Carle Wheeler was doing what one does on a vacation in the sun, hanging with her 5-year-old daughter in the pool of the hotel in Pasadena, Calif., where they were staying, when a man approached them.
The two moved to the other end of the pool, but he approached again and she confronted him on what appeared to be “blatant racism,” she said. He claimed he worked for the health department when she asked, Wheeler said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“I let him know that being black is not a disease and showering would not wash the BLACK off our skin,” Wheeler, 33, a software engineer and single mother from Dallas, wrote on her Facebook page. “I think it’s awful that ANY man would think it’s okay to essentially ask a woman and a little girl if we took off our clothes and scrubbed our naked bodies before getting into a hotel swimming pool.”
The incident, the end of which was captured on camera in a video that has been seen more than 2 million times, is the latest in a long line of episodes to draw scrutiny to the way black people are treated as objects of suspicion by others while engaged in seemingly quotidian activities in public. In recent months, episodes in which black people were questioned or had the police called on them — while renting an apartment through Airbnb, barbecuing, falling asleep in a common room at Yale or sitting in a Starbucks — have drawn wide attention, much of it fueled by strong emotions on social media and giving rise to the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack. Some of these incidents were resolved only after the people targeted were questioned or arrested by police.
The video of the confrontation at Wheeler’s hotel begins as she and the man, who has not been identified, discuss the conflict with a woman who works at the hotel, the Westin.
“I simply asked them if they showered,” the man tells the hotel employee. “Because that’s part of the rules. And I don’t know about you guys, but I’m tired of getting into pools that people consider baths.”
“You didn’t ask anyone else,” Wheeler retorts in the video. She told The Post that there were other people in the pool area, including a white couple that had been in the hot tub nearby, whom the man had not approached.
As they were talking to the hotel employee, the man continued to taunt her young daughter, Wheeler said. The video shows the little girl being led away by a relative as the man says, “It’s only a shower, young lady. Don’t worry.” Wheeler said the man said the phrase to her daughter twice.
A hotel manager arrives and threatens to call the police, before asking the man to leave. Wheeler said she was upset that the manager let the man walk away while asking her to step to the side to talk to him, though the manager did say on the video that he planned to talk to the man later.
“Only after speaking with the white bystanders who corroborated our story did [the manager] instruct the other hotel managers to review the tapes to find the man he had just let go!” Wheeler wrote. She said he does not believe that the man, who the manager said was another hotel guest, suffered any consequences for his behavior.
The hotel’s manager, Carl Sprayberry, released a statement that expressed regret for the way Wheeler was treated by the man.
“Harassment on any basis is not tolerated,” the statement said. “We are continuing to investigate this serious matter and deeply regret that one of our guests experienced this type of behavior.”
The Pasadena Health Department told the television channel KTLA that the man is not a health inspector and that no inspector had been at the Westin recently. And an inspector would not confront patrons if there had been any sanitation issues at the pool, a spokeswoman said.
The incident in Pasadena came at the tail end of a five-day trip in Southern California. The cost of the one night that Wheeler stayed at the Westin was refunded to her because of the incident.
But she says one of the worst parts was facing her daughter after the incident. Her daughter had many questions, the most pressing being why the man asked them about showering, she said.
“I could tell her wheels were turning,” Wheeler said. “I teach her to stay away from strangers, but I also teach her to identify inappropriate exchanges between adults and children. So she knew immediately that a grown man should not be asking a young girl if she showered. She was crying and upset, and she’s been quite different since we got back home, so I know she’s been affected by this.”
Wheeler said she always knew that she would have to have a long talk with her daughter about racism one day but didn’t think it would happen when her daughter was so young.
“I expected to have that conversation but never at 5 years old,” she said. “I was sickened by the whole ordeal, but what hurt me the most was that in this day and age I had to leave that area and go to the hotel room and explain to my daughter why that man approached us. Some people in this world, no matter how successful we are, no matter how good we are or how we treat others, some people just won’t like us because of the color of our skin. We were being bullied by that man.”
She was also left with the feeling that the hotel’s management did not fully support her, writing on Facebook that it upset her that people in positions of power “will not stand up for us when they know it’s wrong that we are treated that way.” She said she hopes the hotel institutes sensitivity and diversity training for its staff.
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