The Friday after we solidly re-elected our first black president, I was staking out a Chuck-E-Cheese.
I was there — against my better judgment, I swear — trying to find out if it didn’t have too many black people.
There, I said it. If you really want to hate me, you can stop reading right now. I’ve just given you a wonderful gift, haven’t I? ‘Tis the season, and I’m feeling generous.
Still here? Oh good. Here’s the story.
At the beginning of the month, Older Relative (not his real name) had a talk with my husband Scott and my mother-in-law about the upcoming birthday party of Younger Relative (also not his real name). Younger Relative’s birthday falls right before Thanksgiving — it’s today, in fact. Relatives Older and Younger are one generation up and down from us, respectively, and Younger Relative’s Parents are about the same age that we are.
I wasn’t there for the conversation, but apparently Younger Relative’s Parents wanted Younger Relative to go to a Chuck-E-Cheese for his birthday. They’re not from around here, they’re just up for the week, and they didn’t know where to find one.
“There’s one in Annapolis,” said Older Relative.
“That’s pretty far,” said Scott. He checked on his phone. “There’s one in Largo. That’ll be closest to our house.”
“We’ll go to the one in Annapolis,” said Older Relative. Firmly.
“Why’s that?” asked Scott.
“The atmosphere,” said Older Relative.
Scott gave his mother an interrogatory look. And she shrugged, as if to say: “I’m not touching this one.”
“What do you mean?” asked Scott.
“You know. The… atmosphere.”
For those of you who don’t know, we live in zip code 20721, not far from Largo Town Center on the DC metro. It’s an affluent, well-educated suburb that is also majority black.
We didn’t move here to colonize, or to make a statement, or really with any racially conscious motive at all. We moved here because it’s convenient to our work, has nice houses and schools, and bears all the other kid-friendly charms of modern American suburbia: bike trails, sidewalks, parks, barbecues, cul-de-sacs, that kind of thing.
As gay white guys, we’re misfits, demographically speaking. But we like it here, we get along just fine with our neighbors, and we’re entirely unfazed about being the only white folks in line at Wegmans. Which we often are. And if it happens that the Daughter reaches high school and she’s not dating black guys — or girls, or both — then we’re going to sit her down and have a good long Talk.
Anyway. Older Relative continued: “I just want you to check it out and get back to me.” (He hadn’t been to it himself, Scott learned.)
Bless his heart, Scott delegated. “It’s on the way home from your work,” he said. And that’s entirely true.
“It’s fucking racist, that’s what it is,” I replied. Also entirely true.
“I’m not going to humor him. I’m not going to do it.” This, however, turned out to be false.
Now, Older Relative has a history with these things. He and I once got into such a heated argument over immigration that I nearly threw him out of my house. Despite all appearances, this is fairly unusual. As impassioned as I sometimes am in this space, real-life policy arguments are never personal for me. They’re work, and it’s just not worth all the heat, all the time, to take that kind of stuff personally. But I’ll tell you, the things Older Relative said about those people… We just don’t talk about politics anymore. Ever. We can’t.
And here he was, making a request that might actually have been reasonable — if it weren’t so easily decoded, and if the decoded message weren’t so obnoxious.
But still, on that Friday evening I was lurking around the entrance to a Chuck-E-Cheese for the very first time since a friend’s birthday party back when I was six years old. And I hate myself for this.
I noted the atmosphere. It was well-lit and smoke-free. Both significant improvements over the Chuck-E-Cheese I remember. There were arcade games all over, and piles and piles of greasy pizza. (Mental note: Eat before going.) And of course, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only white person in the establishment.
We told Older Relative that the “atmosphere” of the Largo Chuck-E-Cheese was just fine. We liked it. Looks great, we said. And we wouldn’t think twice about taking the Daughter there, or anyone else’s kid for that matter. Except maybe for the food.
“We’re going to Annapolis,” he answered.
“How about I check that one out too,” Scott proposed. “Just to be sure.” Older Relative agreed.
Scott went. He investigated a little more thoroughly than I did. He even talked to the manager. A black guy.
Younger Relative’s Parents ultimately made the choice. They’re staying with Older Relative this week, and it turns out that the Annapolis Chuck-E-Cheese is just a smidgen closer to Older Relative’s house. So that’s where we’re going.
Either way, I’m pretty sure we failed here. I mean, speaking for myself, I knew damn well what was going on. We all did, of course. But I didn’t confront Older Relative about it. Not directly.
Sure, I made him wait, and I made him squirm, and I made certain he knew that I didn’t approve. But the chain of tacit understanding held. I sustained it when I ought to have broken it. Now I’m just hoping that there are a lot of black kids at the Chuck-E-Cheese in Annapolis tonight. It would serve Older Relative right. And while I may not deserve it, I’m hoping for a second chance.