Today I attended a booksigning of a new book by Timothy Johnson on project management (check it out at Carpe Factum). While there I witnessed a sad but interesting encounter. An African American male in his 40s came into the store during the booksigning and stood looking at a display of books while listening to his iPod. Several customers, including me, continued talking with the bookstore employee and Timothy. The man never approached the employee or cash register and did not ask for help. I assumed he was browsing and didn't give it much thought as there were several other customers doing the same. After ten minutes he looked up, declared that he had come in the store to buy a book but that we apparently did not want his business. He then stomped out to the puzzled looks of those of us in the store. His perception was that he did not receive service because he was Black. My take was that it was not apparent that he had a question or needed help.
Who is right? What part does our past experiences have on our perceptions of a current event? I personally would not have made the assumption that I was not wanted in the store and would have asked for help. He obviously had experienced discrimination in the past and saw the experience through that filter. I will be teaching a class on Managing Diversity at Drake University beginning mid-May and am curious to see what my students think. How do we get away from making assumptions when these have been reinforced by past events?