Friday, January 30, 2009

Restaurants Ruined by "Those People"

Have you ever stopped going to one of your favorite restaurants because it started attracting "the wrong crowd?" Maybe you felt out of place once your spot became home to clientele that were different from you. It happens. Restaurants change to tap into more viable targeted markets and ensure the survival of their business, or maybe the word spreads to different communities creating a tipping point, and sometimes sociological factors make those changes permanent. To be honest, I haven't given this concept much thought. I like going where I stick out like a sore thumb. That uncomfortable out of place feeling is kinda exciting to me. The feeling of presumed "belonging" makes me feel guilty in some way. But, in the larger scheme of things, I probably do follow the birds of a feather and flock together with other young middle class whites. So, let me get on with my reason for this prelude.

The other day, when I was getting my haircut, my barber and I talked restaurants for a minute. I've learned to avoid discussing current events with him and figured food would be a safe topic. I mentioned a nearby place that I liked a lot and he asked me, "Is it run by blacks?"

Um, no.

"Surprised I haven't heard of it."

What if it were run by blacks?

"Well, they got a whole bunch of places now. You remember that seafood place?"

(sigh) Which one is that, Croakers Spot?


Ya know, Richmond is a pretty segregated place, with black restaurants and white restaurants, just like the barber shops.

"That's true. What's the name of that place? Dang, I can't remember. They had good seafood before it was a black place."

Well, I think some of the best food in town is at restaurants run by black people... and latinos, and...

"I'm sure you're right. But I can't even go to to that seafood place cuz it's over run with blacks." (barber's words in quotes, if you haven't caught on)

So it's just too crowded, you're saying?

"No. I can't enjoy a meal with all those black people ruining it. Red Lobster, that's it!"

My in-laws love that place. It's a national chain. You don't go to any of'em anymore?

"No, sir. Not since the blacks took over. I even went to the one in Fredericksburg and it was the same thing, blacks all over the place."


"The last time I went, there was a whole family of'em in the next booth." (he's looking at me with bulging eyes like he'd just described coming face to face with a grizzly bear while hunting) "The most unruly children you've ever seen."

Yeah, kids can really make a racket in a restaurant.

"But black kids are the worst, I tell ya."

Now, I know this interaction is both sick and comical (but it is an accurate retelling). So, let me give you some background. I've been going to this barber shop on and off for years. The man's racist rant was no surprise on this day, and yet, in the moment, I'm always in denial about what I'm hearing. The haircut is so much more reliable and faster and lower priced than anywhere else, that I keep going back. But, I'm not going to name the place and I may delete comments that do. If I wanted to expose this barbor shop, I really should have done it years ago. At this point, I feel totally complicit. This anecdote was a very mild episode compared to those I've tried to forget. He usually goes off about nigger this and nigger that, with extra special hate speech for Barack Obama. At times I would object (while he's got the straight razor on my neck), and other times I would stop going there for stretches. Now, I don't know if I'd feel right going back at all after bringing this to light.

It's clear enough that he's holding court in his business and so he feels comfortable speaking his mind. I'm guessing that he meets very little resistance when he flaunts his prejudices and uses racial slurs in his shop, but I'll bet plenty of his customers feel the same way and take part, rivaling his enthusiasm with their own bigotry. His customers are almost exclusively white, but loads of them are cops and firefighters and other public servants. Not everyone is cowardly quiet in response, and surely it's only a few who protest openly, because he's so obviously proud of himself when he's maligning people of color. I can't help but think that this anachronistic barber shop is a refuge for Richmond's white racists. Here, behaviors that receive shame and condemnation elsewhere are welcomed and reaffirmed back and forth all day long. Do you think that's far fetched? (please save the comments about who can or cannot use which n-word and how the same kind of stuff goes on at black barber shops, etc)

Looking Out Instead of In

Okay, so enough finger pointing. I started this story with a challenge to look at ourselves and the way we consider certain places to be our domain and others not. It's most obvious, as the barber noted, when a place changes and we are forced to make a decision. I remember when I would hear other white people suggest meeting at the Martini Kitchen and Bubble Lounge at Main and Meadow, even though the food sucked and the drinks were too steep. Now, I never hear the place spoken of among whites, despite it's prominent location. I haven't heard it mentioned once among whites (nor on the blogs) in the couple years since it became popular among middle class blacks.

Richmond is a strange place. Division is one thing, but inflamed polarization on this level is bizarre. Karen was telling me recently that she's struck by the awkward (at best) race relations in Richmond when she gets back from any kind of travel. In December, we were in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, rarely seeing other white people on the streets or in the subway, which were densely populated by African-Americans. But there weren't any bad vibes, even though we didn't fit in. No, not until she was back home, walking Jasper in a stroller down Meadow Street. Then, in "downtown" Richmond, she draws multiple "what the hell are you doing here" looks. (answer: we live less than two blocks away and this is how you get to the thrift store).* It makes me wanna yell at this town, "Richmond, what the hell is our racial hostility doing here? It's 2009 for Christ's sake!"

*I think the disparity in these two examples (NYC/RVA) has a lot to do with the fact that non-white communities in Brooklyn are thriving and secure, in comparison to Richmond where suffering and economic hardship is decades/centuries old and generally specific to the African-American experience in Richmond.

I'm providing these GIS mapping results to provide a little context of segregation in Richmond, both racial and economic, and to demonstrate the overlap of poverty with blacks and affluence with whites.


  1. Ever hear the "blacks" complain about "those people"? "Those people" being hispanics... and middle easterners..

    It's out there.

    In a similar vein..

    An African-American friend from Chicago moved here with his family. His dad was from New Orleans and his mom was from Trinidad. They tried to find an African-America church here, but the locals were not welcoming since my friend's "people" weren't known to the locals..

    My friend and his family have since moved back to Chicago.

  2. It's pretty sad, but definitely true. I ride my bike everywhere in the city and you can always see the insecurity on the faces of those who feel like they "don't belong" in some areas going at that speed.

    "Here behaviors that receive shame and condemnation elsewhere are welcomed and reaffirmed back and forth all day long."
    I definitely agree.

  3. Hey, I'm no doc, but does that barber shop have only one chair... and about three dozen "Power of Pride" bumper stickers on the walls? Been there, heard a comment.

    My wife and I moved from New York to Richmond almost six years ago. She's Hispanic and I'm white, and we struggle with the two-way racism, self-segregation and lack of organized support for understanding. We eat where we want to, worship where we want to and choose our friends wisely.

    Racism is what keeps Richmond 10 or more years behind the rest of the country. We do love a lot about this city, but we often wonder how long we'll stay.

    Besides, it is hard to find really good food in Richmond after you've dined in New York. Not a blanket assessment - it's just that restaurants here, no matter the patrons, skew on franchise or franchise-like, or are priced ridiculously out of range.

  4. I really appreciate these thoughtful responses. Posting this piece wasn't done callously (but I guess only time will tell what the outcomes are, if any). Please don't comment/speculate too much about the location/name barber shop (in writing). People can come to their own conclusions about their suspicions, but I don't want to publicize it on my blog.

  5. This was an interesting post. I'm going to start paying more attention to the makeup of the room next time I go out to eat.

    I laughed a little at the ridiculousness of it when I realized the place you were talking about was a chain, as if the people who happened to be running that particular location had anything to do with the others. So sad.

    Because I've lived most of my adult life in Richmond, I find it hard to compare to other cities, bc I wasn't really old enough to pay attention in the other places I've lived.

  6. FanGirl12:39 PM

    When should be expect your weekend dinner review for Red Lobster?

  7. It's under the subtitle, "Big Chains of Love."

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. As a queer woman with a partner we sense it towards our community as well. Richmond is very provincial and many here think nothing exists outside Central Virginia. It's like they are time warped or something.

    i have lived in Ohio, LA and Northern Ireland, where there is division between Catholics and Protestants.

    i find this a really weird place to live and look forward to moving back to Californis this year.

    Great article and thanks for sharing. So, have you decided to return to the shop or find a new one?

    Warm Regards,

    Existential Punk

  10. EP: Thanks for reading and commenting. That story probably wouldn't be too much different if he was complaining about a restaurant that was overtaken by "gays." I wonder if he feels unwanted, stared at, or uncomfortable when surrounded by people of color. I can only guess that's a common experience for a same-sex couple when going out. It's no wonder people go where they know they'll feel they fit in.

    I am on a perpetual hunt for the right barber shop, mostly because I'd rather avoid those bigoted diatribes. There are still a few places in town that I haven't tried yet.

  11. i catch your blog now and again on RVA Blogs and quite enjoy your writing! My partner eads you regularly too.

    i hope you can find a fine new barber who is not racist or anything else bad!:)

    Have a fabulous weekend!


  12. Meant to say my partner READS your blog regularly!


  13. Interesting post - I agree with the race relations issues here that no one seems to talk much about. I cut my husband's hair to save time and $$, so the only surly remarks my husband hears are mine! Is this something Karen might be into?

  14. Ever try a flowbie?

  15. "I'm going to start paying more attention to the makeup of the room next time I go out to eat."

    Some more numbers to help put that room into perspective: as of the 2000 Census, RVA was just under 38% white.

  16. Susie: I'm sure Karen would let you cut her hair. Oh, wait. That's not what you were asking. She'd never cut my hair, because I don't think she wants to be quoted verbatim, as I've done to the anonymous barber in this post.

    Seriously though, men know the value of a good barber. This is an awful generalization, but often need a predictable coif. When you're between barbers, it's a frustrating crap-shoot. But, I guess that's where I find myself now.

    The haircut isn't the point, of course. As objectionable as his comments were, there's an element of the same deep seeded psychological reaction to change and difference in all of us. But that doesn't make it right. It's despicable. The barber and his clubhouse full of good'ol boys are one end of the spectrum (the other end is...?). The small-time machine politics that installs each city council person fits in there. The majority white blogosphere is certainly not without it's prejudice and privileged attitudes (myself included).

    People say there is something in the air/water here that creates division, cliquishness, and paranoia. Some say it's our history (in fact, I just said that next to the "*"). But, I think the biggest problem is not in the past, it's the present. We can't/won't break our old patterns. We're not served well by the factions we've created, but we cling to them for security. A time of great change is upon us in America (economic and political). Will this be another one that passes Richmond by?

  17. I wish I could edit my comments for typos.

    John: That statistic of 62% of Richmond being African-American really puts those maps in a whole new light. The concentration of one racial/economic group in the northeastern part of town is really alarming. It might be a stretch to compare it to apartheid South Africa or internment camps. But I'll invoke those historical instances anyhow, cuz we need to make these conditions history in Richmond as well. Okay, enough editorializing.

  18. This entry has been picked up (with an emphasis on the GIS maps) over at Church Hill People's News. If you're following the discussion, you might want to follow that one too (if it gets going):

  19. Unfortunately there is a racist barber in every group of people on earth.

    Our family is both multi-racial and cultural, and I have heard some of the most racist remarks against our family in Richmond Public Schools. One principal said we were not to speak at school (ever) of the countries in which our relatives live or are from and one guidance counselor took issue with the way my two daughters greeted and said good byes with hugs and kisses. I explained our family customs and she insisted they not to do it any more at school because people will think they are gay.

    I've also heard racist remarks from fellow black and white mothers, a policeman, lawyers, friends, etc. They think because I'm white everyone else is and they say things like, "those know how they are,” then I ask, "tell me how they are." After they have made fools of themselves, I let them know of my children’s heritage, more often than not, the very children their own children have befriended.

  20. Very well-written post. Interesting, though, to look at these maps. My brilliant husband points out that the breaks are very unequal to each other, the first is 0-3% and the next is 4-42%, that I wonder how it skews the results of the map. And some of the ranges are so broad -- a single neighborhood could be 4% black or 42% black. That's a big spread and two very different neighborhoods.

    Race here is a tricky thing. My schools growing up had a large population of both white and black students. In elementary schools, the kids mixed easily. By high school, as kids isolate themselves with their friends, there seemed to be very little mixing. And as adults we all get isolated in our own routines and families that it's hard to find ways to mix with anyone let alone finding a diverse crowd.

    Here there is also such strong economic and educational factors. If we're likely to socialize with people with similar levels, in our case college educations -- middle income, you end up with the same kinds of isolation and segregation.

    Ultimately, I think it takes focusing on young children of all races and making sure they get the best education they can. Make sure our kids are in diverse classrooms with children of all stripes, sizes and abilities. Get more and more kids into college and out of minimum wage jobs.

    Unfortunately this is not an exhaustive list of ideas. I think if we get rid of some of the educational and financial barriers that the racial ones will be less extreme as well. And perhaps if each of us gets out of our comfort zone now and again we can move forward.

  21. I'm trying to contact the statistician who generated the maps. I remember talking to him about the breaks in the percentages. I think the data was broken down this way to highlight the areas of near exclusivity. But, I could be wrong.

  22. Thanks for the post jason. Richmond is undeniably sick, and while the rhetoric is that the city is moved past that - in reality I have a hard time experiencing it on a day to day.

    In the black community I have been a part of discussions that talked of Richmond having a curse on it - and interestingly enough this is the first time I heard anyone reference isuch outside of those circles. The symptoms cause people not to be able to come together and unify and for lack of better words has people asleep.

    I think it has a lot to do with Richmond being hypocritical - declaring itself a city dedicated to history yet having a parking lot on the African Burial Ground while statues of Confederate generals line Monument Ave.

    It seems kind of blasphemous and sacriliegous to even bring up race in this city. Many folks are so afraid to talk about it. Then when you bring it up (speaking from my experience) you get looked at as if you passed gas. The legacy of it is crazy though. Not from 300 years ago even, but just 50-60 years ago. Integenerational poverty, propertylessness, cultural abnegation...

    Ironically the most integrated social events I have seen have been hip-hop shows. Case in point - the dead prez show at the hyperlink in 2006 when RVA had it's block party on grace st and Happily Natural Day held its hair/show concert. Admittedly I was suprised when i saw the pictures considering Dead Prez's strong socio-political messages - but if anything will bring us together it will be music and if it will be this generation - could it be hip hop music (the types we all appreciate)

    I am trying to get my head around putting together some forums on the issue and looking for folks with sincere interest to link with to make it happen.

  23. Whereas other blogs have discussions with intense back and forth exchanges, this one seems to have triggered an airing of frustrations, dissatisfaction, and invocations to hope and work for change. Like Duron, I'm trying to get my head around these issues. At this point, I just know that it doesn't feel right keeping it all inside. We can't turn the page until we understand what is right here in front of us.

    I'd like to add "food" to the list of things that will hopefully bring us together. It might be a matter of necessity, but everyone has got to eat.

  24. Anonymous1:46 AM

    As a delivery guy who has delivered to a variety of Richmond neighborhoods (Gilpin Court, Battery Park, the Fan, the Museum District, Randolph, Church Hill, etc.) I can tell you that people DO look at you like you don't belong. Even simply driving my car through Gilpin Court can be literally frightening as a skinny white guy...I don't personally have a problem with it, but the looks I receive are so intimidating and threatening that it can't help but make me nervous. Are things really not like this elsewhere? I have a hard time believing that, but I've only ever lived in Richmond.

    The race lines in Richmond are clearly divided, although the influx of VCU students and graduates is mixing things up a little bit. For a clear example of how segregated Richmond is, just look at the difference between north and south of Fairmount in Church Hill.

  25. I don't want to minimize Richmond's problems, but you guys know that Richmond is hardly unique in this respect, right? Most American cities, especially ones that haven't gone through multiple boom-bust waves, and ESPECIALLY ones in the South, are extremely segregated. You could do an identical map with DC, Atlanta, or Charlotte. But again, it's not just Southern cities, which tend to have very large minority populations. Look at Chicago. Compare the southern half of the metropolitan area to the northern half. Look at Los Angeles. Almost the entire African-American population lives in a stretch of land between the Santa Monica Freeway and Long Beach. Learning how to live next door to people who don't look or act like you is a national problem, not a Richmond problem. We just happen to have a particularly good example of it, here.

  26. People in Richmond talk as if racism is a problem. the truth is that the people who really hate racism leave this city because there are to many symbols of racism in it. The rest of us just swallow the pain and grow wads of fat around our souls and walk around acting like we don't see anything. We just accept self imposed segregation in a city that foundation is built on freedom and diversity and blame it all on evil spirits.

  27. Anonymous4:52 PM

    Thanks for posting this Jason- the maps are really helpful, and visually show the disturbing realities of our community.

    Just ran across this 3-year-old article on the BBC website where the gov't is quite worried about segregation in living patterns:

    A great quote from that article:
    "Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman said the UK was "looking like America". Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain called the issue "worrying".

    In a speech to Manchester Council for Community Relations on Thursday, Mr Philips will say that, without noticing it, UK society is "becoming more divided by race and religion".

    According to the Sunday Times, he will say the "nightmare" of "fully fledged ghettos" could happen in the UK."

    Interesting- I can't remember politicians talking like this in Richmond. Anyone else?

  28. Is this the first instance of local politicians coming up in this discussion? It adds a whole 'nuther layer (or two or three). Some would say that our local elected officials wear their localities' socio-economic status like badges of honor. Desegregation and the reduction of economic extremes threatens the status quo in this city; the power that our leaders cling to so dearly. Can anyone here name instances of great leadership by our local officials regarding racial and class issues? (not fleeting symbolic ceremonies). Richmond has a ward system for a reason. Whites were running this city, despite the fact that it was/is majority black, and so power had to be allocated by redistricting/annexing. But how much has really changed since we instituted separate, relatively anti-social, city districts? Look at the recent mayoral race. It basically went along race lines. Surprised? I think the best we can do is to push whomever purports to represent us to carry out an agenda that entails some risk and serves not just their political base, but the whole district, and the whole city , and the whole Greater Richmond region.

  29. Tomorrow

    Michael Eric Dyson, whom Ebony magazine named one of the 100 most influential Black Americans, will speak about the state of hip-hop and Black America on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009, at 4 p.m. in the University Student Commons Theater, followed by a book signing on the James River Terrace. Sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, Activities Programming Board, Intercultural Festival and African American Alumni Council. For more information, contact 828-6672.

    The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs Diversity Film Series will screen "Do the Right Thing" today, Feb. 3, at 3 p.m. in the University Student Commons, Room 215, and at 7 p.m. in Cabaniss Hall. Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" tells a tale of bigotry and racial conflict in a multiethnic community in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. For more information, contact

  30. Anonymous3:37 PM

    I'm impressed that you actually posted on this subject! It can be pretty dicey to post on racism in RVA. And I really like the maps.

    I don't have too much to add, really. I haven't paid much attention to the racial makeup of restaurants (although it's true that I haven't been to the Martini and Bubble Bar in quite a while!) and I don't go to the Croaker Spot because I'm vegetarian :)

    Art B is right -- I think people stop seeing the problem. That probably includes me!

    As for barbers, I'm sort of glad that I shave my head now -- I don't have to worry about where to go for a cut!

  31. I'm afraid I don't have the support document to post here, but much of the racial division you've so clearly pointed out has been reinforced through the years by overtly racist federal housing policies and equally racist mortgage banking policies.
    There are equally colorful maps available (Professor John Moeser at University of Richmond is a good source) to show these earlier efforts to erect partitions between the races.
    Many of these problems are "gone", but they remain with us as more than a shadow. And it's not just in our restaurants that we're separate and unequal. Our city schools (and some of the metro-area county ones as well) show clearly our divisions and (in the case of schools) our open disregard for equity of resources allocation.
    Thanks again for posting this. The more often we talk about this stuff, the more opportunities we take to shine a light on the biggest thing holding this city back from being a really great place to live.

  32. Here's a comment from the CHPN thread that brings this back to the topics of food and our dining patterns. Does anyone want to field it? (on either or both sites)

    "So I am definitely guilty of driving past minority owned outfits to places where people look more like me (white).Anyone have any recommendations or thoughts on food that I’m missing out on? I’m up for going anywhere and eating most anything."


  33. On the other hand I most often find myself in restaurants operated by ethnic minorities, Chinese, Thai, Mexican etc. I've also found the opposite to be true. In Kansas City the most (in)famous BBQ joint in town is Arthur Bryant's which is founded and staffed exclusively by blacks and located on the wrong side of Troost (the racial dividing line), but 90% of the customers are whites from the suburbs. Perhaps they feel their restaraunt has been spoiled by those people or maybe they just don't like the food (it's an acquired taste).

  34. bfish8:37 PM

    Great topic and I love the maps. I live in Petersburg (80% black) and while we have plenty of racial division and interracial tension, there are no huge chunks of land that are 3% or less black like you see in Richmond. My neighborhood, which is comparable to the middle class parts of Ginter Park, fluctuates between 1/3 to 1/2 black population (in the old "Petuhhsbuhhg" days it was assuredly all white). I do think because this place is considered so declasse by many Richmonders we take a scrappy pride in being tolerant of, even friendly with, neighbors who are of different race, ethnicity, and life style. For the most part, the old white aristocracy who couldn't deal with integration have moved out of this city (and good riddance). As for food, there have been some successful black-owned and operated restaurants that drew a mixed crowd; I'd like to see more of this in the growth of Olde Town P'burg (which seems to be spearheaded primarily by whites).


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