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Race expectations

Hannah Selinger - Raw Story Columnist

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My friend Luis is studying to be a sommelier. He knows more about Spanish wines than most people ever will. He describes a corked bottle as tasting “like wet cardboard.” Luis has amassed a small but important wine collection. He can tell you about the soil in Graves and he can tell you what the bacteria that yields Sauternes is called.

Luis was born in Mexico. He is twenty-three and large and he wears t-shirts with pictures of dead rappers on them. He lives with his parents in Coney Island and he once told me that the only time he left New York after moving here was to go on a day trip to Boston. Looking at him, you wouldn’t expect Luis to know all that much about wine. You wouldn’t expect his palate to be as refined as it is and you certainly wouldn’t expect his eyes to light up at the mere mention of a first growth Bordeaux, which he would probably call “bad ass.”

The other night, Luis left his job at the restaurant where we both work, was picked up by the police, and spent the remainder of the evening in jail. He had done nothing wrong, but he fit the profile of someone who had. Mostly, Luis was the type of person the police expected to catch in some act of defiance.

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He told me this on Wednesday, as we stocked the wine cellar. He was teaching me about the Super Tuscans and he was talking about varietals when he launched into a story about racial profiling. “I fit the description,” he told me, as he gingerly handled a bottle of wine. He was—is—massive and hulking and he certainly could have passed for a criminal in some other person’s eyes.

Obviously it seemed unfair, especially since I will likely never fit any description the way Luis does. But the funny thing is that the industry in which we work requires the same kind of snap judgment that was used against Luis on Tuesday night. On weekends, before service begins, our managers remind us to beware the “B and Ts,” Manhattanites’ not-so-affectionate term for weekend visitors from New Jersey and Long Island—the Bridge and Tunnel Crowd. We are reminded that non-New Yorkers require a different kind of attention and we are told to gauge our tables accordingly.

Weekends are no exception. In the service industry, we are taught to assume. Assume the customer knows nothing. Assume that the elderly will split entrees. Assume that foreigners will not tip well. Assume that people who order pinot grigio by the glass do not know very much about wine. Assume that people who order their steaks well-done have no culinary mind.

But we are offended when the act is reversed. I found Luis’ story deeply disturbing because it proved how much image mattered and because it proved that racial profiling is not, regrettably, a thing of the past. But when I started to think about ways to remedy the situation, I was at a loss. Wasn’t I, too, responsible for the same kind of unfairness? Didn’t Luis and I both secretly roll our eyes at people who came in and ordered ice with their merlot? Weren’t we basing our sales pitches, our speed with a table, our attitudes, on assumptions we made at the very beginning of a table’s experience?

When you’re a professional and, more importantly, when part of your job requires you to make fast decisions about other people, being a good person is hard. All of the stereotypes that people like me rage against in everyday life are precisely what we use to help us on the job.

But recognizing the conundrum is half the battle. Richard Pryor, the venerable comedian who died Saturday from a heart attack, made light of these problems. He saw racial inequity everywhere, but his way of dealing with it infused humor into an otherwise dire situation. That said, Mr. Pryor capably brought to the surface issues that no one was willing to talk about. After a near-death experience some years ago, Mr. Pryor said, “I woke up in the ambulance, right? And there was nothin’ but white people starin’ at me. I say … I done died and wound up in the wrong heaven. Now I gotta listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days.”

Pryor was desperately funny and his humor allowed such categorically racial differences to enter American discourse sans anger. He was aware of the stereotypes and, in fact, used them to his benefit. It is likely that we are all better for it.

What does this mean for Luis? Is it enough that people like me recognize that we do tend to make assessments about people, unconsciously or not? Will tolerance ever permeate the American mindset enough for people like Luis to rest assured that they will not end up in a police station on an otherwise mundane Tuesday evening? Maybe, or maybe not.

The point is, people like Luis are forever exceeding expectations. As conscious and well-meaning American citizens—and I like to believe that the majority of us are, in fact—it remains our responsibility to accept that people are not always who we think they are.

Originally published on Monday December 12, 2005

 


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