Barry Saunders

Is Chester a racist canine or just a scared one?

Don’t you just hate “antiquing” ?

Not the pastime: the word.

Turning “antique” into a verb conjures images of dudes in Bass Weejuns with sweaters wrapped around their necks, and women in flowerdy Laura Ashley peasant skirts who together try to beat some retiree selling a family heirloom out of $5 – then stop at Starbucks and pay $7 for a skinny latte (whatever the heck that is) while gloating over their “score.”

Shopping for and looking at old furniture is something I love doing – despite running into Chester last week.

The little antique shop set back from the road in Hillsborough beckoned as I looked for a stand-up desk similar to the ones Hemingway, Dickens, Hugo and other great writers have used. If it worked for them, perhaps it would work for me, right?

Chester’s bias

I was fixing to go inside, but found my way blocked.

Chester would not move. He gave me the fisheye. I gave it right back. He actually bared his teeth slightly, but not in a smile. Neither of us spoke, and it was obvious we would never share a laugh over Vienna sausages, saltines and a Coca-Cola.

“He doesn’t like black men with hats.”

The woman standing behind Chester, the proprietor of the shop, had come out, apparently after seeing the standoff.

She repeated the remarkable sentence and added “If you take off your hat, he’ll be alright.”

I took off my hat, but Chester’s attitude toward me didn’t soften noticeably.

She said she didn’t know why he was like that, but he was.

What was ol’ Chester doing while she explained his behavior? Standing there wagging his tail.

Chester is a dog.

His owner – also the owner of the antique shop – explained his undisguised antipathy toward me. She was kind, but not apologetic, as though having a bigoted dog was something that just couldn’t be helped.

This was the first time I’ve been racially profiled by a dog – unless you count that time last year when a South Carolina state trooper’s dog went crazy after I was pulled over, leaped into my truck and falsely signaled that drugs were in there.

Man’s best friend, my butt.

You’ll never convince me that danged dog wasn’t simply after that opened pack of Nabs on the front seat.

‘Unfortunate behavior’

Back to my antique shopping Saturday. The owners of other shops were delightful and welcoming, causing me to buy things I could’ve done without. I knew at once, though, that I wasn’t buying anything from the shop with Chester. As the song in the play “South Pacific” said, “you’ve got to be taught to hate.”

That’s true whether you’re a child or a dog, right?

Not necessarily.

Stephanie Lytle, owner of Topline K9 Obedience in Morrisville, said she has “definitely” seen such behavior in a few of her clients’ dogs. “If you have a dog that’s grown up and not seen a person of a different race, they get scared of that because it’s foreign to them. It’s not anything that’s taught. It’s just a matter of a dog not having seen someone like that before.

“It’s unfortunate behavior, but they don’t know that’s what they’re doing,” Lytle said. “You can see that same fear, for instance, sometimes if the person is wearing a hat.”

Say what?

After speaking with Lytle, I’m willing to give Chester the benefit of the doubt and conclude that his hostility toward me was inspired not by some other brother who stole his Alpo, or even because I have an Afro – but because I wear a chapeau.

Chester’s owner didn’t seem like someone who’d teach him to bare his fangs because of something as arbitrary as race. She explained that Chester was a “therapy” dog. I didn’t ask if that meant he was therapy for her or she – perhaps after having rescued him from owners who taught him to hate people such as I – was therapy for him.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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