An African American asks “What would you do?” – by Terry Howard

It was 25 minutes before our restaurant was scheduled to open. and I noticed three casually dressed African American young men enter the patio. One peered through the front window, saw that we weren’t yet open and joined the others on the patio. They remained there talking and laughing loudly until we opened.

No big deal. Nothing unusual.

Now 15 minutes after we opened, they entered the restaurant, went up to the counter and reviewed the menu. Less than a minute later, without placing an order, they retreated to the patio.

Now in the spirit of complete honesty, it occurred to me that they may be casing the restaurant for robbery since there had been crimes in the area over the past year. The only two options I could think of were, one, calling the local police or, two, doing nothing and hoping for the best.

Back to my situation further down. But first this.

Many of you may be familiar with John Quinones’ “What would you do?’ TV series. For those of you who may not, it’s the ABC TV hidden camera series that poses actual scenarios and captures people’s reactions. From bullying to abuse, racial attacks and public humiliation, each scenario ends with “what would you do?” Whether people are compelled to act or mind their own business, Quinones reports on the split-second and often surprising decision-making process. What I love about the program is that it often surfaces people doing the right thing by standing up to acts of ignorance completely unaware that they ‘re being videotaped.

So back to the fundamental question of what would I/you do when nobody’s looking. Here’s how it played out between me and my conscious, my “camera.”

MY CONSCIENCE: Okay Howard, I picked up on the look on your face when those three young men sat on your patio.

ME: What do you mean?

CONSCIENCE: Clearly you were alarmed. Would your reactions have been the same had they been three white boys or three white women? Would it have been the same had they been dressed in suits and ties?

ME: Well…. uh…. I don’t…humm…

CONSCIENCE: C’mon now, did it cross your mind to call the police? Be honest.

ME: Well I did but wouldn’t have done that because despite the risk, I refuse to add to the national narrative of white people calling the police on African Americans for doing everything but breathing. What would you suggest that I – or anyone – do in a situation like that?

CONSCIENCE: Go out and talk with them. Thank them for supporting your business. Who knows, they could be physicians, teachers, business owners or movie makers there to see if your place would be ideal for shooting a million-dollar film. Who knows?

Okay, your turn. 

Now, in addition to either talking to them, calling the police, or ignoring the situation hoping for the best, what other options would you consider? To what extent would the frequency of crime in the area influence your choice? If you are the parent or mentor of a young African American male as described above (and using this article as a discussion tool), what counsel would you offer?

Parting advice.

First, resist calling the police based on a stereotype. Start with self-examination. Ask yourself where are these negative feelings coming from? Are they based on a real experience or something you may have read in the media?

In the end, perhaps this piece will put new demands on us, forcing us to come to grips with our personal imperfections, our biases. Now am I ashamed that I, the father of two African American men, got lured into the societal stereotype about young African American men?

You damn right I am. 

Like most of us, I’m deeply invested in the belief that I’m “way beyond all that,” that I’m fair-minded and don’t stereotype. But we can choose to accept our imperfections, or failings, acknowledge what it all stirs up in us and try to turn it into insight and to do better the next inevitable time.

Now to those of you chomping at the bit wanting to know what yours truly did, well back at ya…

… what would you do?

Terry Howard

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