PARTIAL REPARATIONS REQUEST: TWO CHAIRS FROM BORDERS BOOKS
* In this article, the term “husband” is replaced by the term “gentlemate.” The latter is a term suggested for use by Neely Fuller, Jr. the author of A Compensatory Counter-Racist Codified Word Guide.
Does anyone else feel like saying about the people who work for Borders Book stores what Kanye West said about George Dubbya Bush? That they don’t like black people?
My black husband* and I haven’t owned a television set in 4 years and we haven’t had network capability in double that time. One of our most regular pleasures is reading magazines, mostly science, at local bookstores. Borders Bookstores present a “make your self at home” atmosphere that is an extension of the Starbucks cultivated “Third Place” concept. A Starbucks owned Seattle’s Best café wafts the scent of the brown stuff over most of the nonfiction shelves. The Borders that my gentlemate and I have frequented for the last year or so is in southern San Diego county’s Plaza Bonita Mall in National City, California. In that mall, you’ll rarely see a shopper whom you can be sure is a white person. The late-model cars filling up the parking lot arrive carrying mostly “Filipinos” and “Latinos.” But, there are more than a few people that are often called “black” and we greatly outnumber the obviously white shoppers. Except for the café, the staff in the Plaza Bonita Borders are all very-obviously white people. One of these very-obviously white persons, Sarah, is a freckled young woman with short red hair. I have seen her arrive with a motorcycle helmet and biker gloves. Sarah always has the attire and demeanor of a person more typical in a Harley-Davidson shop. This woman’s style underscores the accepting, college union, “everybody’s place” ambiance. Sarah’s gear also matches her deft, quasi-athletic monitoring of black people who are in the store. Her enthusiasm for this task is indicative of a soldier who has volunteered for a dangerous mission that is recognized as requiring great skill. She engages in a lot of psy-ops (psychological operations). Often, she will smirk for just a moment when I look up at her. She wants me to think that I’ve “caught” her smirking believing that I’ve gotten confirmation that she’s harassing us. She figures that without any proof, I’ll get angry right then and there; angry enough to stop coming in the store. Or, she calculates that I’ll make a charge I can’t prove and explode in anger. Either way, she is having fun playing with her Negress. Sarah’s really good. The whole white team there is good. They seem to have a really good coach whom I suspect is Bill, the general manager. But, when Bill had to put on the gi himself to match up against me, he wasn’t very skilled at executing the moves. He had to depend on the refs at the end of the match. Of course, in a system of racism (white supremacy), the refs are part of his team. Even the cheerleaders are allowed to score points. Cheerleaders? Yeah, that’s the next paragraph.
Several months ago, we ordered and paid for some drinks from the café. The two barista boys, one Filipino and one Latino, announced at least five other orders that were placed after ours when we decided to inquire why. We then stood there and watched them start making ours. In retaliation, these boys (much more stylish than Sarah) left the door to the refrigerated storage room open so that the cool temperature forced us to go to another part of the store. Of course, it’s really odd to leave that storage room open. It’s just not done. So, when I walked by the café later, the door was, of course, in its usual closed position. Gentlemate and I then returned to the comfy chairs in the now warmer café, and the door to the refrigerated room was left open again. This cycle repeated about six times over our next two visits to the store. The next time that the boys delayed preparing our order, I told them that we would get some video of their behavior and forward it to their Starbucks corporate superiors with the type of letter that had been effective in wiping off the kind of smile the Latino boy maintained on his face as I was talking. The two boys stopped their obvious misdeeds against us but we know that nobody likes Mondays and black people. A few months later, another older, bearded heavy guy, whose racial classification I have not yet discerned, told me that I could not put magazines on a stack that was present on the floor before I had sat down beside it. But other than that, the café staff had not executed any further obvious mistreatment of us—until a week ago
Last Sunday, my 6 foot, 5 inch, 225+pound, handsome black male gentlemate moved one of the comfy, cushioned armchairs to a place with less traffic and began reading some magazines he’d selected. Within two minutes, the 5 foot, 7 inch or so, about 130-pound Sarah appeared. She told gentlemate that he couldn’t move the chair. The chair was not blocking any aisles, entrances, or exits. She told him to move the chair back to where it had been. He did not. He got out of the chair and said calmly, “I’ll wait for your manager to move it. I suspect you’re mistreating me.” He then joined me at a table in the café and informed me of Sarah’s latest offensive. And, then, it was on. Their entire team went into action.
Sarah, Bill, and a second white woman began twenty to thirty minutes of marching back and forth past the café that any observer would perceive as critical situation management. Each of them made a pass by us about every five minutes so that one of them passed by us about every couple of minutes on their way to the store office. They all passed by the cafe each time although, performing their normal duties would neither have them go into the office that frequently nor take that path each time. When Sarah went behind the counter at the café and began talking with the Filipina barista on duty, we knew something extraordinary was occurring. Never at any Borders, had either of us seen the Borders bookseller staff interact in any way with the Seattle’s Best café staff. The barista kept her head down as one does when listening for critical instructions for battle or competition. When Sarah left, the barista started looking at us intently; mad-dogging us. She was quite clearly determined to prove herself worthy of the task Sarah had assigned her. She even kept squinting her eyes at us like we were the epitome of evil. While she was on that task, a very-obviously white man with a uniform that resembled a SWAT team’s came to the counter. The back of his black T-shirt read, “SECURITY.” Clearly, the white people were preparing to make some sort of criminal charge against my gentlemate and, possibly, me. Charges that, at the very least, would result in us being banned from the store. Some charge like threatening Sarah, disturbing the peace, destruction of property. We didn’t know. We considered leaving to avoid the impending frame-up. But, gentlemate and I reasoned that they might try to apprehend us as we were leaving. So, we made our counter-move. We got up from our table, walked to the front counter past the small line of customers and stood to the side to indicate that we needed special attention. When asked what we needed, we requested to speak with the manager. The cashier, another white woman, picked up the phone and summoned the manager. She then told us to go to the information counter in the middle of the store where the manager would meet us. When we got there, a third white woman asked if she could help us. I told her we were waiting for the manager. She said, “Yes, I’m a manager.” Just as I was about to speak, Bill, the white male general manager interrupted saying, “I got it.” When Bill asked how he could help us, I said, in a slow, deliberate manner “I’m u n c o m f o r t a b l e.” When Bill asked me why, I told him that we were being told not do things that are commonly done by other customers. Two examples, I told him, were moving a chair and placing magazines on a pre-existing stack next to a chair. I also told him that we believed that we were being surveilled whenever we were in the store. He responded with nervous and polite consternation agreeing that moving chairs and placing magazines on the floor was done all the time. He also said he’d speak with the café manager. Then, he both jokingly and seriously said that he would be following us around himself during our future visits to the store…to make sure that other staff didn’t. Of course, he knew that we knew that he had been in the harassment/surveillance platoon of only a few minutes prior. He apologized and we returned to our table at the café. The Barista girl stopped staring at us. The Borders combatants immediately stopped their rapid patrolling past our table.
Sarah, I thought, will now be feverish with desire to harm us.
One science magazine later, gentlemate seized on an opportunity to disarm Sarah that I had missed. Taking a circuitous route back to my seat from the restroom, I noticed that three Filipino teens had moved their chairs quite some distance so that they could sit in a little circle together. They were in the middle of an aisle and blocking it. When I sat down, I mentioned it to gentlemate. As we say on FB, (((SMDH))). I returned to the article I had been reading about a white scientist’s new categorization of rhythm as a neurological sense as real as the sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. I was engrossed. You know, I’ve got rhythm. And, I had always thought that rhythm was the only real basis of faith…Suddenly, I heard gentlemate calling my name. When I looked up, he motioned to me to walk to where he was. When I got there, he was standing near the three teens, Sarah, and the female assistant manager. Gentlemate had engaged the combatants directly! I was to provide ground support. He was telling the assistant manager that he had been told by Sarah that he would not be permitted to move a chair that was not blocking any aisle. While he was speaking, I moved a few steps closer to Sarah and said, “I suspect that you mistreated him. I suspect that you mistreated him on the basis of color.” As she was beginning her deployment of the standard racist protocol of denial and deceit, I fell back a few steps to stand behind gentlemate. The teens were moving the chairs. Sarah said she had only seen the chairs at that moment and that she had told the teens to move the chairs back as soon as she had seen them. I announced that I would test the truth of that statement by asking the teens how long they’d been huddled up in the three chairs, walked over to them and did so. I prefaced the question by saying, “We’re not gonna be angry with you guys.” Then, “How long were you guys in the three-chair arrangement here?” The only female of the group responded by saying in drawn out cadence, “a w h i l e.” The white manager groaned and said, “This is not good.” Sarah then held her palms out and said, “I’m not racist, seriously.” I grinned derisively and said, “That is what most racists would say.” As I turned away to walk back to my seat, Sarah volleyed, “My boyfriend is black!” Still rounding the bookshelf, I replied, “That would make you worse.”
I recovered my treasured position hoping to regain my rhythm. Of course, debriefing was necessary. Gentlemate and I decided not to leave that as that. We decided that it wasn’t “well enough.” We wanted some action to be taken that would deter the behavior. Three minutes before closing, we walked to the front of the store and asked to speak with Bill. The female assistant manager told us that Bill was no longer there and apologized for what happened. We told her that an apology was not enough. Gentlemate said that we wanted compensation. She told us that this was something we’d have talk with Bill about, that he’d be in at 10am the next morning and then she offered us his card. Negroes often like to get the card of important people. (I used to.) I’m sure she thought we’d feel like we were being taken seriously every time we looked at the stiff little rectangle. I declined it. I’d just read another science article that said that people seem to be hard-wired to return favors no matter how small. I suppose it is that instinct that caused me to refuse the card.
The next afternoon, I phoned the store and asked to speak with Bill. When he picked up the phone, it was with the strength and confidence befitting his position in the system, “This is Bill. How can I help you?” I announced that my “husband” and I had spoken with him the previous day regarding our discomfort in the store and asked him if had been briefed on the event that occurred in the store after our conversation. He said, “No. Something else happened? What happened?” After I recounted the events, he said that he’d look into it and see if he could get some satisfactory “resolution” for me. He offered another apology. —-DECLINED. I told him the mistreatment was a pattern that went beyond the events of the previous day and that it was my experience that apologies don’t tend to deter such behavior. His voice started trembling. Yet, he was able to execute the standard racist protocol. “I’m not sure what happened. Well, I can tell you it’s not an institutional thing. I understand that the word ‘racist’ was used. Sarah’s not a racist.” But, I was astounded that he had made such an obvious mistake in his story already.
He had just said that he hadn’t known anything about the event but then said that he was told that the word “racist” was used.
He went on. “After I talked to you, I talked with the staff— one person at a time. When I called Sarah back, she couldn’t give me a reason. So, I disciplined her. That may be the reason she didn’t say anything. She just wanted to stay away from that entirely. She’s not here today. She’s taking a few days off. She’s pretty upset about this. Like I said, this is not an institutional thing. We have one of the most diverse customer bases I’ve ever seen.” When Bill’s trembling ramble petered out, I said “I’ve noticed that you have a very diverse staff. The only group I have not seen represented is black people. Do you have any black people on your staff?” “Yes, actually,I have two—three people on staff.”, Bill says. Nervous and telling easily detectable lies. I thought it was interesting how quickly he was cracking. But I immediately lamented the fact that his being white compensated for what should be an exploitable error. I told him that we were willing to talk with him to see if we could reach agreement on appropriate compensation before I publicized the incorrect event by means at my disposal in order to deter the behavior. Bill stalled by saying that he did not know what his schedule would be for the week. He left a voicemail two days later in the afternoon simply saying that he would be out of the store until Friday and that he would phone me then. When I called back 5 minutes later, giving my name, I was told that he was gone for the day. Bill didn’t call me from his cell phone. Stalling again. When we were in the store the next day, Bill was there. So was Sarah. There was also a person on staff we had never seen before. More “diversity.” —No, I regret to say, she was not a black person. She appeared to be a very white and very lesbian person. And, she took over Sarah’s surveillance duties even following us out of the store into the parking lot.
Bill finally phoned on Friday afternoon and said the following, “Our human resources department and our district manager conducted an investigation and determined that there was no merit to your complaint. I’m very sorry that you feel…” His refs had bailed him out. I laughed sarcastically to channel my anger and said “I’ll let you know when the article goes to print.” “Okay”, he said. Click.
Bill, we want to move two of the comfy chairs—-out of the store and into our home office. That’s appropriate. Black folk used to be whipped for reading. We deserve to sit comfortably and unbothered while doing so now.