Richmond, Home of The Most Racist Laundromat in America

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.
(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

Lost Clothes SignI've been thinking for far too long about how to do something about the U-Washee laundromat on NW 5th Street here in Richmond, Indiana.  I say "far too long" because I've known about its existence for years, and have only thought and talked with others about it, instead of taking action.  I've been trying to figure out how to convert its overt displays of racism into a useful and transformative conversation in the community.  Why does this place exist in the first place?  Who patronizes it and what do they see and think about its imagery and stereotypes?  How does our Asian population feel about it?  Why isn't there more conversation happening already about U-Washee?

It was simultaneously a good and bad thing today to see that there are plenty of people talking about U-Washee outside of Richmond.  A little more than a month ago, The Bilerico Project put up a great commentary with photos and really calls Richmond out for not taking action on this, but also ties it to larger trends of racism in the Midwest:

The laundromat is, literally, built on racist stereotypes of Chinese people and no one gives it a passing glance. It's 1940's era cartoon stereotype mascot, what Margaret Cho calls "feng shui hong kong fooey font," and the extra "ee"s at the end of words in the business's name and posted notices all combine to form one hellish timewarp into a past America most areas have forgotten but we tend to accept as typical - and no one utters a peep.

Then there's the long line of commenters below the post essentially shaking their heads at us.  This is played out across comments from elsewhere in the blogosphere and media on U-Washee, all wondering why Richmond citizens aren't outraged.

I wonder that too.  As a community that is usually at least no more willing to wear our racist tendencies on our sleeves than other Midwestern towns, and that sometimes rises to the challenge of confronting racism more directly, it seems like we would not want to let this pass.

Heck, if only for economic development reasons, you could make a case that it's really bad for a city that's struggling economically to even risk the possibility of offending a businessperson considering locating an operation here.  In recent years, we've spent non-trivial resources developing relationships with contacts, governments and corporations in Asian countries (not that Asian people should be the only ones insulted by this).  But if you drive someone on out to our industrial and business parks, you'll get to see U-Washee along the way

Here's what I can suggest for action, perhaps in order of escalation:

  • Contacting the management and/or owners of U-Washee directly and asking them to remove the U-Washee branding and signage
  • Raising awareness of the racist imagery through letters to the editor, talking about it with your peers and family, other media exposure, etc.
  • Facilitating a community conversation about race and racism in the context of the U-Washee branding
  • Notifying the various local organizations that might feel it is within their purview and/or mission to address this
  • Asking Richmond's Mayor and Common Council to issue statements condemning the racist imagery

I don't want Richmond to be known for things like this, do you?

8 thoughts on “Richmond, Home of The Most Racist Laundromat in America

  1. Seems to me the least costly means is to take up a collection of donations to pay the owners to change it, Coase theorem style.

    They have the right to do whatever you want. You could try a boycott or picketing, but you're not the customers and picketing would probably be more costly in terms of time and hassle.

    I'd guess that less confrontation would work better than more confrontation. But I have a guess as to why you've let it slide all these years--in the bigger scheme of things it's a pretty weak form of racism. It's not like they're shooting unarmed black men here. It may be easy pickings because it's so obvious, but really it could make protesters look petty, like a cop who pulls folks over for going 41 in a 40. We have much bigger fish to fry.

    So I'd say you want to avoid the "pick on someone your own size" criticism here.

  2. Chris,
    Thanks for coming up with 5 suggestions for dealing with the situation that didn't include "there oughta be a law".

    Maybe the EDC or Chamber of Commerce could hook the owner up with a perspective new owner. Sounds like the present owner might consider selling, and a new owner might find a less offensive brand.

  3. @Adam: thanks for your comments. I agree there are more overt forms of racism and other problematic practices that need attention. That doesn't mean this doesn't need attention.

    @Rex: you're welcome, and thanks for the thought about an ownership transition plan.

    Chris

  4. I've heard of this, and decided to not give them my business. But this is much more proactive. I don't see why this shouldn't be illegal. The city investigated a business for racist hiring practices, so why can't a complaint be filed about this? If anyone has felt discriminated against in this place, then shouldn't the human rights commission become involved? You're right, Richmond shouldn't become known for this. Instead, we should become known for dealing responsibly with overt racism in our community.

  5. Chris - If this were a laudromat that used racist language toward African Americans, I suspect there would be an outcry, and the city would investigate for civil rights violations, and the sign would come down. Rightly so. A sign like this is an assualt. The fact that this particular assualt targets Asians, who are a tiny minority in our town, lets it go beneath the radar.

    Meanwhile, while we're talking about racist language, I would also suggest we rid our town of racist icons: those "lawn jockeys" that still appear in yards. And the Confederate flag which adorns homes, trucks, t-shirts, lawns. I don't buy the argument that this particular icon represents some kind of brash Americanism. foo on that. It's racist, plain and simple.

    There are many other symbols, flags, signs, icons, that people brandish -- we know them when we see them -- and they are all about intimidation, meant to conjure up a bit of fear in a particular group of people. And this, I would argue, is a form of harrassment, and as such can be confronted legally.

    Actually, thinking about it: why wouldn't a picket line in front of the laundromat be a good idea? If nothing else, it would get on the evening news (if one planned it well...).

  6. Like Mr. Bell, I too appreciated Chris's avoidance of government action as the fist tool for addressing things we find offensive in our neighbors' conduct. If nothing else, the fact that our state, county and city governments have almost bankrupted themselves fighting the "drug war" over the last 30 years, leaves very little in the way of enforcement dollars for additional sins to turn into crimes.

    I grew up in the South, and I can say that most of the stereotypes of southern racial attitudes do hold true. When I came to the great north, I thought I had left those sentiments behind. However, the racism in the "North" is there, and I frankly find it much more troublesome than what I left behind in the South.

    In the South, folks just came out and said what they felt and flew the confederate flag in their lawns. Up here, folks feel the same, but keep it hidden.

    Ask yourself: Would you rather patronize a business where the owners secretly hate you and secretly do whatever they can to cause you discomfort, or see a sign outside, basically saying "YOU, not welcome here?"

  7. I dissent from this characterization. I don’t think the laundromat’s Chinese association is racist. Immigrant’s from the same country often start businesses of the same type, and this was the case, from the 1850s, with Chinese immigrants who opened laundries. To quote from an article about Chinese laundries in San Diego:

    “In the spring of 1851, a Chinese man named Wah Lee opened the first Chinese hand laundry in the United States. It was in a small, leased storefront and basement in San Francisco. He posted a sign that read: “Washing and Ironing,” and undercut the going rate for washing to “$2 for a dozen pieces”. Wah Lee was immediately overwhelmed by customers. In less than three weeks, he had twenty washer men working three shifts a day. Within three months, dozens of other Chinese hand laundries sprung up all over the city.

    "Before long, Chinese laundries emerged wherever Chinese immigrants settled; from small mining towns to towns where railroads were being built. By the 1870s, there were Chinese laundries in the large towns all across the country. By the 1880s, there were at least 1,000 Chinese laundries in the city of San Francisco alone. By 1900 most large American cities had Chinese laundries, which employed 75% of all Chinese men.

    "Chinese immigrants chose to open laundries because it was the quickest way to become their own boss. It didn’t require them to speak much English and it didn’t take much money to start one.”

    A century ago seventy-five percent of all Chinese men owned or were employed by laundries!

    In our day immigrants from one area of India (often with the last name Patel) dominate the independent hotel industry, and it has been estimated that 90 percent of the nail salons are Vietnamese-owned.

    Richmond, Indiana has a sordid history of racial discrimination (see the city’s Wikipedia entry), but this isn’t an example of it.

  8. Chris Hardie may want to re-cant his message up above because this is stated as Chris's opinion. How would Mr.Hardie know anything about the owner of the U-Washee's financial information? I am greatly offended because of the way that he states HIS opinion about the owner. Chris Hardie does NOT know what he is talking about and he better take his garbage article off the web before he is sued!! This information will be forwarded to the appropriate people for legal reasons. The owner of the laundromat was NOT racial by any means. He is the grandfather of my wife and the both of are OUTRAGED by the"opinion" of Mr.Chris Hardie. These lies WILL NOT BE TOLERATED!!!

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