Busboys and Poets Plays the ‘Race Card.’ It Probably Shouldn’t

Illustration for article titled Busboys and Poets Plays the ‘Race Card.’ It Probably Shouldn’t
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

I had an opportunity to speak on a panel after a performance of the play Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, a few weeks back. The play is about two young men—Tru from the inner city of Baltimore, and Marquis from the fictional suburb of Achievement Heights—who both end up in jail, essentially for being black in public, and the aftermath. Tru tries to teach Marquis about being black and provides him with a manual that ends up in the hands of a white kid who has a fascination with blackness.


It’s an interesting and funny play—a bit fantastical in parts—and gets real dark real quick. It has many takes on race, white allyship, perception and the police, with Tupac as a heavy presence in the background.

After the performance on this particular day, I and another panelist discussed how themes from the play intersect with the current political climate, and because there is no discussion about the current political climate without Donald Trump and his divisive presence, it went there fairly quickly. One woman in the audience offered her take and made mention of how she strikes up conversations with people of other races randomly in attempts to do her part to get to know people and have people get to know her.

I applaud those efforts to change the world one heart at a time, but I also hate that approach because inorganic conversations—hopefully with racists, since you don’t have to change the hearts (so to speak) of nonracists—can be super awkward, ineffective and extremely annoying. It also requires the victims of hatred to try to solve the problems they never created.

Starbucks briefly tried that shit by encouraging their baristas to attempt to engage their customers on race. Just because your heart is in the right place doesn’t mean it’s not a bad idea. That also doesn’t mean you can’t take a bad idea and make it worse. See: West, Kanye.

The latest misguided social justice effort comes courtesy of Washington, D.C.’s restaurant and bookstore chain Busboys and Poets. The chain, created and owned by political aspirant Andy Shallal, is a very progressive and open space to come in, eat poet food and be around other folks who presumably “get it.” The restaurant itself is named in honor of Langston Hughes, who was a busboy before being recognized as a poet, and is frequented by everyone from politicians to artists who live in and venture to D.C.

But its very progressive nature doesn’t mean that you walk in and understand race relations or are alleviated from whatever societal ills ail you. Sometimes you leave just as fucked up as you come in. But that will not be for lack of trying on the part of Busboys and Poets, which, the Washington City Paper reports, has attempted to create conversations by including “Race Cards” that bartenders and servers can give out to spur conversations among the staff and customers.


Recently, a customer was handed one of the Race Cards by a white bartender that read, “Did you perceive me as racist because I’m a white male?” From the Washington City Paper:

Akosua Johnson, who posted the picture that went viral, says that a bartender at Busboys and Poets handed them the card when they sat down at the bar. Johnson, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, wrote on Facebook that the bartender, who was white, “had no idea how to actually engage with this poorly constructed, forced ‘conversation’ and so just walked away immediately after dropping the cards in the middle of my meal.”



Additional Race Cards contain statements like, “What is white privilege?” “What is your experience with race in America?” and “What is your earliest memory of someone from a different race?”


Can you imagine walking into a restaurant; sitting down at the bar, prepared to order a chai latte or a rum and coke; and the bartender brings your drink and hands you a card that asks you if you think white men are racist? First, yes, motherfucker. But why you asking me something like that when I came in to spend my money without having to concern myself with that shit?

I don’t understand for the life of me—and I honestly mean this—why ANY institution would think that tossing its employees to the wolves like that is a good idea. If people wanted to have conversations about race and inequality and injustice, they’d spend their days on Facebook and Twitter like everybody else. OR they’d go to a place to specifically have that convo. I recognize that Busboys views itself as progressive enough to do that, and perhaps it’s better equipped than other institutions because of its mission, but what about the employees? Every employee ain’t up for that conversation; NOR are they prepared for the possible responses.


According to the Washington City Paper:

Johnson then inquired further with the bartender about the cards, who told them that employees are “all required/strongly encouraged to pass these cards out.” The bartender told them that “he’s pretty sure he’s never been racist and is happy to have these sorts of conversations because sometimes he gets black customers who are visibly uncomfortable with having a white bartender.” They asked the other bartender, who Johnson identified as a black woman, about the cards and she told them that “she’s still processing the fact that this is being implemented at her work.”


I’m sure the bartender was a Well-Meaning White, but let’s just be real here: A bar ain’t the place for that convo, for one. For two, my guess is that that bartender has a job to do—tending the bar and shit—so a real deep-dive discussion about the opinions of the customer wasn’t going to happen. Also, what happens if the customer says, “Yes, you are a racist because America made you that way”? That’s not just an agree-to-disagree moment; now some other person isn’t getting their chai latte.

While a restaurant could be a great setting, since you never know who is walking through the door, the truth is, most folks who are going to get food or drinks aren’t going for a full-on debate or discussion about privilege. And expecting your workforce to be able to have nuanced-enough convos WHILE WORKING is also extremely unfair.


Like, I wish a motherfucker would hand me that card and not sit there and listen to my answer AND respond. Is Busboys going to let its employees sit and talk with customers about their feelings, opinions and responses? Probably not. So they’re effectively tossing out these bombs and leaving customers wondering if they’re at Busboys or somewhere in WTF-istan.

I think the idea to spur convos in and of itself is not a bad one. Obviously, if we’re ever going to get over the historical inequality that permeates this society, it starts with communication. But asking waitstaff to be the bearers of that burden seems extremely unfair. Are there trainings happening? When folks are hired, do they have to go through a racial-sensitivity orientation?


Sometimes a good idea in theory can be shit in practice. That’s what Busboys’ deployment of Race Cards seems to be. Busboys need to put them back in the deck, reshuffle and just keep on serving that poet food that folks in D.C. seem to love so much.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



“sometimes he gets black customers who are visibly uncomfortable with having a white bartender.”

Why do I find that insanely hard to believe? Fine, most or even all of your friends may be of the same race. But FFS that doesn’t mean you’ve never been in workplace where you were served by someone of another color. Especially if you’re hanging out in some sort of poetry room/coffee shop/bar. This guy sounds like a loon.

Feel free to correct me.