While eating breakfast this morning in a Louisiana Waffle House today, I enjoyed the friendly banter between the cooks and servers. The customers were me (white), a man (white), a woman (white), and a dad and two kids (all brown). I’m guessing about our racial makeup based on skin color alone.
I hadn’t noticed the family in the booth until the white woman came to the register next to me and whispered to the server. I overheard, “I Googled it…” “they don’t look right…” After the woman paid and left, the black server said something under her breath, and the white server replied, “She looked like a nosy woman.” I asked what was going on, and the black server said quietly, “She said she didn’t think those kids belonged with that man, so she asked why they weren’t in school. They said it was spring break in North Carolina, but the woman Googled it and said it’s not spring break there.” She went back to her tasks.
I looked at the family in the booth and saw a weary-looking dad, wearing the kind of lime green vest often worn by sanitation workers. The children were likewise brown-skinned. The boy looked about 12, with glasses and dark hair streaked with pink. The girl looked about 10, her dark hair pulled into a neat pony tail. They both looked bored, as pre-teens often do while dining with parents. In other words, there was nothing unusual about this family scene.
Except there was, to the white women who looked at the same family and saw a kidnapping scene. She imposed on their privacy by demanding to know why they were in a Waffle House at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. Then she had the audacity to fact check their response.
Had she been truly concerned, she’d have called the police, but she didn’t. She just voiced a concern to the servers and left. Maybe she felt she “did the right thing” by mentioning it to people with some authority in the restaurant, but she did exactly the wrong thing. She assumed the worst, likely based on the man’s brown skin, which was slightly darker than the children’s, or based on his dirty clothes. She didn’t see a work-worn dad; she saw a potential criminal.
It is tempting to give the woman one of those nicknames like those given to other white women who have called the cops on people living while black, but I won’t. She doesn’t deserve a nickname for being a racist and putting someone else’s life at risk, as noted in this Washington Post article. Had she called the police, they’d have had no choice but to assume the worst until the family could establish their identities and their right to be in the restaurant. And those first seconds and minutes put lives at risk.
But what about the spring break thing? First, the woman assumed that every school in North Carolina is on the same schedule. She neglected to consider that children might be in public, private, charter or home school settings. She ignored the possibility that the family might have been undocumented, and reporting them might have led to their separation and/or deportment. Or maybe she didn’t ignore it: maybe she considered that and didn’t care.
This is painful stuff that is important to notice. I visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama last week and was moved by the legacy of injustice endured and survived by blacks in this country as well as by the legacy of pain caused by my kindred white people. We need to acknowledge it, accept our contributions to it, and make amends and reparations.
The museum is, as described on the website, “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” The memorial, which is a few blocks away from the museum, combines sculpture, writings, and over 800 rusted steel rectangular monuments, some nearly resting on the concrete walkway floor, other’s suspended several feet off the floor. Each represents a county in a Deep South state in which lynching occurred, with the names and murder dates of victims engraved into the steel. As I walked among them, I noticed a monument representing four family members lynched on the same day. Many include the dates on which people were lynched but their names were not recorded. It is impossible not to feel moved by the enormity of the lives lost to the violence of racially motivated lynching.
As I exited the memorial, I passed row upon row of monuments identical to those hanging in the memorial. A sign explained that they await installation in the counties they represent, and the website notes, “Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.” It is promising to note that the staff of the Equal Justice Initiative behind the museum and memorial is in communication with many communities that hope to claim and install their monuments.
What’s the connection between the museum, the memorial, and the worried woman in the Waffle House? Racism. White supremacy culture. Presumptions of guilt. An enormouse need for change.
Bella and I are leaving Shreveport this morning, bound for a holler in Arkansas. We’ll spend a few days there and may not have internet access. I’ll share photos when I can.
Happy trails, Melanie