Monday, August 24, 2015

Laughing While Black: Women's Book Club Booted Off Napa Wine Train For Excessive Cheer

Book club members after being kicked off the train Sat. 
I'm still scratching my head about the incident that took place over the weekend where a group of eleven women, ten black and one white, all part of the "Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club" that's been meeting for 17 years and regularly takes annual excursions to Napa Valley, were all paraded through all six cars of the Napa Valley Wine Train and kicked off on Saturday afternoon for being too loud.

The story started on social media but has quickly become a mainstream national news story covered by newspapers and media outlets from coast to coast.

According to Lisa Renee Johnson, an African-American member of the group who first posted the story on her Facebook page on Saturday afternoon as it was happening, it all started when another white female passenger became annoyed by their laughter and complained that the group was being too loud. 

After the woman complained to the staff, an employee came over to inform the women that the level of noise they were making was making other passengers uncomfortable.

Eventually they, including the 80-year old lady (pictured above left in the blue scarf) were all escorted off the train in St. Helena, California before the train reached it's destination where they were met by a group of four St. Helena police officers.

Now as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed late last night before going to bed, people kept referring to this story and I wasn't sure I was reading it right - but yes, a group of cops were there to meet this menacing, overly cheerful ladies book club.

"All aboard!"
Of particular interest in this case is the woman who admonished the group that the train was "not a bar" - which is rather odd considering that the Website for the Napa Valley Wine Train not only shows said train stopping in front of a winery, it shows photos of tables in the train car with wine glasses at each setting as well as a photo of a smartly-dressed couple enjoying themselves as the man holds a glass of red wine.

So it's "not a bar" but this promotional photo (pictured left) from the Website's photo gallery shows a waiter pouring a glass of wine.

Now I obviously wasn't on this Saturday afternoon California rail excursion, so it's not fair for me to judge whether this group of women were being overly "loud" inside the train car or not; so let's not be too hasty and condemn the poor Wine Train without learning a little about it.

According to the 'Winery Tours' info page on the Website:

"The Napa Valley Wine Train’s Winery Tour packages provide a complete Napa Valley experience. Fill your day with a multiple course gourmet meal on the Wine Train and an exclusive tour and wine tasting at one of our many outstanding partner wineries. Relax as we transport you to and from the wineries and through the Valley with seamless transfers. Our fine dining service, winery tours, and beautiful scenery is a sample of everything Napa Valley has to offer."

As you can see, the words 'wine', 'winery' or 'wineries' appear no less than seven times in that descriptive three-sentence paragraph (I helpfully underlined those) so it's probably safe to assume that drinking alcohol is part of the whole experience.

I can assure you I've been to Napa Valley to do the whole winery-gourmet meal buy some wine-thing; so when I read the words "...complete Napa Valley experience." sobriety and silent reflection do not come to mind.
I mean, if I'm an average person looking to book an enjoyable day trip on the ol' Napa Valley Wine Train, when I read that paragraph above, I'm under no illusion that the passengers on this train will be sitting silently in their seats staring out the window, or wordlessly reading Nietzsche as they sip wine and ponder their place in the universe; I'm guessing it's going to be fairly lively in that train car after it stops at a couple of those wineries.

\Look at this photo (pictured left) of the ceiling of one of the cars on the Wine Train; yes those are racks of wine glasses lining the ceiling.

Seriously, this thing puts the Amtrak "Amcafe" car with it's overpriced beers and airplane bottles of liquor and soul-less plastic molded booths to shame.

At this point I'm literally craving a glass of wine just from posting the photos from the Napa Valley Wine Train Website into this blog.

But all kidding aside, I think this story is a perfect example of how race defines us as a nation; and affects our perceptions of people and situations.

Millions of people have read this story on social media and thousands more have formed opinions of what happened.

Let's be honest, a group of predominantly women of color on a wine excursion are probably not the typical demographic in Napa Valley on a given day; what, if any, role did that play in the decision of the white woman who complained about their being noisy and the train staff's decision to put the women off before the train reached it's destination?

Was the woman who complained simply more comfortable with this image (pictured left) taken from the NVWT Website of what she considers "the average Wine Train passenger"? 

Thankfully this wasn't a case where anyone got hurt or anything, but how humiliating was it for a group of educated adult women of means to be escorted off the train like a bunch of inebriated sorority sisters?

When I visited Napa Valley back in 2011, I found it to be very a welcoming and laid back atmosphere in the cultural sense.

I didn't sense any tension related to my being African-American and I'm fairly hyper sensitive about that kind of thing.   

The story has gone mainstream by now, so I look forward to hearing in more detail from some of the members of the Book Club to hear more details about their account first-hand.

As Johnson told The Napa Valley Register regarding the Wine Train management:
“They need to look at their own policies. I feel like we as a group were made to bear the consequences of their not having policy on seating their customers,” she said Sunday afternoon. "They need to give sensitivity training to their staff immediately. We want a public apology for how they treated us and for the public humiliation, which is unacceptable for anybody.”

Sometimes it seems like a sister just cannot get a break in these United States.

First Lady Michelle Obama and screenwriter / executive producer Shonda Rhimes are just two of the more successful high profile African-American women who've found themselves at the center of global media attention for being painted with the all too common stereotype of the "angry black woman".

Now you have a group of educated black women from a book club being accused of being too happy and too loud; and not only are they kicked off the train, they are met by members of the local police.  

Apparently "Laughing While Black" can now be added to the ever expanding list of things black people do which can be perceived as threatening, disruptive, and or potentially dangerous. 

As for the Wine Train, the company posted this message on Facebook in response to the incident which they later took down:
“following verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved. … When these celebrations impact our other guests, we do intervene.”

There's absolutely no evidence of any kind of physical abuse on the part of the eleven women (including an 80-year old member), and the staff of the Wine Train arranged for a van to take the group back to the Napa train station and also refunded the money for their excursion.

But that's not going to be enough in this case and it certainly doesn't answer the group's accusations that they were singled out because of their race.

While the Napa Valley Wine Train has issued an apology, they're still insisting the group being kicked off the train had nothing to do with the color of their skin; as the LA Times reported: “It wasn’t an issue of bias,” train spokesman Sam Singer said. “It was an issue of noise.”

Regardless, it offers a fascinating glimpse at the power and reach of social media to force larger mainstream media outlets to cover a story they probably wouldn't have paid all that much attention to.

Those women are definitely making noise now.

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