featured Racism

An encounter with white privilege, and what it taught me

Rana Zaman, an immigrant, social activist and community volunteer, writes about the humiliation and raw pain she experienced as the result of a recent restaurant experience with subtle but clear racist overtones. She decided to tell her story, not to call out the restaurant or any individual servers, but to explain how very harmful and hurtful this kind of behaviour is.

Rana Zaman speaks at this year’s Women’s March in Halifax. Photo Foundry Photography

A few weeks ago, I had without a doubt a pure experience of white privilege at its worst. I went to a restaurant after a meeting to grab a quick meal before joining my brother for a movie. I arrived at 8:38pm and asked the server if I should seat myself, to which the server looked directly at me and said, “Because of the time, only take out is available.” I explained politely that I was going to the movies and wouldn’t be long and that I just wanted a quick meal. I would order whatever would be easiest for the kitchen. The server gave me a long explanation to why that wasn’t possible, how they were closing down and I’d have to order take out. I respectfully said with a genuine smile, “I understand” and asked for a recommendation for items that would be convenient for the kitchen to prepare and that wouldn’t be messy, so I could easily eat sitting in my car.

Long story short, I ended up getting spring rolls, which was something that I didn’t want and I paid for my order. I asked with a slight pleading tone once again, if I could just eat them at a table when they were cooked and again I was told no. The spring rolls were ready within minutes and all of a sudden the server magnanimously offered me the option to eat in saying that the rolls wouldn’t take me long to eat. After a long day of meetings for the various organizations I volunteer for, I was very grateful for the opportunity to sit down and have a “meal” even if it wasn’t what I really wanted.

I thanked the server profusely for the kindness and gave my assurance that I would be very quick. As I was eating, feeling thankful that I didn’t end up eating in my car, an older white couple came in and the gentleman asked if they had just made it in time. The same server grabbed two menus and commented something along the lines of how they were barely making it. I looked at my watch and the time was 8:55. To my surprise, they were seated across from me and when the gentleman asked, because of the lateness, what was “off the menu,” the server replied “nothing, except the steak”. The server then turned around, made eye contact with me, and gave a look and a head shake as if to say “can you believe these people”.

The second server quickly brought out a large steaming bowl of pasta and a full plate of chicken dinner for the couple. I looked at my small appetizer plate of three spring rolls cut in half and I felt disgusted. My face must have reflected my shock and dismay, because as this server turned around, we made eye contact, and they stopped at my table to ask if I needed anything. At this point, I felt so degraded and hurt. I asked quietly and politely why I was informed the place was closing and why I was not allowed to order from the main menu for a sit down meal. The server replied that they had no idea what had transpired between myself and the first server, and left.

Within minutes, the first server arrived and asked my permission to sit down. They then proceeded to apologize and asked if I wanted to order anything else. The server explained how the night was slow and they were closing up and how they had worked a double shift and didn’t consider it worthwhile to keep the place open. I pointed out how this reeked of white privilege and discrimination, something which they profusely denied.

Then they explained why they had allowed me to sit down after all, it was because another woman had been rude and insisted on service so they felt it was only fair to let me eat inside, especially because I had been “so sweet, polite and understanding”. I replied with, “so you’re proving the saying nice guys finish last” which in this case means I’m not being treated with the same respect as the white woman who you claimed was rude and this white couple who I observed asking you if they made it in time to which you replied “just barely”. Why were they not told “only takeout is available” the way I was? I said, you do realize this smacks of white privilege, and neither you nor that couple, are aware of how this impacted my experience at this restaurant and my impression and feelings on a personal level.

The server then continued to insist that was not the case; they were not that type of person, and that their day had been long because of a double shift. And how it was not worth their while to keep the place open for three tables. I once again said, “that doesn’t explain why this couple was allowed just to sit and order from the menu and I was told take out only.” Then the server said, because I was so polite, sweet and understanding that that’s why they let me sit down to eat in the end, and if they hadn’t, this situation would never have occurred. I responded, “You do realize that I would’ve taken the take-out to my car, I would’ve sat in your parking lot to eat before the movies, and from my car I would see the couple going in and being seated, through the big window. How do you think that would have made me feel then, knowing I was sent out there to eat in my car and that they were allowed to sit inside and dine?”

At this point, the server started tearing up and apologizing once again, profusely, and saying that was not their intention and they wanted to write a credit for me to come back anytime in the future and sit down to have a meal of my choice on behalf of the restaurant. I said I’m not interested in a credit and what I would really like to understand is why it was okay in their mind to say “take out only” to me several times but not once to the couple. Once again, I got an apology but they couldn’t give me an answer to my question. The server kept insisting on writing my name in the restaurant book for a future credit of $25. I felt pity seeing more tears well up in their eyes and I teared up myself. I finally gave in by spelling out my name. The server seemed relieved as they wrote down my name, closed their book with a sense of accomplishment and relief, believing everything was ok because of a $25 credit, the value placed on my humiliation, pain and dignity.

As soon as the server left, I heard a male voice calling my name from the booth across from me. I looked up and the gentleman from the white couple proceeded to introduce himself to me as “Brian from the Chronicle Herald.” To my astonishment, this was the same Brian that I had spoken to several times by phone but never met. This was the same Brian who had published  my article on bullying. I walked over to shake his hand with a huge smile on my face, all the while thinking what are the chances I would meet him here so randomly and immediately after what just occurred. After a polite introduction to his wife and in response to “How have you been?” I replied, “You won’t believe what just happened!” I went on to say unbeknownst to them, they just benefitted from “white privilege” and I was a victim of it. His curiosity was piqued and he asked how so, I gave him the shortened version of it and both he and his partner were very surprised and commented how they found the server to be rude during their interaction. Not because the server said anything rude or denied them service but because of their abrupt tone and manner.

I would like to point out that this was a moment of growth for me. Even though I was denied service very early on, somehow my personality, or my conditioning perhaps, was to be sympathetic, understanding and polite, and not to ruffle any feathers and not to perceive the server in a negative manner. This couple, who received none of of the discrimination I was subjected to and who were given service, both found the server rude but weren’t feeling as uncomfortable as I was to being there at that time. They seemed completely comfortable to sit down and eat, whereas I on the other hand was grateful for the smallest accommodation.

I said to Brian “You know  I’m a person of faith and believe everything happens for a reason. I believe I was meant to have this painful experience and that you were meant to be there. I think there’s a story here that needs to be told. Would you be interested in publishing a story, but only on the condition that we keep the name of the business private and also not call out the server by name. It’s not about punishing an entire chain of restaurants because of the actions of one individual or getting the individual possibly fired.” I would rather have this be an opportunity to educate, create dialogue and bring to the forefront how harmful and hurtful this kind of conscious or subconscious behaviour is. He agreed to the anonymity and asked me to send him the story. I said my goodbyes and headed out to the movies. Needless to say the feeling of being a second class citizen and the memory of the incident prevented me from enjoying the movie or getting a good night’s sleep.

After a few days of sharing the story with family and friends, I wasn’t sure if I should share my experience. It was only when my daughter encouraged me to do so, stating that listening to it had inspired her to stand up and to stop devaluing herself. It had given her courage to face a stressful situation head on. I decided if this story is able to help anyone in some small way then it must be shared, regardless of my apprehension of how it will be received by the general public and what type of backlash, if any, I may have to face. I can not change my skin colour or my ethnicity, nor do I choose to change my religion. By building awareness through dialogue and education, by reaching out with patience, understanding, and kindness, I can hope and pray someday we as a society will grow beyond situations like this.

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One Comment

  1. i am a 69 year old white male .thankyou for your very thoughtful article re white privelege..You are a person that every Nova Scotian needs to know.I cannot imagine handling myself with as much class as u did in that restauraunt. Wouldnt this article be powerful in the hands off all school teachers thanks u are a gem

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