SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2015 Personal Memory Ethnographies
An Alternate White Reality: Exploring Borderlands of Race
It was the year 2010 and I was 21 years old. It was at this time that I experienced my first real borderland of racial differences. In lieu of exchanging Christmas presents this year, my mom and I decided to vacation to Louisiana, a place which we had never before experienced. I had grown up in Boulder, Colorado, a town well-known for its homogenous white and middle class population. Due to my sheltered experience in this social location, I had never truly experienced diversity. Boulder is a politically idyllic town, in that it preaches and encourages racial awareness and equality. However, I had never actually seen those ideals put into action, or more importantly, seen the actual consequences that result from inaction. In fact, I attended grade, middle, and high school with a total of five black kids, a sprinkling of Asians, and zero Hispanics. I had a narrowly theoretical understanding of racial inequality, but through the lenses of rose-colored glasses.
Boulder is a town that almost prides itself on being colorblind. Because it is such a white city, the colorblindness comes not only from the refusal to see color but the inability to see it; the percentage of black residents in Boulder during the 1990s, when I grew up, was 1.1%. As a resident of the town, I had an intangible idea of “color” and what it meant; however, it existed outside my realm of reality. I was excited to travel to the Deep South because unlike Colorado, I know Louisiana’s roots are drenched in Old South history. However, I did not anticipate that this legacy would be accompanied by a set of rules I had never even considered.
The midpoint in our journey to Louisiana landed me and my mother in Baton Rouge, where we stopped at a Radisson hotel for the night. After dinner that night, Mom and I decided to ease the fullness of the meal with an exploratory stroll through an adjacent neighborhood that lay right off of the highway, and only a few blocks from our hotel. It was just after the city’s many parades of Saint Patrick’s Day, so the smell of alcohol lingered in the air just as the remnants of glitter and confetti stuck to the gutters in the streets. Amidst the neighborhood’s low hanging power lines were neat rows of wooden houses, all single-level and painted in greens, blues, and reds. The Southern humidity had caused many houses to have peeling paint and buckling wood. The vacated carcass of an abandoned white wooden house sat on the corner of the block, the lawn overgrown with weeds.
It was a balmy spring day in Baton Rouge. The clock hands indicated that it was only a few minutes past six o’clock in the evening, which meant that the bright sun was rapidly sinking; nightfall would soon be near. I was sitting on my porch bench, sipping on some wine. Sitting with me was my oldest boy and my wife, Ida. In the driveway, my youngest son and daughter were playing basketball with their cousins and a couple neighborhood kids. Suddenly, Ida nudged me, and nodded her head to our neighbor’s house, a few doors down. Two white women, both with freckles and red hair, were talking to our neighbor, Jerome. It was Ida who first pointed out that they must be tourists.
We had only been walking down this particular street for a couple minutes when a black man approached us from one of the houses.
“What in heaven’s name are those women doing in these parts,” Ida mumbled out loud.
Clearly, they must have been tourists due to the very fact that they were walking ignorantly in a completely black neighborhood during twilight. We watched as the women talked briefly to Jerome.
“Are ya’ll lost?” He asked. “Where are you trying to get to?” We replied that we were just walking back to our hotel. From where we were standing, we could see that the sidewalk would lead us directly to an open fence behind our hotel.
“You can’t get there from here,” he told us. “You have to go back around.”
“Sure we can,” we chortled back, pointing to the seemingly obvious path to the hotel. We thanked him and moved along naively, noting to one another how friendly and helpful he had seemed. We chalked it up to the legendary Southern hospitality about which we had always read.
As these silly white women continued to walk up the road and approached our house, Ida gently elbowed me. Go set them straight, Michael,” she whispered. “They are likely to get themselves into some trouble, walking around like that, all oblivious.”
Taking hold of my wine glass, I sauntered down to meet them at the sidewalk.
We had only passed a few more houses when we were stopped by another black man. He came from his front yard, holding a plastic cup of wine. His family was lounging on the porch; they all stopped and stared as he began talking to us.
“You must be lost,” he said. “Where are you going?”
By this point, I was quite tickled by the fact that this man’s interest mirrored that of his neighbor’s. I was convinced that, yes, the Southern hospitality was real and we were getting a chance to experience it. We assured him that we were, in fact, not lost. We pointed to the hotel which was now clearly in our line of sight. “We’re just staying at that hotel. We can walk—”
Before we could finish, he interrupted us, “you can’t get there through here.”
“Sure we can,” we replied. My mom pointed straight ahead, “see? Our hotel is just past that gate. It’s a straight shot!”
“No,” I said, this time with determination. “You cannot get there from here. You have to turn around and go back onto the main road. You can get to your hotel that way, but not through here. Turn around.”
Taking the hint, the women chortled a “thank you,” and turned around to walk back the way they had come. I returned to the porch bench. Ida was shaking her head and mumbling “silly white girls. Thinking they can walk wherever they choose. Are they crazy? This ain’t a neighborhood for white girls swingin’ their purses all loose like that. Don’t they think before they walk? Don’t they know a hotel right off the highway is where gangbangers hang out? Tsk…”
As we slowly walked way, I noticed a peculiar feeling coming over me. My confusion turned into surprise, which morphed into shock and a dissonant feeling of delight. The same must have happened to my mom, as we both burst into giggles of shock. I turned to her, asking “did they just kick us out of their neighborhood?”
Mom and I walked back to our hotel the way we had come, laughing hysterically the whole way. By the time we made it back, I could hardly breathe from laughing so much. What was this rupture upon my reality I had just experienced? An odd sensation bubbled up from my core.
I was not sure what it was back then; could it have been that my personal invisible white framework had been challenged and broken? In retrospect I knew I had experienced a distinct awkward feeling of being uncomfortable. Due to this dissonance, my ill-perceived un-comfortability was displaced by uncontrollable laughter, in order to sooth or mask it. My normal perception of the world had been shattered in a way I did not fully understand; I was no longer enveloped by the comforting invisible backdrop of whiteness to which I had grown familiar. I felt a sense of shame. It was shame from my ignorance; I thought that as a traveler I could walk anywhere without consequences, and I was unable to reason why this was not the case.
My personal incident reflects an unsettling juxtaposition in social locations. I was a naive tourist wandering recklessly in an unfamiliar part of town, completely ignorant to my surroundings. As a person of white privilege, I had never even considered that the rules might change were I to venture out of my bubble. However, a timeline of racial events around this time contains numerous instances in which the very idea of walking around in a neighborhood could mean loss of rights or even a loss of life. Both Arizona and Alabama’s strict anti-immigration laws explicitly allow for the use of racial profiling. Anyone, based on their color of skin, could be stopped, interrogated, and essentially terrorized about their immigration status. Even dark-skinned people born in the United States have been victim to these acts, being inconvenienced and questioned simply due to the fact that they are not white. Yet, I neither experienced these issues, nor even considered them from my social location. It now makes me feel very uneasy to realize that the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was signed into effect less than one month after my personal incident. My experience as a white American was and still is so drastically different from an American of a different color, and I was never even aware.
One particular incident on the timeline of race which I resembled mirrors my own in the same way that a negative of a photograph mirrors the object in the image. In 2012, two years after my trip down South, black youth Trayvon Martin was shot and killed simply for walking through his own neighborhood in Florida. The repercussions of one’s ability to walk through a neighborhood, Trayvon as a resident, me as a tourist, are drastically different depending upon skin color.
The very fact that the race timeline is full of civil rights and other liberties shows the significance of the lack of those rights. My timeline begins in 1950 with a statement issued from the United Nations, which discredits scientific racism and urges institutions to stop thinking in terms of race. This is followed by events such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, and discussion of affirmative action. The importance of these events is reflected in American history, social structures, and the entire scope of human dignity. Furthermore, the events that follow, such as race riots and police brutality, display the dissonance that still occurs within this country. The negligent way in which Hurricane Katrina was handled, which was only miles away from my walk through a black neighborhood in Baton Rouge, reveals more than just improper Federal responses; the aftermath of Katrina revealed the utter inequality in Louisiana that preceded the hurricane. The majority of people affected by the hurricane were black and lower class, and it begs the question: had the hurricane happened in Boulder, Colorado, would the response have been the same?
Upon further discussion, Mom and I agreed that the black men had not tried to evict us from their neighborhood out of malice or exclusivity, but rather out of concern for two white women tourists who clearly were lost, unaware of the danger that could befall them from walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood in an unfamiliar town.
Friends and family to whom I later told this story were all very concerned, saying that our ignorance could have landed us in trouble. I suppose I should have felt more retrospective fear and relief, but I did not. Never before in my life had I been in an environment which could have been detrimental to my safety based on my skin color. In fact, I had never even considered my skin color as being an issue. In hindsight, my mom and I were lucky that we got the attention of those concerned black men, and that they knew enough about the situation to steer us in the right direction, figuratively and literally.
It is notable to touch upon the 2015 shooting of nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church by a man wearing the Confederate flag and the state’s subsequent ban of the flag. Just a day before arriving in Baton Rouge, my mother and I had seen a Confederate flag hanging proudly from a house in Northern Louisiana. I had felt peculiar at the blatant display of the flag which caused me to feel as though I had stepped into an alternate reality, an episode of the Twilight Zone, where barefaced racism was permissible. However, the truth of the matter is that it was I had come from an alternate reality where I had the luxury and comfort of obliviousness to my own white privilege. My perception of how the world worked in terms of race had been so sheltered that when I finally did experience racial differences firsthand, my entire core was shaken.
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