The Racially-Charged Experience

One of my closest friends and I have a tradition which has lasted many years: we will take a Saturday, get in the car, and drive to some small town 1 – 2 hours away. We’ll walk around, see what there is to see, enjoy a local restaurant, and then head back.

He’s also a good sport about visiting a beach even when he’s in work clothes.

Our very first of these road trips was to a small town in Virginia. It was a lovely little town, with cute houses and a lakefront that was walkable from the main (and, really, only) street.

(Side story about this trip: I had planned the trip, but I was unaware that the town was in Virginia. As we were driving, my friend said “are we going to Virginia?” and I said “no.” And then we crossed the Virginia state line. He still makes fun of me for not realizing that our destination was in a different state.)

We decided to stop for dinner at a restaurant that looked like it was in a converted manor house. The host took us into the dining room, a smallish room with 4 – 5 tables in it. One of the tables had a group of four men who seemed to be regulars, sitting and talking up a storm about whatever it is that good ol’ boys in rural Virginia talk about.

But when we walked in, it was like a record scratch. The conversation stopped, the atmosphere got heavy, and all eyes were on us. We both felt the change in energy. It was a very unsettling, very disturbing feeling. I’m a pretty well-traveled person and I feel like I can be at ease in a place that’s foreign or unusual, but I felt distinctly and pointedly unwelcome. After talking with my friend, he too had noticed this shift and was feeling less than welcome.

When the host came to take our drink order, we asked if there were outdoor seating available. He seemed to notice the shift in energy as well and almost seemed relieved that we had asked. He brought us out to the patio. And it was like night and day! There weren’t many people out on the patio either, but those who were there did not even give us a second glance. We ended up having a lovely evening. The dinner was delicious, the server was friendly, the atmosphere was completely enjoyable.

Having grown up in rural North Carolina all his life, that’s not the first time my friend has had a similar experience. It’s the first time I experienced something like that, though, and I feel that even just slightly it opened my eyes.

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