Driving While Brown: Fast Food Chains as Safe Places?

I have been thinking about writing on this topic for quite some time now, but never really got around to doing so. Maybe, I had to get over my implicit bias against all things corporate to write something that, in literal sense, gives the “devil” his due.

Over the last few years, my wife and I have had to drive across US for several reasons: to visit her family, to visit friends, or to attend a conference. Ours is a mixed race marriage and while my wife could literally qualify for the daughters of American revolution membership, I am, to be precise, a brown man with a foreign accent and a sort of hippy look with long hair and all.

My wife and I are both foodies and also love to travel on the side roads and state highways: Probably not a safe habit for a biracial couple in Trump’s America. My wife also loves to find locally owned diners and restaurants on our route and we have often taken long detours to avoid eating at fast food chain restaurant.

A few years ago, though, I started noticing that I was not really comfortable entering and eating at small independently owned restaurants in small towns (This did not happen in minority-owned  restaurants). I somehow felt hyper conscious about my own self and how it must come across to the owners, workers, and patrons of these niche diners or restaurants. I mean I became suddenly conscious of the “white gaze” directed at a brown man walking into a country restaurant holding hands with a tall, exquisitely beautiful “white” woman. I don’t know what precisely caused this hypersensitivity in me; I mean, come on, I am a war veteran, a former infantry officer, and a doctor of philosophy:) I am not supposed to be worried about such things! But I WAS worried about such things and these cosy little places no longer felt welcoming to me.

So, without explaining it to my lovely wife, I started requesting that we should stick to the freeways and stop at chain food stores: Macdonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s etc etc. She is an exceptionally perceptive woman and immediately understood my reasons. “You don’t feel welcome in rural, independent restaurants?” She asked.

Yes, I said.

“I feel the same way,” she added.

So, that brief conversation was enough. Trust me we are not a taciturn couple: We actually HAVE the kind of informed and stimulating conversations that people assume about academic couples. But in this instance, Jenny and I both realized that these small gems in the heartland of America were no longer the places for us, and, maybe, they never really were but we were unaware of it.

So, why did I feel safe and welcome at chain fast food stores? I think the reasons are both rational and irrational.

Rationally, these are usually very well-lit places with a diverse staff and an even diverse clientele. For MacDonalds by a freeway, it is not the local regulars but the road travelers, who represent the rich diversity of America, are the target demographics. The Macdonalds, therefore, has to be hyper attentive to creating a space where all feel welcome. They must also train their staff to be culturally sensitive to the different demographics that they serve. Furthermore, since Macdonalds usually hires young people, their workers also represent the general diversity of the nation. Most importantly, if you do encounter any racist attitude at a certain M store, I have never experienced it, chances are if you report it or post it on twitter or FB, the corporation will have to pay some attention to it.

So, to seriously acknowledge what is good about these chain store, in my estimation one is less likely to encounter any kind of regional or implicit racism at any of these chain stores. And to be honest, on the road when I walk into any of these chain stores with Jenny, I absolutely do not feel anxious or uncomfortable. I rather feel like a part of this beautiful fabric of the most diverse and, despite the racists and white supremacists, hopeful national experiment in human history.

So, despite my serious reservations about corporations, in this particular case I would like to send my sincere thanks to Macdonalds of the world for giving us safe spaces to stop by during our travels across America!!