Sometimes you can have the best of intentions and still miss the mark completely. Such is the case with Busboys and Poets‘ “Race Card” initiative, which aims to foster discussions about race and privilege among its diners by handing out literal “Race Cards”—cards featuring larger questions about the state of race relations in America—to patrons as they enter.
A recent Facebook post featuring one of the “Race Cards”—which reads “Did you perceive me as racist because I’m a white male?”—has garnered more than 150 shares and even more comments, with people criticizing Busboys and Poets for taking a somewhat tone-deaf approach in trying to foster a conversation about race. Other “Race Cards” that Busboys and Poets employees are handing out read: “What is your experience with race in America?,” “Have you ever been in a place where you were the racial minority?,” and “How often do you discuss race with your friends or family?”
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.”
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.”
In a subsequent statement to City Paper, Johnson says that it was clear to them that Busboys and Poets “had not done any intentional organizing or consulting with educators on race discourse.” They outline three major areas of impact they observed in the aftermath of the restaurant’s “Race Cards” initiative: “Customers, many of whom look to Busboys as an accessible avenue for racial exchange, have been let down by the lack of preparedness and murky intention of this program, which prioritizes shock value over actual growth and healing, and also have had their consent disregarded as they are surprised by encounters that could go any which way from pleasant to immediately dangerous,” they say.
Busboys and Poets’ “Race Cards” didn’t appear all of a sudden. After the recent incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks, in which two black men were arrested while waiting for a friend after the store’s manager asked them to leave for no reason, a Washington Post profile of Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal highlighted how he’s made discussions of racial issues among his staff part of his company’s culture.
But as is evident in the reaction to the “Race Card” photo and anecdote Johnson posted on Facebook, Shallal’s attempt to make uncomfortable conversations about race relations in America a topic of discussion among Busboys and Poets’ clientele didn’t go over so well.
April Goggans, a core organizer of Black Lives Matter DC, posted a statement on behalf of the organization, saying that BLM DC will no longer participate or be involved in any events at Busboys and Poets going forward. “The Core Organizers of Black Lives Matter DC will no longer accept speaking engagements, participate on panels, or otherwise patronize any Busboys & Poets or Mulebone restaurant based on our past experiences,” she wrote. “Andy Shallal has used Busboys & Poets to commoditize radical history by having panels with local radical activists while making money from food and drink sales of attendees but not paying them, profiting on the history of Black DC while contributing to ‘revitalization’ that is fueling displacement, and posturing as a radical while being a capitalist.”
Shallal did not respond to a request for comment on Busboys and Poets’ “Race Cards.” This post will be updated if he responds in the future.
Johnson, meanwhile, feels bad for Busboys’ employees who are being asked to force a conversation about race relations with their customers. “The Busboys employees, most of whom are people of color, experienced a disservice here too, in that they were clearly not trained properly to engage in this discourse in a safe and productive way, in that the conversation starters were toneless and unspecific to the communities with which they engage, and that their livelihoods and personal safety were put on the line as they were required to engage with strangers questions and subjects that are intensely emotional and complex,” they say. “They also have had their consent disregarded as they are required to engage in this ‘conversation’ as a part of their employment, without obvious input of choice in the content.”
Johnson says they wish Shallal and Busboys and Poets had reached out to educators and organizers in D.C.’s racial justice and activist communities to work on a way to properly foster a dialogue with the restaurant’s clientele. “The racial justice community in D.C. has plenty of available educators and organizers who specialize in facilitating discourse on race that has useful, healing, productive results,” they say. “The creators of this Busboys program erred in not choosing to engage more directly with racial justice activists and educators.”