MY BUSINESS partner and I went to dinner recently at one of Center City's upscale restaurants. It's a favorite, and we arrived early before the holiday crowd.
As our entrée was served, the restaurant began to fill up and a couple was seated at the table behind us. We were close enough that it was easy to hear their conversation without feeling guilty of eavesdropping.
The woman was greeted by our waitress as a regular customer, and her companion was introduced to the server as a longtime friend dining at the restaurant for the first time. She said that two more friends would be joining them. Our diligent waitress promised to direct them to her when they arrived.
They were seated directly behind me. As we finished our main course, I heard the woman praise the menu as she told her friend that he would love the food no matter what he ordered.
Trying not to listen, I heard only snippets of what was said next until a word was used that managed to turn my stomach upside down. She asked him what his favorite food was. He replied, "I can tell you what I don't like. I don't like n----- food."
His use of the "n-word" continued and led into a discussion about President-elect Obama.
Numerous disparaging and ugly remarks were made, including how sad it was that someone hadn't already "knocked him off." I was stunned as I felt the color drain from my African-American face.
I felt emotions I hadn't felt since my childhood. I was horrified and filled with rage. It was difficult for me to stay seated and not turn around and face them with my anger and embarrassment. I looked across the table at my Jewish business partner as I shook my head. She knew by my reaction that something terrible had happened, but she didn't know what because she couldn't hear their conversation.
What should I do? These people were having a private conversation. They never looked my way - nor were their racist comments directed at me.
I wanted to turn around and confront them. But I didn't.
I was suddenly frozen in time as painful memories from the past came flooding back. The dull ache in the pit of my stomach was one I hadn't felt since growing up in a small western Pennsylvania town in the '50s.
Blacks weren't permitted to eat in upscale restaurants nor could they swim in community pools.
I flashed back to the time when my two best friends, who were white, told me they couldn't walk to school with me because I was "colored." Those emotional feelings of racism and exclusion churned inside when I heard him say the word that was never spoken in our home - the word my parents raised me to rise above and not become a victim of as they taught me the familiar chant, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."
I turned slightly in my seat to watch as her other two friends came to the table. I was shocked to see that one of them was African-American. It was all I could do not to pull him aside and tell him what I'd heard. As we passed by their table to leave, I tried to make eye contact. But I was invisible.
Would being noticed by them have satisfied me? Probably not. Would my white Marine Corps husband's being there to defend me have made me feel better? Yes, but only for the moment.
What did I do? I took the high road. The experience made me realize how important it was to remember how far we've come, and the opportunity we all have to achieve long-term satisfaction. So rather than dwell on the negative feelings that were generated from the past during my dining experience, I'm uplifted as I look toward the future.
I knew then that on Jan. 20, 2009, I would be privileged to witness what my ancestors had struggled for and dreamed of but never got to see: the first African-American sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
Thank you, Mr. President, for the hope you've given me. I invite you and the first lady to join me for dinner at one of Philadelphia's finest restaurants! *
Yvonne Allison can be reached through her website, WorktheShow.com, which is designed to help make the workplace more productive.