While entering the Chai Hong Rainbow Salon, freshman Kori Riley watched a white customer pay her service fee and walk out the door. When it came to Riley, it was a different story; salon owner Shutang Xu demanded payment midway through the service. Riley recalled being told the difference in service was on account of “people like her not tipping.’’ She was one of four black students expecting to walk out of the salon with a fresh look, but instead left with the pain of feeling racially targeted.
In September of Fall Term, Riley went to the salon located on 278 E. Simmons St. with fellow Knox College freshman Erykah Snyder. The pair wanted to get a full set of nails. When Riley first recalled detecting a rudeness in Xu’s demeanor, she brushed it off. However, as Xu applied her nails, Riley recalled feeling that Xu’s behavior towards her was “a little odd.”
“She stopped mid-nail and told me to pay the amount, which was 25 dollars. Which was ridiculous: I told her where I’m from in Chicago [nail service] only costs 20 dollars,” Riley said. “I still paid the fee anyway.”
Xu then told her to pay the tip fee, a 10 percent surcharge that Riley had not been made aware of. Riley informed Xu that she didn’t believe it was appropriate to ask for a tip before a service had been completed.
“The problem is that she asked for the tip during the service and not afterwards like she did with the white lady that walked in before me. I wanted the same service that was given to the white lady,” Riley said. “I told her, ‘Look, I don’t know why I’m paying for this right now and I don’t know why I’m paying this much money.’”
If asked to pay the fee after the service, Riley claimed she would have done so without a complaint. Riley said that she has been taught by her mother that black people are often stereotyped as people who don’t pay tips. She added that she always tips well due to the fear of being stereotyped.
“[Xu] told me that the reason she asked me to tip was because ‘people like me don’t tip,’ and that ‘our parents don’t teach us any better,’” Riley said.
The two got into an argument about whether or not Riley knew about the tip and chose to ignore it. Mid-way through the argument, Snyder began to record the incident.
According to the video, Xu stated she felt like Riley should know about the 10 percent tip, as she was a Chinese national and even she was aware of it. “You grow up in America. That means everything. I’m from China, you know more than me,” Xu said in the video.
Riley responded that growing up in America didn’t necessarily mean she knew about the tip. Riley was raised in the South Side of Chicago and had never encountered a 10 percent base fee.
“I’m not saying that you’re wrong or that it’s right for me to sit here and do all this type of stuff, it’s not and I apologize. I’m sorry for doing that,” Riley said. “I’m just culturally used to doing that in Chicago and to come here and be like ‘Oh yeah it’s 10.’ Like okay cool.”
Throughout the video Riley and Snyder insist that they did not know about the tip. Riley is seen making a face at the camera. Later on Riley stated that the environment was stressful. She admits that she began raising her voice.
“It was really tense. I mean, I’m not gonna lie, I started raising my voice because at some point you get really tired of this constant microaggression. I just started telling her off,” Riley said.
According to the video, Xu questioned if Riley’s parents had taught her how to tip. She gave the example of Riley’s parents taking her to a restaurant:
“Your mom, dad take you to go to a restaurant and don’t teach you how to tip?” Xu said. “You never going [to] learn it.”
Riley responded with sarcasm that she knew how to tip despite what she might look like while gesturing to her skin. She just wasn’t aware that a tip could have a base fee of 10 percent, as it wasn’t customary in their home city. Shortly after the video was recorded, Riley paid and walked out of the salon. She reported that the incident would forever color the way she saw race relations in America.
“It just solidified the fact that people from here aren’t . . . socially aware of the fact that not all black people are loud, ghetto and don’t tip,” Riley said.
Riley later informed Visiting Professor of Africana Studies Kwame Zulu Shabazz of the incident during her class with him.
Another Charge of Racism:
By the end of Fall Term, Professor Shabazz learned of two more racial incidents involving students at the Rainbow Nail Salon. In one instance, the Galesburg Police Department arrived to the scene after an argument involving freshman Karah Polk and Xu turned physical.
On Oct. 28, Polk and sophomore Jasmine Frison also went to the salon so Polk could get her eyebrows done. They reported that Xu filled in Polk’s eyebrows during her service without consent. After Polk stated she was unhappy with the service on account of her not liking any makeup on her face, Xu allegedly threw a mirror at her chest.
In an offense report written by Officer Jacob Taylor, who was called onto the scene just shortly afterwards, Xu claimed that she had not slammed a mirror at Polk. Her account was verified by a female customer who did not want to be named in the report.
“She stated that Xu had been professional and did not slam a mirror down at all,” Taylor wrote.
Xu advised Taylor that the alleged makeup was actually anti-irritant cream. The woman also reaffirmed that Xu told Polk it was just cream. Presented with the report, Polk claimed that while it was true there was another customer in the salon, both Xu and the woman were not telling the truth.
“I had to ask my friend Jasmine what she was putting on my eyebrows and that’s when she told me it was makeup. I saw [it] on the top portion [of my eyebrow] and wiped it off. It wasn’t cream,” Polk said. “That’s when she got mad and threw the mirror on my chest.”
Polk decided she was not going to pay for the service after feeling disrespected. As Polk attempted to leave the store, Xu grabbed her by the arm and said she had to pay the fee. Xu informed the pair that she was going to call the police if they left the store without paying. Frison then heard Xu curse them out and call the police.
“She was like, ‘These black girls come to my store and cause a commotion and I’ve never seen these black people here before!’ She was really dead-set on making sure [the police] knew that we were black,” Frison said.
Frison explained that she went to the shop again two weeks later while accompanying a friend, despite advising her against going. She recalled Xu attributing the incident with Polk to the fact that they were young black women.
“She sat us down and was like, ‘Yeah, black girls – they always do things like that.’ She was being racist,” Frison said. “I’m never going back there.”
Outside the salon:
What scared Frison the most during the incident was when the pair tried to leave the store again. Xu ran up behind Polk and grabbed her by the arm a second time. Polk broke free and left the store, however Xu followed them outside.
“Frison advised me that Polk left the store without paying, and that Xu tried to grab her and Polk was just defending herself by swinging at Xu,” Taylor wrote.
As the altercation between the two became more heated, Frison claims that eventually Xu kicked Polk in the stomach and then attempted to grab her again. However, in the offense report, bystander Samantha Gregory disagreed with Frison’s account.
“[Samantha] Gregory stated that Xu was trying to grab onto Polk to keep her from leaving, and Xu was asking Gregory to go get the phone and call the police. Gregory stated that she saw Polk swing a closed fist punch at Xu, and then Xu lifted up her foot as if she was going to kick Polk, which she did not,” Taylor wrote.
Polk expressed that she wished there was a camera on the street, as she felt the report did not accurately describe what happened.
“That’s not true, she did kick me,” Polk said.
Finally, Officer Taylor and two other GPD officers arrived at the scene at 3:21 p.m. Xu and Polk were then separated for good as Taylor began to get statements for his offense report.
Xu was contacted by The Knox Student three times over the phone, but refused to comment on the incident – believing the incident had happened too long ago. She also advised TKS to speak to the GPD as she believed American police to be some of the best. The second time she did not pick up or return the call. During the third attempt, Xu advised TKS not to call her again.
The influence of Jim Crow: across decades and cultures
Days after the incident, Frison also talked to Professor Shabazz about what happened. Shabazz reported that he knew Xu because his wife went to the salon often. Xu even joined them for dinner at their home a few times. He decided to speak to her personally about the incident.
“I went to her shop and as we were talking, she said these racist things. I was surprised — well, surprised, but also not surprised,” Shabazz said.
During their conversation, Xu reportedly began telling Professor Shabazz that she believed young black people to be ‘lazy’, ‘fat’ and that they ‘never wanted to pay for things.’ Xu allegedly claimed that it didn’t matter how she treated Polk — she knew Polk was not going to pay for the service when she first walked in.
According to Shabazz, black people getting treated differently during a service is a common occurrence with a deep historical context. Referencing Riley’s incident, he claimed Xu exhibited signs of having a Jim Crow mentality.
“During Jim Crow segregation, if a black person put on clothing or tried it, they had to buy it. They had to pay for services before they were rendered because that [was] the system. The system treated black people differently than white customers,” Shabazz said. “So it was really of a Jim Crow mentality that a young black student comes to her nail shop and she has to pay first.”
When asked how Xu could have an American Jim Crow mentality despite being a Chinese national, Shabazz explained that the stigma black people face has travelled the world for years. He also believed the influence of American media was another contributing factor to Xu’s alleged prejudice.
“Most immigrants learn negative stereotypes about African Americans. Why? Because they are filled in by the media. If you watch the news, you see black people going to jail and black people commiting crimes because white Americans control media,” Shabazz said.
However, Shabazz stated that Asian and African-American communities have a history of a lack of solidarity.
“A lot of it is cultural clashes, African-Americans have biases towards immigrants. America is really bad with differences,” Shabazz said. “Of course, African-Americans are raised in America and we’ve learned those things too.”
The GPD take statements:
After Polk and Xu were separated, Officer Taylor began taking statements for the offense report. He also informed Polk that she had to pay the salon’s service fee, or else she would be placed under arrest.
“I explained to Polk that if she was not happy with the service, she should not return for any future business. I also explained to Polk that hitting Xu in the stomach was battery, but Xu did not want to pursue charges,” Taylor wrote.
According to both the report and Polk herself, she became angry at the way Officer Taylor was handling the case. Polk stated that she was frustrated that Officer Taylor was more concerned with the fact that Polk didn’t pay the fee, rather than the fact that Xu had grabbed Polk.
“I told [Officer Taylor] about her putting her hands on me and his main focus was ‘but did you pay the fee?’ and I said ‘no’ and I gave him the reasons why,” said Polk. “I said ‘so you’re going to arrest me for not paying the service fee, but you’re not gonna arrest someone for putting their hands on me?’”
He informed her that not paying for the service was like going to a restaurant and ordering a salad, but then skipping out on the check because they got the dressing wrong. Polk responded that the example was “weak.” She later stated she believed it was a weak example because in that scenario, nothing was being thrown at the hypothetical diner, nor was the diner being grabbed.
“Polk asked that I write my name and badge number down on a piece of paper for her because she was unhappy with how the call was handled. I provided Polk with the information she requested,” Taylor wrote.
Polk verified that she had Taylor write down his badge number. Polk added that she told the officers that she wanted to press charges against Xu. Allegedly, Officer Taylor told her to expect a phone call from the GPD about pressing charges. However, after writing down her information, Officer Taylor never got back to her.
“He has never called me at all, he left that out of the report as well,” Polk said. “They’re basically trying to push it under the rug or trying to forget about the incident and I feel like that’s unfair.”
Polk claimed Taylor’s partner supported her against Xu. Though Taylor’s supervisor was listed on the report as Officer Lee Edward McCone, there was no mention of a partner.
“A lot of caucasian police officers are either oblivious or they try to ignore the fact that they are racially profiling and that’s what I feel Officer Taylor was doing,” Polk said. “Even his partner, I don’t know his name, but even his partner said ‘Yeah you don’t put your hands on someone else,’ he said that to me after I paid for the bill.”
Polk reported that she advised the unnamed officer to share his view with Officer Taylor. Polk stated she was concerned that Taylor’s own partner supported her, yet her claim was never further looked into. When asked why she never contacted the police herself, Polk said it was because she was afraid of walking into any police department as a young black woman. Her parents also advised her to stay focused on her schoolwork, as finals were just around the corner.
“[My parents] told me, ‘Don’t even go to the police because we don’t know how they work.’ There have been a lot of incidents where, I hate to say it, white officers shoot black people,” said Polk. “You get scared to actually approach [the police] on your own.”
In the meantime, her stepfather was going to be speaking to a network of judges and police officers he knew to see what could be done about the way the GPD handled Polk’s case. Polk was unsure of the progress he had made thus far.
Though Polk felt that the officers on the scene were not unprofessional or aggressive, she feels like they didn’t protect her properly or treat her fairly.
“I don’t want to say that [Officer Taylor] is racist because I don’t know anything about him, but I do feel like I wasn’t supported fully. I know oftentimes [that] police officers will take the adult’s word,” Polk said. “Obviously, this is also a primarily white neighborhood and black people get the term for being obnoxious and disrespectful. I feel like he stereotyped me and disregarded the fact that I was a victim.”
TKS tried to get in contact with Officer Taylor, but was informed by Captain Rodd Riggs that the GPD could not allow it. Riggs also stated that he felt Officer Taylor had done nothing wrong.
“I have no comment other than to say it sounds like [Polk] wants to make a complaint,” Riggs said.
Captain Riggs was contacted once more to speak about the racial nature of Polk’s allegations, but TKS has not gotten a response as of yet.
The students have reported a lasting negative impact of their encounters at the Chai Hong Rainbow salon. Riley stated that the incident would forever be in the back of her head every time she had to tip. For Polk, the incident has left a lasting psychological effect.
“When I recounted the whole incident again about [being] a black woman feeling oppression, it brought me back to an earlier time. I have depression, so it brought me back to a more depressed mood. It kind of threw me off in class as well,” Polk said.
Furthermore, the incident with the salon reminded Frison, Riley and Polk of the fact that the Knox administration does not have the resources in place to take care of black students who face racism in Galesburg. None of them had a school administrator they felt comfortable sharing their stories with. They also felt like the ABLE (Allied Blacks for Liberation and Equality) organization does not have the support needed to help students through situations like theirs.
“Being the first-year representative of ABLE, knowing how much power ABLE has, it’s just not enough,” Riley said. “There are problems like this on campus that people don’t talk about. There is racism throughout the hallways, at the parties, everywhere. People don’t wanna talk about it because it makes them uncomfortable.”
Shabazz agreed that ABLE should be given more funding and suggested that ABLE be frequently visited by administrators at Knox. Part of the reason he believes the students felt comfortable coming to him is because his support of black students is prominent on campus.
He also believes that as a higher learning institution, Knox College has a responsibility to ensure Galesburg is less racist for its brown and black students. He believes the cultural clubs on campus are the front lines to combating racism.
“Knox should be invested in making sure the community is safe for [black and brown students]. We could do a much better job,” Shabazz said. “So if you agree that racism is a problem, then all of us have to join hands and support these organizations.”
Video courtesy of Freshman Erykah Snyder