A friend of mine is visiting from California where folks like to claim they are liberal and progressive and all that jazz. The reality is quite different. Where did Prop 8 happen (hint: California), who has a new version of slavery (read: giant for profit farms where grossly underpaid immigrants do all the work), and don’t get me started on racism. So I’m not a believer in that myth of California as the land of the free.
However, many who live there consider themselves among the most progressive people in our country and think the South is a backwater of racism and illiteracy. And just yesterday, we got to prove them right.
My friend, my son (Tin) and I went to San Fermin in the Quarter to run with the bulls. Afterwards, we went to Elizabeth’s to eat a good ole Southern breakfast of praline bacon, smothered smoked pork chops, grits and grillades (read: big ole slab of meat in red gravy) and as if that wasn’t enough for my burgeoning acid reflux, we headed for coffee and beignets to Morning Call in City Park.
Before we exploded, we decided to take a walk in the sculpture garden. I’m particularly proud of this sculpture garden, and love to bring out of town guests to it. Tin has enjoyed going there since he was a baby.
We walked in as Tin and my friend were cutting up, pretending Tin was invisible, and when a woman began speaking to Tin, he got upset. No, we told her, he’s invisible. Ahhh. She got it, but what she didn’t get was how the three of us fit together and so she asked. Twice that day someone had grown alarmed and began looking for Tin’s “mother” while I stood right beside him. It’s a curious reaction people have and for the life of them, they can’t equate Tin and I standing side by side as us being a family.
Okay, no offense taken.
At the end of a long day of playing tourist in my own city, my friend told me something that gave me that heavy sinking feeling. The one called racism. While I was in the woman’s bathroom with Tin, my friend witnessed an incident where a scraggly looking man drove his bike up wildly to the front of the sculpture garden and once inside threw his bike down; then the security guard walked over and said, “You can’t park that bike in here, you need to leave it outside.” The man on the bike became enraged and started shouting, “Shut up you N-word, don’t tell me what to do you stupid N-word.”
My stomach clenched (the first thing I thought was thank god my son wasn’t there; the next thing I thought was that poor security guard). I asked what the guard did and my friend said, “He just stood there with no expression on his face as if he had heard it before.”
The clench in my stomach turned to a big pit of snakes.
What did you do? I asked my friend. He said, “I was stunned, I saw the guard looking at me almost to see what I was thinking, was I with this guy because I’m white, was I with him, or what. And later after the man left, I went over to the guard and said, “I’m glad you were here.””
I tried to think what I would have done in that situation, with or without Tin with me.
You have a clearly deranged person shouting something truly insane at a person who is there to protect you – what do you do? I thought this morning as I was dropping Tin at camp I might have said to the crazy man – not provocative, but more like disgusted – “that’s ugly and God don’t like ugly” – or something like that, which would say to the Black security guard, I’m deeply offended and not say: I pity you. This would check the crazy man’s racist invectives and disruption of the tourist experience I intended to offer my out of town guest and would in some way say: crazy dude, I’m in no way white like you.
We had watched the tour buses cruising around the 9th Ward showing the devastation from the 2005 Federal Flood and how all the poor people had lost their homes and their way of life, now my friend had the added bonus to leave New Orleans and head back to California with an intact racist anecdote to share in the land of the free.