“We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one.”
I live in Lexington, a small town in southwestern Virginia that used to be rather sleepy but has been awakened (but far from “woke”) by several incidents over the past few years. These include a successful campaign to have the Lexington City Council prohibit flying the Confederate flag from city flagpoles (2011), a protest by students from the Washington and Lee University School of Law to have Confederate flags removed from the university’s Lee Chapel (2014), the 2017 and 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr., parades sponsored by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE), and the racist events in Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017 (*see a related Gender Shrapnel Blog post here).
Many of you have heard by now that Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a popular Lexington restaurant, the Red Hen, on Friday night. This well-known, highly-respected farm-to-table restaurant, owned by 22-year Lexington resident Stephanie Wilkinson, employs a small crew of talented chefs, managers, and wait staff, whose culinary work has been featured in The Washington Post, Southern Living, The Wall Street Journal, The Roanoke Times, Edible Blue Ridge, and Virginia Living. The restaurant is small and elegant, and its owner makes every effort to honor farming traditions of the Shenandoah Valley. The staff is known for special touches, such as little anniversary cards for celebrating couples or a delicious birthday treat for an unsuspecting customer. The restaurant not only tries to get it right; it does get it right, and it has done so for ten years. Such is the case in the owner’s actions of this past Friday night. I will get to this point in a moment.
Our community has demonstrated on many occasions the high esteem in which it holds Stephanie Wilkinson, who has advocated for small business development and has worked tirelessly to raise funds, write grants, and organize community events to make Lexington both a wonderful place to live and an inviting place to visit. Small towns can experience great struggles to thrive, and this is certainly the case for small towns with small colleges whose students are away three or four months of the year. Such a town flourishes only with real vision, community connections, and disciplined work. Our little town has thrived in no small part due to Stephanie Wilkinson’s work and planning.
On a more personal note, I have rarely met a smarter, more generous, or more measured person. Stephanie has a kind word for everyone, and she cares about the well-being of people she knows and doesn’t know. That is why it is not surprising that Stephanie Wilkinson’s words in yesterday’s Washington Post article reflect her kindness and ethical standards: “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.” The Washington Post piece carefully portrays Wilkinson’s equanimity in this tense situation: she spoke to her staff to understand their preferences; she considered Huckabee Sanders’ record as a purveyor of untruths for the Trump administration; she discreetly asked Huckabee Sanders to speak with her on the patio; she asked Huckabee Sanders to leave and explained why she was doing so; she charged Huckabee Sanders’ party nothing; she left it at that.
In summary, Wilkinson confronted a tense situation with thoughtfulness and grace, applying her own ethical standards and explaining the rationale. I wish we all gave such full, careful thought to the world around us and made such brave decisions on behalf of ourselves, our employees, and our communities.
At this particular moment, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA see their own rights limited through ever-changing and unjust legislation concerning transgender rights in the military, service in stores, and Title IX. LGBTQIA individuals are a protected group under several United States laws, especially Title VII. (*See this useful site from Harvard University for more information on equal opportunity laws.) While I have heard people near and far declare that Huckabee Sanders also deserves to be served, she does not belong to a protected category under civil rights law. The category she does belong to is one of great privilege in a highly polarizing administration that is currently waging an immigration war on children and their parents. (*See this short video [Washington Post] of Huckabee Sanders in which she both justifies family separations and tells the journalist who has asked the question that he might not be able to understand long sentences.) Huckabee Sanders’ role as presidential and GOP spin-master makes her an extremely powerful person in our government, one whose lies have been documented time and again. (*See this op-ed from The Boston Globe, this one from Politico, and many other news pieces from periodicals such as The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and The San Francisco Chronicle.)
Yesterday, Huckabee Sanders issued a tweet that revealed how well she has mastered the spin machine. She says that she always tries to treat people respectfully, even the ones she disagrees with. If you watch the video cited above, you will see Huckabee Sanders, on June 14, treat a journalist with great disrespect. In her tweet, she used the name of the restaurant to impugn Wilkinson’s reputation and to use her government-issued power to cast the restaurant in a negative light. Huckabee Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, similarly used his political power to pile on in his own tweet. Walter Shaub, known as the expert on government ethics violations, tweeted yesterday that he saw Huckabee Sanders’ tweets as a clear violation of 5 CFR 2635.702(a), “referencing the law that states government employees cannot use public office for private gain,” as reported in this piece from The Hill.
The Huckabee daughter-father tweets are an unethical use of political office to bully and harass, in the most public of media, a private citizen and business owner. Compare this to a quiet conversation on the Red Hen patio and an assurance that the bill was covered—a simple act that reveals how a person stands by her staff and her own belief in the public good. Those who say that Wilkinson should have been silent reinforce how civility codes fortify the status quo. (*See this related piece and this one in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)
Some people who have come to Lexington this weekend in some odd attempt to protect Sarah Huckabee Sanders, one of the most powerful individuals in the land, are waving the Confederate flag and praising the KKK. This flag, which has so consistently demonstrated hatred of African-American individuals and signaled neofascist tendencies and whose symbolism has so marked this town, has resurfaced in the Huckabee hullabaloo. A fake website pretending to be a downtown historical association has also followed the Huckabee Sanders spin machine, empowered by the press secretary’s tweet and expanding her network of spin, subterfuge, and slander.
The Red Hen’s owner acted quickly, forthrightly, gently, and morally, and she explained her actions thoroughly and thoughtfully in the Washington Post piece. I wish our town, state, and country had more role models like her.