I was excited to take my now husband to the city I had considered home for many years. It was going to be his first time in New York City, having lived his whole adult life in the Pacific Northwest. I had lived in New York City for several years before moving to Washington State and I was excited to show him the city.
New York City is diverse, full of life, and the point where the whole world comes together.
Walking through the streets of the city, you can hear hundreds of languages being spoken. Wherever you turn, there’s people from all over the world. Every hue of skin color is present on the streets of the city. Moreover, the city has a reputation of being a progressive hub in politics, social movements, and even religious traditions. This is why our experience at a restaurant in the city made me rethink my image of the city I had called home for many years.
My husband is of indigenous background. His family is part of the Yucatec Mayan community in southern México. I am a proud Latino person of Arab-Puerto Rican heritage. For both of us, Spanish is our primary language and we primarily community in our mother tongue no matter where we are.
This time while visiting New York City, we picked a restaurant and went in and as always, we were communicating in Spanish between the two of us. There was no line and we were seated immediately. At that moment, I noticed how the waiter that was assigned to us took a look at us and immediately turned back. We waiting for a few minutes, but nobody came to our table.
We kept waiting…and waiting…and waiting.
After having waited for some time, I approached the hostess and asked if there was any problem as we had not been approached by a waiter yet. She apologized and went to check up on the waiter.
Immediately, the person I had seen turning around as soon as we were seated, approached our table. In his face I could tell that he was not happy with taking our order. In fact, he never made eye contact and never showed any sign of respect towards us as diners. I could not believe that this was happening! I had dined in New York City establishments for years without ever being dismissed as we were at that moment.
My experiences in life have taught me to always be aware of my surroundings. This made me look around the room to see if I could identify something that would give me a clue about the treatment we were experiencing. I noticed that all the diners at the moment were Euro-Americans, or white. Only one member of the wait staff seemed to be a person of color. At some moment, our waiter approached this other person and said something to them.
From that moment on, it was the waiter of color who worked with us.
My husband, who also noticed all of this, made a comment about him being the only indigenous person around and how perhaps this having something to do with the way in which we were treated. He brought up his own experience as a server to compare what had happened to what we were experiencing. He could not believe that someone in the restaurant business would continue promoting this sort of behavior and for their colleagues not to take action.
This experience in New York City helped me understand that discrimination in services is still present. Many businesses, under the premise that they are private entities, continue to promote discriminatory practices. Perhaps these practices are not codified–yet. The problem is that many businesses are arguing that they should be allowed to discriminate in services due to what they call “deeply held religious beliefs.”
The excuse of “deeply held religious beliefs” is a Pandora’s Box in business. Faith practices can determine what your business sells or the services it provides, but to close the door to customers just because of their identities is against every moral teaching of pretty much all faith traditions. Christians in particular are called to “love your neighbors as yourself” (Matthew 12.31), which pretty much contradicts the immoral approach taken by businesses to refuse services to people who are different than they.
As a follower of Jesus, I understand that using the vaguely-worded phrase “deeply held religious beliefs” to discriminate is dangerous, immoral, and contradictory with every teaching of the wandering Messiah.
As we approach Christmas, perhaps it would be good to imagine the conversations the innkeepers had with the Holy Family.
As they approached each one of the places that rejected them, the innkeepers would say, “I am sorry, my deeply held religious beliefs tell me that an unmarried couple expecting a child goes against my morals. I cannot house you for the night.” This is exactly the type of conversations that we are currently having; and again, it is dangerous, immoral, and against the teachings of many faith traditions.
My experience in New York City was not only uncomfortable; it was also humiliating and dehumanizing. My husband’s indigenous identity, my Latino identity, our common language and experiences were dismissed and deemed not worthy of service.
This is exactly what some business people are trying to do. It is the responsibility of each person of faith to stop it.
Photo by Elliott Scott