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GUEST COMMENTARY: A moment less than sane before the Rally to Restore Sanity

Thursday, November 11, 2010 | 4:51 p.m. CST

A few hours before the recent Rally to Restore Sanity, the general manager of a Hampton Inn in Washington, D.C., kicked me out of his hotel, forcing me to stand on the street to wait for my colleague in 39-degree weather.

The incident began when I arrived early for a breakfast meeting with a program officer from one of the major foundations that supports the nonprofit I run. We were in town for the Online News Association's annual convention and wanted to catch up.

After looking around the lobby, I settled on a seat at a table where I could watch the elevators.

Right in front of me was an older white guy wearing a T-shirt with the word "eracism" emblazoned on the back. Given that the tenor of our national conversation these days has me increasingly fearful about where this country is heading, I was touched to see him making such a strong statement and got up to tell him so.

He was in town for the rally, and we discussed that and the general mood in the nation. When the conversation ran its course, I turned to return to my seat.

That's when the general manager stopped me and asked if I was a guest at the hotel. I explained I was not but was there for a business meeting with a guest. "Ma'am, you'll have to leave the hotel," he said, leading me through the lobby and toward the doors.

I thought he had misunderstood, so I repeated that I was in fact there at the invitation of a hotel guest. "Ma'am, you'll have to leave the hotel," he repeated. Slowly, I began to realize that this was no case of "mistaken identity."

The general manager apparently had deemed me so undesirable that he did not think I was fit to sit in the lobby of his Hampton Inn.

Somewhat disoriented, I managed to have the presence of mind to tell the front desk clerk to call my colleague and let him know that I would be unable to meet him in the lobby as planned because I was being escorted out of the hotel.

The general manager and I watched as she spoke into the phone. Clearly, I was there to meet a paying guest. But the general manager continued to repeat, "Ma'am, you'll have to leave the hotel."

People have asked why I did not refuse to leave and then insist that he call the police.

I think that the truth is I was blindsided.

My professional life is all about working with the news media to ensure that all segments of our society are accurately and fairly portrayed. I often speak of the corrosive effects of skewed media images on our public policy and personal lives.

As a person of color in this country, I have many times felt as if I am under greater scrutiny, so I compensate and arm myself as best I can. I consciously try to act in a way that reassures those around me.

Taking a cue from my father, I try to dress as well as possible, almost as if I'm sending up a silent prayer that if I look like this, maybe you won't treat me like that.

But walking into a hotel lobby a for a business meeting is such a mundane and common occurrence in my life that it never dawned on me to be on guard.

It wasn't only the manager who blindsided me. Equally shocking was my own reaction.

We have programs that teach people how to talk across difference, including not internalizing another person's negative reaction. Intellectually, I knew this had nothing to do with me. Yet all I felt was shame.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. was roundly criticized for screaming "you don't know who you're messing with," according to a police report, as the Cambridge cop arrested him in his own home.

I wanted to shout the same thing, not as an arrogant assertion of my authority but as an anguished cry for recognition of our shared humanity.

"You don't know who I am. I could be your mother, your sister, your cousin or your aunt. I am a fellow human, not something to be discarded on the street."

I said none of that.

The closest I came was, "Why are you doing this to me? You know I am meeting someone here." Even I could hear the weakness in my voice, further deepening my sense of humiliation. That was the only time the general manager deviated from his script, saying, "We have to protect our other guests. Ma'am, you'll have to leave the hotel."

I made one more lame attempt to assert myself and asked for his name. He thrust his card at me, opened the front door of the hotel and ushered me into the cold. The card identified him as Joseph Galvan, General Manager of Hampton Inn Washington DC Convention Center.

Stunned, I stood shivering on the street wondering what the heck had just happened to me.

People have asked me whether I want Galvan fired. The truth is I don't want him ever to do this to someone else, particularly someone younger and truly vulnerable. But firing him won't solve the problem.

As I pointed out after NPR recently fired Juan Williams, just because you shut someone down doesn't mean you've lifted up the issue.

Our Fault Lines framework teaches that it will be very difficult for us to reach common ground until we learn to have the difficult conversations around charged issues. That's what I would like to see happen this time.

I would like to sit down and have a conversation with the general manager and his colleagues. I want to know what and who he saw when he looked at me in the lobby of his hotel. I want to discuss his underlying assumptions and how he came to them.

After hearing about what had happened to me, my cousin Peter looked up the company on the Internet and learned that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had sued one of its Indianapolis properties about a month ago. I'd like to talk to company representatives and learn what happened and what they think about both of these incidents. I'd also like to know what the company's guidelines are for escorting people out of the lobby.

This is what we teach and preach in our media work because we don't think we have a chance to restore our national sanity if we can't even determine how to have a civil conversation with each other.

Dori J. Maynard's columns are published by the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and can be read at mije.org. The Maynard Institute’s Fault Line Framework is a diversity tool that teaches people to talk to each other with the goal of understanding. Dori J. Maynard, who has been refining the framework, will write a regular feature about living on the Fault Lines. This was her first entry.

 


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