Article published Mar 10, 2010 Sign at laundry offers chances to learn – Frank Gary

How long the sign hung there isn’t clear, maybe a week, maybe a little more, and apparently no one said a word, possibly because some Burmese couldn’t read it, and possibly because everyone else figured, “I’m not Burmese, so why worry?”

Not until Sunday, a few days after the sign was removed, did anyone publicly object to the sign, placing a picture of it on a Facebook page and calling for people to boycott Ricker’s.

“It’s a gross violation of civil rights,” said Christine Marshall, a resident who heard about the sign at a meeting over the weekend.

What caused an employee at Ricker’s to put up the sign is not entirely clear. The Burmese Advocacy Center, just a few blocks away, knew about the sign and offered only some vague answers.

The health department, which wanted to make sure people didn’t think it had put up the sign, doesn’t have a lot of details, either. Employees at the store referred all questions to corporate headquarters, which didn’t want to discuss why someone put up the sign.

Instead, the company issued a written apology on Facebook and posted a YouTube video by the head of the company, saying the company regrets the sign and apologizes to all it has offended. It also said the sign was put up by a local employee and company officials immediately ordered it taken down when they learned about it.

The company said it is exploring appropriate discipline for the employee who put it up.

This much we know. There were some hygiene issues involving Burmese customers at the laundromat, and part of the issue, Marshall said, might have been the Burmese tradition of chewing betel nuts and spitting out the juice.

The practice is widespread and accepted throughout much of Asia. Some Burmese refugees who have recently come to the U.S. after spending years in refugee camps still chew betel nuts.

The situation, people who are familiar with the Burmese community told us, was embarrassing for the Burmese. They were trying to keep the issue low-key. The head of the Burmese Advocacy Center would say only that if it has a chance to communicate with the people at Ricker’s, both parties can be educated.

So what we have here can be described two ways:

•It can be labeled an outrageous violation of civil rights, which is what it is.

“The world knows it’s not OK to put up a sign saying ‘No Blacks’ or ‘No Mexicans,’ ” said Marshall, who started the Facebook page that publicized the sign and demanded an apology from Ricker’s. “But it’s OK to put up this sign?”

•It can be looked at as an example of an employee who had what was considered a problem, and given a whole universe of solutions, chose possibly the worst one.

But it also teaches us all something.

Fort Wayne has opened its doors to refugees from all over the world, many from radically different cultures. There are going to be culture clashes. We deal with these clashes and work for solutions.

Most of all, though, it teaches us that, as enlightened as we like to think we are, we are still quite capable of seeing things that we know are wrong and looking the other way, just the way people did for a week or so while the sign was posted at the laundromat.

Frank Gray has held positions as reporter and editor at The Journal Gazette since 1982 and has been writing a column on local topics since 1998. His column is published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or e-mail at

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Reposted From – Frank Gray, The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne, Ind.- All the article’s content, photo and story is credited to  Frank Gray, The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne, Ind.