The problem of “laughing while black”

Opinion, NakedLaw, News, Rights

In August, a group of women who all belong to the same book club were enjoying themselves and laughing as the Napa Valley Wine Train rumbled across California’s wine country. But revelry of a certain amplitude is intolerable on this train, apparently, and so they were asked to quiet down.

When they failed to do so, they were marched through numerous cars to waiting police officers who escorted them onto buses heading home. One of them was in her eighties.

And all but one of the 11 women were black.

The incident spread like wildfire across the internet, as #Laughingwhileblack trended on Twitter and new debates ignited about racism in America. It would seem that laughing, like running (or walking, or swimming, or driving, or wearing hoodies, or going on road trips) were things black people simply couldn’t do with the same freedom as whites.

In response to the attention, The Napa Valley Wine Train posted a comment on Facebook claiming that “Following verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved,” but the comment was quickly deleted (the company has since apologized). “That’s not who we are. We are beautiful professional women who would not use violence in any way,” said Lisa Johnson, a member of the club. “I’m very traumatized by the picture they’ve painted of us.”

According to Johnson, “[The maître d’hotel] said people were complaining and I said, ‘Who’s complaining?’ And she said, ‘Well, people’s faces are uncomfortable,’” said Johnson. “At that point, one passenger nearby said, ‘Well, this is not a bar.’ We reacted, ‘Yes, it is a bar, a bar on wheels.’”

Not the first time

Last April a graduate nursing student at the University of California in San Francisco named Norma Ruiz was celebrating her 28th birthday on the same train with a party of 10 people, “all Latino individuals,” according to Ruiz, when a patron approached them “to say that they were being annoying and loud.”

They moved to the dining car on the instructions of a waiter, lowered their voices, and were told to be quiet once again by a different employee. “We were not making noise, we felt very uncomfortable the way we were being approached and [they were] embarrassing our group in front of everyone,” Ruiz said.

A violation of civil rights?

The women of the book club are being represented by prominent civil rights attorney Waukeen McCoy, who commented on the case in an interview, “It is malicious in how they posted false statements about this group of women to say that these women were physically abusive. I think it’s worth a lot of money… One case can render $500,000, so because there are so many plaintiffs…once the jury hears their story, they are going to be compelling.”

McCoy said the case could become a class-action lawsuit if more people who feel they were unfairly targeted by train company staff come forward. He is meeting with the NAACP to discuss coordinated action against the company, including a possible boycott, and has sent a demand letter.

The legacy of “white spaces”

Cultural critics have used the incident to highlight how African-Americans (along with other minorities) are required to navigate the “white space” as a condition of their existence. Those critics also point out that white people have a hidden power that can be wielded in the form of complaining to train attendants or calling police over pool parties because the music is too loud or some element of the gathering or behavior is unsettling them.

These kinds of episodes have undoubtedly been happening for a long time. The difference is that the internet and social media have allowed them to emerge in the public discourse. Conversations are not always catered to and filtered through a cultural majority. Our information-crazy world has created access and visibility that never previously existed.

Unfortunately, it usually takes a group of women being kicked off a train—or an arrest, or a public humiliation, or a gunshot—to get the conservation started.

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