Matt Driscoll

Underground Railroad escape room to change name after a thoughtful conversation about race

Admitting a mistake is hard.

So is acknowledging a blind spot — particularly when it comes to matters of race. Too often, the prospect leads to digging in instead of progress.

So what has the power and the potential to break through these barriers?

As complex and overwhelming as the divide can often feel, more often than not it comes down to being willing to listen and talk — face to face — to those with different perspectives and opinions.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where both those things have become the exception and not the rule.

We go now to the Escape Freighthouse Station escape room which, last week, provided a test case on all of the above.

As readers of this column will likely recall, it was here that a Civil War-themed escape room was operating under the name “Escape to the Underground Railroad.”

And it was here that one “observant reader,” as I described him in my previous column, took it upon himself to model the kind of constructive, intentional behavior that makes change and genuine understanding possible.

The result?

Escape Freighthouse Station is changing the name of the escape room in question.

“It was NOT, and is NOT ever our intention to cause any harm, or ill will to any person, or persons. So, we have consulted with some amazing people in our community, and have reached a decision,” the business announced on its Facebook page over the weekend, unveiling a contest to rename the escape room in the process.

“We do apologize for the situation, and would like to make it right,” the statement added.

First and foremost, good for Escape Freighthouse Station. As I reported, the original name was essentially chosen at random, with no real thought given to the potential negative impact or the historical implications. More baffling, the escape room’s premise has nothing to do with the Underground Railroad, making all of this painfully unnecessary and confounding.

Still, it takes courage to acknowledge a wrong, apologize and work to make it right. While attempts to reach the escape room’s owners were unsuccessful this time around, that appears to be exactly what they’re doing here, so they deserve credit.

Now to the “observant reader” — 33-year-old Gray Sterling, a Tacoma man and person of color, who regularly commutes to work by bus.

That means Sterling spends plenty of time at the Tacoma Dome Station and Freighthouse Square.

It was during a pit stop at Freighthouse Square’s bathrooms, he explained, where he first encountered advertisements for the Underground Railroad escape room.

After emailing the business with his concerns and receiving no response for roughly a week, Sterling decided to reach out to me.

“The imagery really struck me” Sterling said of the advertisements, which featured a black and white photo of Abraham Lincoln at what appears to be a Civil War camp below the words “Escape to the Underground Railroad and solve the clues.”

“At first glance, … it seemed problematic,” Sterling said. “Anytime that I’ve come across something like this … that requires a little bit more thought, I like to just sit with it for a minute and reflect, and realize why it’s impacted me the way it is and why I find it problematic.”

Luckily, Sterling’s lengthy bus ride provides just such an opportunity.

It also gave him time to think about how to respond — and, equally important, how not to respond.

Sterling realized a few things, he said.

For starters, he was adamant that such an obviously hurtful and tone-deaf name had no place in Tacoma.

Equally important, Sterling said he was moved to action, but wanted to make his effort count — which meant being willing to listen and working to avoid the social media pile-on that so often comes with the territory.

After my column published, Sterling said the escape room’s owner, Gina Urban, replied to his email. A nearly week-long back and forth conversation ensued, culminated by an invitation last Friday to talk in person — which Sterling accepted.

Sterling acknowledges the conversation was difficult at times. He listened as Robin Clark, the escape room’s chief operating officer, again explained how the name was chosen and how no offense was intended. He listened as Clark discussed his background, including his military service, and explained how a percentage of the business’s proceeds go to a local food bank.

Sterling listened as Clark provided his side of the story, in other words, including how he thought the name might spark an interest in history and, even more, his hesitancy to change it now, because it felt like giving in.

Then Sterling delivered his side of the story, including explaining how many of the negative reactions to the escape room’s name were “coming from a place of real pain and fatigue related to the lived experiences that people of color.”

And a magical thing happened.

Clark listened, too, and responded.

“This was not an intentional act of ignorance, but really a product of ignorance and an inability to effectively communicate where they were coming from,” Sterling said of what he took away from the experience.

That’s a long way of saying that Sterling believes the escape room’s owners are good people who made a mistake and deserved the chance to make it right without being crushed.

So what should people take away from all of this?

“I tend to approach issues of racism with a mindset of ‘if you see something, do something.’ Which is to say, it’s not enough to just say something via social media and leave it at that.,” Sterling said. “Hopefully this situation would encourage others to go one step further, and seek ways to take action in effort to initiate change. “

“At the end of the day, I simply wrote a few emails that led to your article, a follow up conversation, and ultimately a positive outcome. A relatively small — though significant — investment of time and energy that ended up making a difference,” he added.

“I’m happy to know that there’s still a space in this current climate where people can have a dialogue, and have it come to a productive resolution.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.