When Leilah Abdennabi met Sirat Al-Nahi inside Kerbey Lane Café one morning in December 2015, she found her friend in tears.
While Abdennabi was parking at the Guadalupe Street restaurant, Al-Nahi heard an older white man who was also waiting for a table criticize her driving. "She should just go back to Saudi Arabia where she came from," he said.
Abdennabi, who had just recently moved to Austin, isn’t from Saudi Arabia. Al-Nahi confronted the man, and things got even uglier. He asked whether she had a gun and told her, “Just shoot me.”
A Kerbey Lane employee had seated the man and his wife at a table. They seated Abdennabi and Al-Nahi a few tables down. Once Abdennabi found out what happened, she asked a manager why the staff hadn’t asked the man to leave. She also confronted him.
“As I was walking out, I started shouting, ‘Just so everybody knows, somebody said some really racist things to us here, and this establishment doesn’t care about addressing it or doing anything about it,’” she said. “And one of the people that’s just sitting at a table goes, ‘Yeah, nobody cares.’”
The incident happened just days after a deadly shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Fourteen people were killed when a couple opened fire at a party at a community center. Abdennabi said she wonders whether that fueled the hateful things the stranger said. She and her friend both wear the hijab. She said visibly Muslim women are often easy targets of Islamophobia.
Three years later, the incident is still with her. She said what bothers her most is that a restaurant full of people saw the whole thing but chose to do nothing.
"To see this room full of people not care, not do anything, and just sit there and watch as if we’re some aliens from a different planet, was shocking,” she said.
Kerbey Lane’s CEO publicly apologized in a blog post. On its Facebook page, the company wrote, “the guest who made these hateful comments to another guest should have been asked to leave our restaurant.”
“Our team members did the best they could to handle the situation, and at that time, our training specifically states that if there are two guests in any sort of altercation, the best practice is to seat the parties separately and immediately,” Amanda Kuda, Kerbey Lane’s vice president of communication, told KUT last week. “It caused further upset with the guests, and we can completely see why that’s happened, and this is why we’ve trained our team members in the future to better investigate a situation, better understand what’s happening.”
There’s been a nationwide conversation about implicit bias since last month’s arrest of two black men waiting to meet a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks. The store’s manager called the police, saying they refused to make a purchase or leave. The incident has fueled discussions about the prevalence of racial discrimination in public spaces.
“I think that there are so few places in our culture where we allow for nuanced conversation or constructive critiques,” said Sanders, who now lives in the Bronx.
When she moved to the city in 2005, Sanders said, she fell in love with Austin, but also felt a certain loneliness. She found Austin to be a place that “holds racial truths at arm’s length.” In 2012, she wrote about the city’s response to the Texas Relays, an annual track and field event that brings tens of thousands of visitors to Austin. The crowd is predominantly African-American. That year, one downtown business owner closed several of his Sixth Street establishments during the Relays; one even had its windows boarded up.
Around the same time, the old Highland Mall closed early during the Relays, citing security concerns. Sanders said the reaction of these Austin businesses to an influx of black visitors is telling, and it’s worth reflecting on.
“At the end of the day, it’s not my responsibility or the responsibility of other people of color to do this work,” Sanders told KUT. “We are not the ones with the power to make those changes.”
The Relays might be one of the starkest examples of how racial bias can play out in Austin’s public spaces. More often, it’s felt on a smaller scale. When Jesus Valles moved to Austin from Long Beach, Calif., in 2012, his friends told him he was headed to a liberal utopia, the “California of Texas.” Valles said he quickly noticed that a big part of socializing here involves going out for food or drinks, and there were moments when he felt out of place.
“I think a lot about those sort of small moments that happen at certain restaurants or certain establishments or venues,” Valles said, “where you might be at a restaurant, and maybe it takes just a little bit too long for you to get served, or maybe sometimes you don’t get served at all.”
Valles talks about microaggressions, those subtle slights that made him wonder whether he was being treated differently as a person of color.
“When you’re saying microaggression, what you’re actually saying is, ‘This is a moment of racism,’” he said. “You’re saying, ‘I am experiencing racism in a way that I don’t know people know how to talk about,’ right? Because you feel like you’re the only one catching it, and so there’s this apprehension to say, ‘No, I really do think it was something,’ because a part of you feels like no one around you is going to believe you.”
Germine Awad, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, studies the causes of prejudice and discrimination. She says more people are becoming aware of the concept of implicit racial bias.
“It’s definitely made it out into the mainstream media, and essentially it just refers to the idea that we have these biases that we hold that we may not be aware of,” Awad said, “and that they manifest themselves in situations such as what happened at Starbucks.”
Awad said implicit racial bias plays out in virtually every public space, from bars and restaurants to workplaces and schools. It may take the form of a snide remark, or it can have more serious consequences, like someone being turned down for a job.
Starbucks plans to close its 8,000 stores nationwide on May 29 for racial bias training. Awad said that kind of training can be helpful, but to make a real cultural change, it has to be a more sustained effort. She says one way to get past racial bias is to talk more frankly about it.
“I think that sort of framing it in a way where it’s as gentle as possible but getting your point across, so that you don’t shut down conversation, right?” she said. “Because everyone wants to be a good person. Everyone wants to be a decent person. No one wants to be labeled as a racist.”