Hotel Vitale apologizes to author

A San Francisco hotel has made a public apology after a noted African writer and university professor charged that an employee racially profiled him.

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, who has also taught at Yale University and New York University, according to his publisher, Random House. Thiong’o and his wife were in the Bay Area on the weekend of Nov. 10 to promote his latest book, “The Wizard of the Crow.” Random House had booked their stay at San Francisco’s swank Hotel Vitale, near the Ferry Building.

Thiong’o was sitting quietly in one of the hotel lounges on the Friday morning, quietly reading the paper, when the employee approached him and asked him to leave, according to accounts by both the author and the hotel.

“When the professor assured the employee that he was a guest at the hotel, he was challenged and compelled to further prove his status,” wrote Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the hotel’s parent company, in the quarter-page ad published in the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper, as part of the public apology. “These actions were unacceptable and this experience has deeply affected everyone concerned.”

When a hotel manager apologized but tried to brush the incident off as a misunderstanding, Thiong’o said his anger grew.

“It’s not a misunderstanding,” he said. “This person was very sure that there was no way I could have been a guest at that hotel.”

Thiong’o said he changed hotels and didn’t talk publicly about the incident until the next day, when he mentioned it during a radio interview about his new novel, which addresses the indignity of prejudice.

Upon hearing about the insult, one of the organizations that had invited Thiong’o to speak, the Priority African Network, or PAN, decided to publicize the incident and demanded a published apology.

In addition to the $450 newspaper ad, Conley also agreed to PAN’s suggestions that the hotel organization make a minimum $5,000 donation to a yet-to-be-determined local nonprofit that works to fight racism, and do additional staff training about racial discrimination.

“There was an unacceptable mistake related to race done by an employee and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that never happens again,” Conley said, noting that his romantic partner and his foster son are black.

Thiong’o and others said they couldn’t help but make comparisons to the recent racial tirade by comedian Michael Richards aimed at hecklers in a comedy club where he was performing.

“He was a much more grievous character, but it comes out of similar assumptions and certainties,” said Thiong’o. “The difference is the owner of the hotel has not tried to shy away from the implications of the act, and for that I am commending him.”

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