What not to say when there’s a reporter in the room

On Monday a week ago, I sat at one of the trade shows waiting to talk to a suit vendor I’d been eager to meet. I chatted with his wife as he worked with three retailers. After about ten minutes, I settled into a chair and went through my notes from previous vendors, realizing that the wait would be a bit longer.

Just then, a retailer who had just finished a long and seemingly intense conversation with a tie vendor across the room got up to leave. He stopped to say a few words to the suit vendor before he left.

This retailer said he had a store in New Jersey. He joked, as many independent retailers do these days, about Jos. A. Bank’s latest promotion (buy one, get something ridiculously generous for free, like three more suits, etc.). But I wasn’t prepared for what he said next.

“I did my own promotion,” he boasted. “Buy one suit and I’ll give you two Mexicans to do your lawn.” The men in the room laughed. I chuckled at first, not quite following, and then slowly realized what he’d actually said. The suit vendor asked him if he really made a promotion like that, and the retailer said, yes, he did. It got worse.

“God made Mexicans to do my lawn,” he continued. “That’s all they’re good for. The blacks won’t do work like that anymore—they’re all on welfare.”

This was not mere ignorance; this was defiant, in-your-face, old fashioned racism. At this point, my blood boiling, I gathered my things and didn’t look at anyone as I walked out of the room and left the show.

There was something very disturbing about the casual way this retailer dehumanized huge groups of people. And it scared me to hear such a blatantly racist rant met with laughter. Did no one else think this was outrageous? Did anyone even notice that I’d left the room in disgust?

When I told this story to Stu, MR‘s publisher, he said the vendors in the room were probably laughing out of disbelief and discomfort. “They probably rolled their eyes and called him an asshole as soon as he left the room,” he added. “That’s what often happens in a situation like that.”

I hope he’s right. I’ve wondered if I would get a call from the vendors in the room, either to say they were sorry I had to witness that, or simply wondering why I didn’t stick around to hear about their businesses. But no one has called.

This is the sort of racism that I didn’t expect to hear anymore in this country—certainly not in the menswear industry. I’m seldom surprised by mildly offensive comments made out of ignorance or fear, and the rhetoric of hate groups is easy to dismiss because it’s so extreme and unusual. But this New Jersey retailer falls somewhere in the middle. He’s a successful business owner who didn’t think anything of spouting off in a professional environment, in the middle of the day, presumably sober.

The vendors—whom I’ll assume did not agree with this retailer—should have said something. The menswear business is a people business, and it serves all of America. They shouldn’t let this kind of talk go by unchallenged, neither as businessmen nor as members of a civil society. Gentlemen don’t talk that way, thugs do.

It’s not easy to speak up, and not everyone can simply leave the room. You may worry about losing the retailer’s business. He might be a friend, and you don’t think it’s your place to say anything to him. Maybe you just don’t want to make a fuss because there weren’t any blacks or Hispanics in the room and he didn’t use any racial slurs. But what if there’s a reporter in the room?

Want to talk about this issue? Comment below or discuss it in MRketplace’s Forums.

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Comments

  1. avatar Michael Bernstein says:

    Well stated Harry. There should be no tolerance for that anymore.

    • avatar bill pearson says:

      Pretty sad story. But I’m not that surprised. Increasingly, we all confronted with this type of behavior or worse. We see it in our politics, sports and certainly in casual
      conversation. And Harry is right. This guy thought nothing was out-of-line with what he said. He wasn’t with a bunch of fellow cretins at some red neck BBQ. He was conducting business with people he hardly knew. Aren’t we all on our best behavior under those circumstances? Can you imagine if this was his best behavior, how he might behave at the before mentioned BBQ or elsewhere equally comfortable.

      We all need to get ready for more of this coarse behavior. Our country is changing. This transition away from our credit-card and refi fueled past to today’s more somber, within-our-means way of living isn’t going to sit well with a lot of people. And a lot of people need someone to blame. If I had to guess, the men’s guy isn’t doing well and is looking to blame somebody other than himself. He’s the small businessman who took the credit (and cash) when things were good and he needs to look within when things are less good. Not every men’s store is in the tank. Many have adjusted to their lower sales and are doing OK. Not great… not like 2007, but OK. This jerk can’t adapt so he’s lashing out and next time it could be worse.

      Those with clearer heads need to recoil when we see and hear this stuff. And it won’t always be this obvious. We need to call out these people. It does no good to simply call
      the guy a douche-bag after he’s left the room. He needs to know that what he said is offensive and unacceptable. If we can’t start speaking out, things will only get worse and
      that scares me.

  2. avatar Bill Lavin says:

    Ciao Harry, Unfortunately buddy, racism is still huge in our country, and that is why I still do belt tributes to bring this awareness of these kinds of issues to help bring about some educational conversations to help guide the ignorant of our countries people. Not to toot my own horn here, but I would have stood up and told this guy his comments are very inappropriate and mean spirited. We can all laugh at ourselves and it’s healthy to do so, but like anything else, it’s the delivery and intent that separates a great comic joke in good taste, to an extremely harsh insensitive comment that makes everyone’s skin crawl. Thanks so much Harry for sharing this with our business world… lov ya… b This reminds me of a great quote I once heard and always remembered, so appropriate here: “It’s better to have people think your an asshole, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt..!” :)

  3. avatar Paul Perry says:

    Hi Harry, Paul here at Mel Gambert custom shirts. Wow!!! Just when you think we have turned a corner. So sorry you had to encounter that kind of ignorant situation.

  4. avatar Ellen Zacarolli says:

    Bravo, Harry. Thank you for speaking up.

  5. Someone once told me, “No one hates like the hated.” It has been my experience that business owners excel at all kinds of bad behavior. Throw in the huge entitlement factor along with the fact that rarely has anyone challenged them and you not only get a racist but a narcissist as well.

  6. avatar Virginia Sandquist says:

    Thank you, Mr. Sheff, for sharing this story with us. Racism is not funny and should not be tolerated. It is a shame that this form of ignorant fear still prevails!

  7. avatar Greg Shugar says:

    If you really want to help eradicate the inexcusable belief that racism is still tolerated by others, you should exercise your right as a member of the press and disclose the name of this retailer.

  8. avatar A Brent Caplan says:

    Mr. Sheff, thank you for this important statement. Not only is this not tolerable in the apparel industry, but it needs to be called out wherever and whenever it is found. In spite of the vendor’s uncomfortable laughter there is nothing funny about comments like this. Whatever inexplicable motive the store owner had for saying this, it overlooks the tremendous positive impact that minority communities (as vendors, store owners, employees and customers,) have contributed to our industry for generations. The only comfort any of us should ever find when confronted by idiots like this is the fact that their punishment is to be forced to always reside in the midst of their own ignorance. Cheers to you for shining the light.

  9. avatar Gary Williams says:

    Harry-kudos to you for taking such a courageous and principled stand in speaking out on this issue when you really didn’t have to. We supposedly are living in a post racialist America. However incidents like the one you witnessed clearly illustrate that for some this is certainly not the case.

  10. avatar Bert Pulitzer says:

    Yes Mexicans do lawn work and they also build beautiful stone fences and do other masonry work. mexicans are hard working nice people. Blacks are doctors lawyers and bankers also.
    perhaps comments like these are more frustration about how our government ignores common sense and true American values?
    Thanks Harry for opening the topic.

    • avatar Harry Sheff says:

      Hi Bert, I’m not going to speculate about why this retailer made malicious jokes at the expense of Mexicans and Blacks, and I’m puzzled that you would seek common ground with this guy. He said nothing about the government, nor did he sound frustrated. Whether or not his racism is a result of our government’s shortcomings isn’t the point.

      Furthermore, MRketplace is not the best place for a political discussion. It’s not our focus and it wasn’t the subject of my piece. My aim in writing about this incident was to call out something most of us can agree is despicable, to let those involved know that most of us will not tolerate it, and to provoke a discussion on how to deal with situations like it.

      Let’s take a step back for a moment and try to find the universal in this episode. Imagine you’re talking to a customer, and he says something—it doesn’t matter what—that really offends you. What do you do?

      I walked away, but then, I wasn’t part of the conversation and I wasn’t buying or selling anything. But what if I were? There are comments that I can let go and there are ones that I can shake my head at. I can let someone who makes unfair generalizations know that he’s wrong. But I still don’t know what to do when someone says something as hateful as what this guy said.

  11. avatar Gary Drinkwater says:

    Harry,
    How you respond to a situation like this is simple. You approach that individual, look him straight in the eyes with determined conviction and say “What you just said was the most immature and insensitive statement I’ve ever heard you frick’n MORON”.
    This deep seated belief that there is an inferior class has got to be wiped off our lexicon. However, our nation is and I’m afraid will always be divided because of these malignant stereotypes.

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