Racism in Restaurants

Courtney Swain

“I don’t want that table,” my colleague said to me. “They’re Canadians. You can take them if you want.”

Before I walked up to the new table to great the customers, I wondered briefly at how she’d instantly judged our customers’ nationality, but it didn’t seem like an important issue then. I had so many other things to worry about: what was the special of the day? What wine was I going to recommend? Was the catch of the day salmon or tilapia? I was in Houston; a rookie waitress in a casual fine dining restaurant, and I had no idea that I’d just been introduced to Jim Crow.

Since the time the civil rights movement first started, restaurants and diners have often been the sites of demonstrations. Novelists and activists frequently make references to the restaurant business in relation with racism. In  “Letter From Birmingham Jail” Dr. King writes, “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Also, in “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin describes how he repeatedly visited a segregated restaurant determined that he be served. Not to mention the climax of the first part of the same essay where Baldwin discovers an uncontrollable rage inside himself as a young waitress refuses to give him any service, and as a result comes terribly close to being lynched by a gang of white people. Restaurants seem to be place of choice for racism to brew.

The restaurant I worked in was not an exception. A few weeks after the scene I recounted in the beginning, I gradually came to realize that the term “Canadian” didn’t have anything to do with Canada; it was a code word that referred to black people. To say the least, I was in a state of disbelief when I first found this out. This was the first time I’d seen someone express hostile or negative feelings towards another person for such and unreasonable thing as skin color. Of course, all this “Canadian” talk was only in the kitchen, and no obvious sign of racism could be detected in the main dining room. Maybe customers would acknowledge that their waiter/waitress seemed a little slow or reluctant, but it could only be recounted as “a lethargic waiter” and not “a racist.” What bothered me even more, was that I learned from other wait staff that the term “Canadian” was not unique to our restaurant, and that it was a common restaurant lingo (at least in the Houston area). It was disturbing to think that racism was prowling so close to every dinner table, and how little people realized this.

Racism in the restaurant is subtle. No one acknowledges that black people aren’t served fairly because of their skin color. The standard excuse is, that “Canadians” are very demanding, disrespectful of waiters, and poor tippers. If that indeed were the description for “Canadian,” it wouldn’t be as disturbing. After all, almost every working human complains about bad clientele, and since a lot of the waiters depended on their tips to pay the rent, the bitterness towards a poor tipper is understandable. But, demanding, disrespectful, poor-tipping white people were never called “Canadians,” and no waiter would express hesitation to wait on a white person. There actually was an ellipse and then a parenthesis after that excuse, and it looked like this: “They’re demanding, disrespectful, and tip poorly…(and they’re black).”

As much as I felt my co-workers trying to brainwash me about “Canadians,” I tried to be pleasant to my black customers. Our restaurant didn’t have a large African-American clientele to start with, but as I became more experienced and waited on more customers of all age, sex, and race, to my horror I found that I was becoming hesitant to wait on black people, too. I’d been raised under the principle that all people are equal and should be treated fairly, so the change in my own attitude was shocking. I felt as if I was a traitor to everything I stood for, and I felt depressed and less confident about myself after seeing that what I thought was such a fundamental and obvious opinion of mine was prone to change.

But, as sad as I was, at that time I felt like there was a difference between people and between races. My black customers did have a tendency to tip poorly. To be fair, there were only few people I encountered who were rude enough to leave a five dollar bill for an over hundred dollar tab. But, being the upscale casual restaurant that my employer was, and after the effort I put into my job, I was used to receiving 20% tips. Thus, 15% percent didn’t make me happy, and 10% seemed outrageous. After a few frustrating incidents of receiving an insulting tip, the “Canadian” stereotype began to form in my mind. The peculiar fact that even the black and Hispanic wait staff acknowledged the “Canadians” created some comfort in me. Even people who knew how it felt to be discriminated saw the same difference that I had seen, and this made my thoughts seem less racist. I was never hostile towards my black customers, nor did I treat them any different from my white customers. But, there was no denying the fact that I was making judgments and preconceptions based on the color of my guests’ skin. That was enough: I was a potential racist, if not one already.

Now that I no longer wait tables, I look back to that time with shame. That summer was a difficult time for me; I underwent many changes in my life, and I was emotionally very unstable. But, whatever reason there is, whatever happened to me during that time, there is no excuse to being a racist. I especially lament my thoughts and actions because I know perfectly well what it feels like to be discriminated. I grew up in Japan where most people acknowledged me as a Caucasian, a racial minority there. I know how it feels to be tagged with difference; how my actions seem to stand out more just because I am different, and how my opinions and differences seem to be blamed on my racial difference. I experienced the same kind of hurt and rage that James Baldwin and Dr. King write about. At times when I wish someone around me could experience what I experience and feel sorry, I quickly deny the thought thinking that I would never want someone dear to me to feel such sadness and solitude. Yet, I had been a candidate of causing the same grief to someone else. It is embarrassing to admit such a thing.

Ironically, I think the term “Canadian” is very appropriate. Racism in the US seems to be the equivalent of nationalism in other countries.  Racists treat black people like “outsiders” in Dr. King’s words. I feel this way because as an “outsider” in Japan, I felt the same things which I read and heard that black people experience in the US. However, unlike nationalism, racism is not about people unable to accept the idea of assimilating and changing; racism is about differentiating and denying a part of the country that is already there, which gives it an ugly twist.

What is to be done about racism? How can all of us go to a restaurant and be received, treated, and served equally? Ever since I left the restaurant, I have been thinking about this issue, and I have been unsuccessful in finding a shorthand conclusion. Nowadays when it is treated as a taboo in society, racism is stealthy and lingers in places where it can’t be easily detected. The restaurant is one place I stumbled upon it, but who knows where else it might be. One thing I did think of is that racism should be taught from a different angle in education. A lot of my friends and young people from my generation don’t acknowledge that racism is still lingering out there. I didn’t either until I saw it right in front of my eyes. Many young people voice doubts about devoting so much time to studying about racism. I think that what we learn in school now, the historical approach to racism, is very important to understand the roots of it, but I also think we need a more up-to-date approach so that students can understand that it still presides, and are alerted of places it could be prowling.

Although I deeply regret the racist I found inside myself, my encounter with racism was a very interesting experience. In the long run, it has made me think about racism and how we can move towards terminating it, with a seriousness I never had before. I also feel a deeper respect towards people like Dr. King or Mahatma Gandhi, who spoke up in the presence of injustice, since now I have a better understanding of how easy it is to mope about and flow with it, and how difficult it is to speak up.

Courtney Swain has a Japanese mother, an American father, and grew up in Japan.   She studied abroad last semester in Greece and is currently in her sixth semester at Berklee majoring in CWP and Composition.