seriously. Thus this article.  Meanwhile, eventually, the Facebook post about the incident has gotten some interesting comments on this subject from a trio of women.  

First, from a woman with a Jewish cultural background:

I don't mean to be a Pollyanna, but maybe someone could talk with them and explain what happened and how they now are all over social media in a negative way. If they understand that their actions were awful and totally inappropriate, maybe they would change. If anyone has gone there a lot and knows them, it's certainly worth a shot.

A reply to that from a woman with a Christian cultural background:

There is deep seated racism in many cultures around the world. That kind of display of discrimination at Sweet Basil provides a great example of some of the outcomes of it. A conversation isn’t likely to help, you’re right. That said, change/evolution can and does happen from really personal life experiences, or if guidance comes from people they trust, people they aren’t prejudiced against as well, and would likely take more than one instance of being caught to have an impact. They likely have personal experiences that back up those stereotypes they are operating under.

And in reply to that, from a woman of a Muslim cultural background:

I agree with you... and now feel bad about my hastiness to boycott the restaurant. As I often say... many people from other countries unfortunately have been fed negative perspectives of African-Americans by the media for years. So often, when they come to the US, these stereotypes hold until they have personal (hopefully positive) interactions with African-Americans or other groups that they haven't come into contact with before. I think your idea is worth a shot. If I went to Sweet Basil frequently, I'd be willing to talk to them. The worst that can happen is that they maintain their position and we all boycott the restaurant.

Brass Frog, Pine Bush Discovery Center, Albany
Brass Frog, Pine Bush Discovery Center, Albany

Leave it to the wise women, wherever they come from, to sort out a nasty situation like this and make sense of it.  I know that is true, the usual cure for intolerance and fear of The Other is familiarity.  I’ve seen it in action many times. Often even the most intolerant people can learn to be, at the very least, civil when dealing with those kinds of people that they don’t like and even sometimes learn to lose their intolerance completely.

I don’t think merely walking into the restaurant cold and informing the staff and proprietors of their bad behavior will yield any results.  But that could work if first before that, somehow, the staff and proprietors were made aware that something is wrong with their attitude or with the appearance of their attitude, that it is not acceptable and must be changed for the better.  And that is why I am writing this article.

Thanks to uber-blogger Roger Green for telling me I had to blog about this.


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If you are having difficulties posting a comment, please email Daniel Van Riper. We are experimenting with our spam filters, and we do not want to exclude any legitimate commenters, just spammers!

Posted by:Roger Green
Posted on:06/05/2018
Thanks, Dan. I thought (and told you) that the story required more than your FB reportage. I've discovered that FB is fast food, but your blog is slow cooking. (This is a GOOD thing, BTW.)

Posted by:GAH
Posted on:06/08/2018
I've thought a lot about this too, and while I'm sure that reservation systems can be s smokescreen for restaurants making subjective decisions about who patronizes them, there's another angle:

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