(This post about a racial incident I experienced a few years back was originally published in August 2014 on my blog that was deleted, in toto, by my previous web hosting company. Moral of the story: pay attention to those emails from your web hosting company. They might contain a bill you need to pay to keep your website from being "disappeared."
Fortunately I kept a copy of the 2014 post. It got a lot of attention then from my Facebook friends four years ago. I'm republishing it in part because one of the friends I was with that evening is now besieged by an aggressive cancer. This is my way of remembering a foul experience that, we had no way of knowing then, we would now recall as the good old days.)
Curiosity can be a weapon.
During a recent trip to the New Hampshire ocean-side town of Hampton Beach with two childhood friends, we experienced a moment that revealed the ugly side of curiosity. The old Dave Chappelle Show could have done a skit about the encounter, calling it “When Curiosity Goes Wrong,” a sister concept to its bitingly clever “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.”
We had found a restaurant we enjoyed so much that we dined there three consecutive evenings. On the third night, after yet another great meal and much spirited conversation, we headed to the upstairs bar to check out a musician highly recommended by a waitress.
Shortly after the three of us middle-aged men who happen to be black -- a veteran TV sports producer, a senior Air Force non-commissioned officer and I, a recovering Washington journalist – found a bar table with stools, a middle-aged woman who happened to be white, approached and stood next to my right elbow.
“Three black guys walk into a restaurant...,” she said.
Instantly, we all thought this the beginning of a joke. Probably a tasteless one of the “a rabbi, priest and imam walk into a bar” variety. We were certainly curious. Where was she headed with this? We soon found out.
“And I just want to know what you're doing here?” she said. “It's unusual to see blacks in this part of New Hampshire and in this restaurant and I just wanted to know why you're here? I've been coming here for 15 years and I want to make sure you're going to uphold the high standards we have here.”
Even as I write this, a few weeks removed, I can feel my heart rate increase.
“What?” one of my friends said, shaking his head before planting his face in his palm.
“I'm going to get a drink” said my other friend, pushing disgustedly up and away from the encounter.
“Whoa,” I said.
“I don't mean to be rude,” she said.
“Well, you are.” I said. “What if you walked into a restaurant where you were the only white person and someone asked you what you were doing there? How would you feel?”
To this, she said she had been in an all-black place, a soul-food restaurant somewhere, and that a black woman had sat her “big-fat ass down” next to her to try and show her how to properly eat something.
“Time-out,” I said. “That's enough. You've got to go. We've been really patient with you. Now please go.”
And she did. She was put out but she headed back for her seat at the bar.
We left shortly afterward, determined that we wouldn't allow this encounter to ruin our time at the beach. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't affect us.
As I sorted through the meaning (or meaninglessness) of the encounter, it struck me that the woman's behavior, probably less inhibited than it usual thanks to alcohol, fit into the curiosity theme I intend to explore with this blog.
She certainly demonstrated curiosity by approaching us. Key to curiosity is an assertive exploration of what's novel in one's environment and we certainly were novel. The three nights we visited the popular restaurant, we never saw any other black people there.
She asked a question that likely crossed the minds of other patrons: what are those guys doing here? Other questions that I imagine occurred to the people in the restaurant were what's their story? And did they play for the Celtics or Patriots? (We range from 6'3” to 6'7”. Indeed, we met as teenagers who played youth basketball together.)
But then her curiosity went off the rails with her “there goes the neighborhood” attitude that our very blackness made us potential threats to one of her favorite night spots.
In short, she quickly went from demonstrating curiosity to the very antithesis of curiosity – racial stereotyping. To unthinkingly ascribe the least positive behavior demonstrated by some members of a group to all members of that group is to stereotype and she certainly did that by suggesting that our skin color alone made us dubious characters to be interrogated.
She provided a strong example of how human curiosity can be the handmaiden to that other human tendency to crudely and quickly sort what we encounter in the world into categories of the good and the bad, often with horrible results.
In hindsight, that strange New England interaction has fueled my curiosity about that woman. Assuming she did consume alcohol before she descended on us, how many drinks did it take before she could act so boorishly? Two? More? Just one?
Where did she grow up and what was her family like? Does she have any relatives or friends who aren't white? One of my buddies noticed she had been seated at the bar with a white man. What was their conversation immediately before she approached us? How about after she returned from our table? Did she remember the encounter the next day? Where would she place herself on the spectrum of racial tolerance and intolerance? (She did go to that soul-food restaurant, after all.) If three black strangers walked into her favorite bar in the future, would she behave with them as she did with us? These are questions I'd love answers for.