I had lunch with 4 friends, and we all had a great time, including the black guy. Nevertheless, something had happened that left me feeling quite uncomfortable:

We’d been seated at the table for quite a while, and the waiter still hadn’t stopped by. After someone remarked about how much time had passed, the black guy said, “Maybe it’s me.” The 3 of us laughed, and then he said, “I’m going to get up and wait around the corner and see what happens.” I couldn’t believe he was serious, but he did get up and wait around the corner. I did not want him to get up, and once he did I suddenly became a little anxious for the waiter to take another 10 or 20 minutes to arrive. No such luck. The waiter showed up forthwith, apologized for the delay, and asked what we’d like to drink.

On the one hand, I realize that because waiters do generally come to greet their tables at restaurants, nearly anything that you do once you’ve been seated is likely to be followed by a greeting from the waiter. Or, as smokers might say, “Nothing makes the food arrive faster than lighting a cigarette” (back when you could actually smoke in restaurants, of course).

On the other hand, it’s sad, perhaps tragic, that the idea would ever occur to my friend that “Maybe it’s me” because he’s black. It’s even worse that throughout much of his adult like this would have been a much more probable assumption than it is now. Moreover, the mere possibility that in this day and age something like the presence of a black man at my lunch table could impact whether the waiter greeted us is just plain disturbing.

I have Jewish friends who reserve tables at restaurants under assumed names, because they insist that they get better and more prompt seating and service when they don’t use a Jewish-sounding last name. Perhaps they’re correct. Perhaps they will get treated better. But then again, we’ve all had the experience of waiting for a table and feeling like everyone else is getting seated before us. When this happens to me, it never occurs to me that I’m being singled out for bad treatment by a racist. But I’m just a glad-handing, white-bread product of the fraternity system. How could I possibly know?

In the big picture, the problem isn’t really whether the waiter or the maître d’hôtel is a racist. The real problem, of which this is a much smaller symptom, is that we live in a culture where rational and intelligent people have had experiences that give them good reason to wonder.