This is a guest post by my friend Shilpa who lived in the US for 15 years and now lives in Dhaka. You can follow her adventures on Instagram at sbji750.
In the summer of 2004, I took my parents to see Monticello – the sprawling estate of one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. It’s a beautiful 2-hour drive from D.C. with winding highways, pine forests and farm houses with the odd horse or two prancing around. And for Civil War buffs, there are enough remnants of the past dotting the landscape all the way down to the Carolinas.
Nearing Fredericksburg, Virginia, I saw signs to a local Waffle House – and instantly craved their breakfast special – basically waffles with a side of pretty much anything. The establishment prides itself on being a folksy, friendly diner with a Southern (read: hospitable) touch. Unlike its other competitors, Cracker Barrel and Denny’s, it did not have a string of lawsuits that blatantly showcased its racial conduct. Waffle House was the all-encompassing grandma’s kitchen table with all the gooey warmth of its high fructose maple syrup.
And so as we entered the diner, the server quickly got us a table and handed over some menus along with our glasses of water. Then she never came back. At first I didn’t notice, and then I made excuses for her – it was the breakfast rush hour, after all. And then I saw the family seated after us at the next table – they had not only placed their order, they had received their breakfast, paid the check and were getting up to leave – all within a span of 20-30 minutes or so!
I know, you must be thinking hey, I’ve waited 30 minutes to get seated at Olive Garden or that dumpling joint in Rockville so what’s the big deal? Well this is what happens when a company ensures good customer service (let’s seat everyone) but then makes up its own rules along the way.
“Let’s just go to McDonald’s next door,” my parents, who were merely hungry, insisted. But I needed to know: why couldn’t we get breakfast at Waffle House? “Ask him,” the server pointed to the manager behind the counter. At this point, my parents just left as they were tired of waiting. But I walked over to the counter to speak to the manager. When I finally got his attention, he simply shrugged and offered a weak – “I’m sorry”- with no other explanation. I felt like I had been teleported back to the 1950s and walked out in a daze to get my English egg McMuffin.
Like so many immigrants, I had moved to the US to study. I made connections with those I connected with- regardless of their racial or ethnic background. I could vaguely recall someone in Boston staring at my ethnic-looking scarf shortly after 9/11, but I couldn’t place that under an actual “incident.” I was still dancing around my definition of what racism meant: the Holocaust and the Civil War were my only historical references; the OJ Simpson trial was a spectacle; and, the Indian fairness cream market was a basic study, too (Indians are victims of racism in their own country, but that one merits a longer post of its own). I was Brown – a happy mixture of everything, and a mangled opinion of nothing – in other words, I didn’t care about race relations as long as it didn’t affect me.
Shortly after graduate school, I got a job with an African American owned publishing company with a diverse mix of employees, but many of whom had Southern ties. When I recounted the Waffle House incident, even they were horrified. It brought back memories of what some of them could have possibly experienced, a relative may have recounted, and most of all, a cruel reminder that things had not changed much.
Before I could file this under “My Only Experience with Racism in America,” I was reminded once more of my skin color two years before Trump’s election. This time I was not in a countryside diner but in a bar in the nation’s capital. A White gentleman sitting by himself felt disturbed by a boisterous bunch of Indian/Indian-Americans (me and my friends). He complained. And then he followed it up with a good ole fashioned “go back to your own country” as if he was the true son of a Sioux tribe chief. It was a sign of things to come.
With an uptick of racial violence towards the South Asian community around the US, and coincidentally, the demise of the founders of Waffle House in the past month, it’s more important than ever to not stay in our own bubbles. Let’s not pretend we’re just the good guys who work in IT and don’t peddle drugs. Racism doesn’t just pick one skin color or burns crosses and spray paints swastikas anymore. It arrives in all shapes and forms and… sometimes you just don’t get waffles. And unfortunately, we still hold these truths to be self-evident.
P.S. I finally did end up going back to another Waffle House in a different state. The hash browns were amazing.