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When We Enable Racism

In my novel, Two Nails, One Love, the narrator—Ethan Taniguchi, a middle-aged Sansei man—remembers a distressing episode from his younger days. He was working at a restaurant in New York City, where his manager instructs him to always seat Asian customers at the undesirable tables near the restroom because they’ll be less likely to complain.

As Ethan would later recall, “for months, I obeyed my manager’s ugly, repugnant orders and always seated Asians near the restroom, even if other tables were available. I remember one Chinese American family in particular. As I ushered them toward the back of the restaurant, the father looked quizzically at the empty tables near the front. He was about to say something but then, after a long moment, decided not to make a fuss.”

This photo of me was taken in New York City in 1983, around the time that I was working at a restaurant where my manager ordered me to implement a racist policy. My lack of courage to confront him still haunts me today.

It’s a disturbing scene that several readers have asked about. Yes, it did really happen and, yes, I was Ethan. Even now, decades after the incident, it’s still painful for me to admit that I was an enabler of such a disgusting practice against people of my own race. My only excuse is that I was a poor grad student then, and I really needed the money from that job. For my manager’s part, he insisted that it was a purely business decision, that he needed to fill the restaurant as much as possible and that non-Asian customers were more likely than Asians to walk away rather than be seated at a bad table.

I know, such feeble rationalizations, but I’m otherwise at a loss for words to explain my lack of courage to confront my boss’s racism. Suffice it to say that, now that I’m in my early sixties, when I look back at the person I was working at that restaurant, he seems only vaguely familiar and more like a stranger to me.

What’s not covered in my novel is that, a few years after the restaurant incident, a friend told me about a problem she had with her boss. She was working for a market-research firm and was asked to edit a report on Japan’s electronics industry. The document had originally been written in Japanese but translated into English. My friend spent days polishing the English text of the report and was proud of her efforts, but then her boss criticized her work because, to him, the English didn’t sound “authentic” enough. He wanted her to go back to the original translation, which contained numerous grammatical errors, clumsy sentence constructions, and various misusages of the English language.

My friend was flabbergasted. Just to clarify, the original report hadn’t been written in English by a Japanese speaker; instead it had been written in Japanese and then translated (although rather inelegantly) into English. So why shouldn’t my friend correct the broken English and other infelicitous or awkward passages in the text? After all, the author of the report hadn’t written it in broken Japanese.

After much wrangling with her boss, my friend was able to have the report issued in serviceable (albeit not necessarily refined) English, and she eventually ended up leaving her job. When I later saw her I commended her on taking the stance that she did, telling her I was so proud of her.

At the time, I had no idea how hypocritical I was being. There I was, applauding her as if I would have done the same thing, never once fessing up to her that I had earlier lacked the courage to do the right thing at that restaurant in New York City. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel hypocritical then because I hadn’t yet realized how her bravery was in stark contrast to my own earlier cowardice. Unfortunately, it would take me years to make that connection.

The fact is that for decades I hadn’t even thought about my disgraceful behavior at that restaurant. Of course I knew that what I had done was wrong, but I suppose it was just easier for me not to think about that as I got on with my life, struggling to establish myself as a writer and editor in a highly competitive industry. I was working brutal hours—at one job my typical day was from nine in the morning to nine at night—and I guess I didn’t have much time for thoughtful self-reflection.

But then, in 2017, I would finally have to face the ugliness of my earlier actions. In April of that year, a media firestorm ensued after United Airlines bumped four people off a flight even though those individuals had already been seated on the plane. One of the passengers—David Dao, an elderly Vietnamese American man—refused to deboard and was dragged, screaming, from his seat by security officers. Dao is a pulmonologist and had told United that he couldn’t miss the flight because he needed to see patients the next day. Video taken by other passengers of Dao being forcibly removed from the plane quickly went viral, leading to widespread outrage. United Airlines claimed that the four bumped passengers had been chosen by a computer system that, among various factors, prioritized frequent flyers, but Dao reportedly claimed that he was selected because he’s Asian.

When reading about Dao, I couldn’t help but think of my own actions decades ago at that restaurant in New York City. I don’t know how United Airlines really made its decision to bump Dao, but given my prior experience I had to wonder whether the United gate clerks were thinking, “Hmm, let’s bump the Asian guy because he’s more likely to comply without making a fuss.” Little did they know that their actions would lead to a national incident, especially after the public learned that Dao had suffered a concussion, a broken nose, and the loss of two front teeth from being manhandled as he was forced to deboard. (Dao later reached a settlement with United, the financial terms of which were kept confidential, and the airlines has since revised its policy for bumping passengers.)

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and if I could be my twenty-something self again I would certainly handle things differently at that restaurant. When my friend, the editor at that market-research firm, quit her job there, she could do so with her head held high. In contrast, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to rid myself of the stain of shame I feel for what I did at that restaurant.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that oppression damages both the oppressed and the oppressor. As Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist and former president of South Africa, explained so succinctly in his autobiography, “The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” When I was a young man, I had only a superficial understanding of what Mandela meant, but now as I enter my elderly years I am better able to appreciate the sharp truth of his profound words.

Yet, although I may have gained a bit of hindsight wisdom over the years, I very much remain a work in progress, as I still struggle with confronting racism in certain situations—when, for example, someone makes a borderline racist comment and I don’t how (or if) to respond. I find that I continually need to remind myself of the pithy words of Desmond Tutu, another champion of human rights: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I think it’s a slippery slope from those instances when we passively enable racism (remaining neutral as oppression is occurring) to when we actively enable it (sending Asian customers to the back of a restaurant). And the harsh truth is that, in my painful experience, we often don’t know how far we may have slid down that insidious incline until much, much later.


© 2023 Alden M. Hayashi