As a teenager I went through intensive etiquette training. I studied deportment and manners. I was schooled in elegance and posture. I learned how to properly fold my napkin across my lap at supper. I learned how to sit with feet crossed delicately at the ankles. I learned how to speak. I learned how to walk—glide, rather. I even learned things like order of precedence (a fancy way of setting the table according to one’s rank). I can throw large dinner parties. I can wrap gifts. I know how to write thank-you notes. I even know how to smile and nod when someone says something I disagree with. I also learned other useless things like flower pressing and paper folding—these old school activities of young ladies of dignity and quality.
The training was intricate but very useful. Someone once remarked that I am now qualified for embassy work, but I like to brag that I could properly entertain the Queen of England with all the necessary protocol. I’m grateful to have jumped through such hoops in addition to my basic education. It’s made me a more well-rounded person. Of course, the Army undid a lot of that training because I still swear like a sailor and pass gas without a thought. At any rate, what I’m trying to tell you is that I know which fork to use when dining in an upscale restaurant. I’m not a backwards corn-fed hillbilly scooping my peas off my knife with my elbows on the table.
This weekend, my friends and I took ourselves out for a lavish outing in New York. We glammed around in limousines, dropped $400 on a VIP section and shopped like there were no bills to pay. It was all for my friend’s 25th birthday extravaganza. For her luxe dinner, we ate at Smith & Wollensky’s Grill. It’s a rather nice restaurant serving top quality steaks and chops, perhaps on the same scale or better as Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Just so you know it ain’t TGIFriday’s.
We arrived to the restaurant in a limousine, not necessarily out of showboating purposes, but of necessity because there were eight of us and we couldn’t fit in a cab and who would take the subway dressed to the nines in cocktail dresses and high heels?
While waiting for our table to be set, we lounged at the bar and I noticed that we were getting some very obvious stares from other patrons. My friend Ceciley really killed it in her bright red cocktail dress and stiletto pumps. She’s a makeup artist so her makeup was exquisite. She is a confident black woman in charge of herself and it is very obvious that she could really care less about what others think of her. These two white women were really in her face. I think they were impressed but didn’t want to admit it. They were foreign, but I couldn’t hear them entirely so I’m not sure where they were from.
They had other looks for the rest of the party. Derisive, condescending looks were thrown at certain women in the group, probably because of the way they were dressed. I’m not here to bash anybody’s mode of attire because I feel that people are going to wear what they want to wear, but it was disappointing to be looked at like we just came up from the fields for our evening rations.
I noticed almost immediately that we were the only black people—check that, people of colour in the entire restaurant. There were two Asian women, but they were the white American type of Asian, not Chung Lee Asian. I would imagine their names were something like Victoria Lee and Nancy Kwan. That’s usually how it works. There weren’t any black people, no Hispanics, no dark-skinned Eastern Europeans, damn sure no Middle Eastern folk.
Not only was the crowd white, but they were like Grand Ole Party, old money, silver spoon in the mouth, daddy sails in the Saint Bart’s regatta every year, while mommy goes to the spa in Switzerland type of white. I bet all their forefathers came over on the Mayflower and the rest of their ancestors fought with William the Conqueror in 1066. That’s how white they were.
A group of yuppies at the table next to us kept staring. Alan Greenspan (hahah) sat behind us and I think he needed an exorcist because his head turned a full 360 every five minutes so he could gawk at this group of black women out for a night of cabernet sauvignon and lamb chops.
I’ve written before that I’m always embarrassed to be seen in a large group of black people because I’m always painfully aware of how I’m perceived. Despite years of etiquette schooling, who could tell in such a large group. Why do I care that these toffee-nosed bigots think poorly of me? Why do I even stress?
Maybe because it makes me depressed to think that after all these years, here we are in the grand year of 2009, and people still can’t get over the fact that some black people really have earned their place in society. We could afford our meal. We would not have sat down to dine if we had any thought that we would not be able to settle the $700 bill that showed up five minutes after our desserts. Most of us knew the difference between a ribeye and filet mignon. Ceciley, our wine connoisseur, knew that red wine went best with steaks. Most of us are sophisticated. Damn it, I know which fork to use. I know where to put my bread knife. I know how to hold a Bordeaux glass.
I felt like the waiter thought it was somehow beneath him to wait on black women. His manner was, of course, professional, but he was very curt as if he had something better to do, like pick the lint from his belly button.
I think it’s important how we present ourselves to society. I’m always very conscious of presentation. I believe that we should be who we want to be, but we must be prepared for the consequences. If you want to look backwards and urban, by all means, please do so, but you will never fit in white society. Some of us say to ourselves that we shouldn’t have to “fit in,” and perhaps you might be right, but unfortunately, the world is the way the world is. If it’s going to change, we have to perpetuate that change. Instead of setting ourselves apart, we need to step in and take over. By this I mean we should assimilate and take on their characteristics and then make it our own.
Many black people dub this “crossing over,” “selling out,” or whatever else other term, but I don’t see it that way at all. If I want to eat in Smith & Wollenksy’s every night of the week, I could, but I don’t the Talbots and the Mulroneys staring at me like I’m one of the Browns (from Meet the Browns.) As long as I can pay the bill, I have the right to be there just as anybody else, but what a lot of black people don’t seem to understand is that we don’t represent ourselves as if we could be high class.
Even if we were white skinned, we wouldn’t be acceptable because it’s our manner and presentation. That is the point I’m trying to make.