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?

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