Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Race, Racism and the Beach

Back when I was a child my family used to visit a restaurant on the shores of Lake Ponchatrain that I cannot remember the name now. It was a beautiful large white Victorian style building, brave with as many swirls and sculpted shells as a white frosted wedding cake.

I don't remember what we ate there, but I will never forget the interior of this dining establishment, also all in white, white linen tablecloths, turning white ceiling fans and a large crystal chandelier. I'm sure it was quite expensive, I seem to remember the adults in the party having shrimp cocktails, raw oysters and martinis.

The other two things that stand out in my memory was first the dessert. I always had a scoop of plain chocolate ice cream in a fluted cut crystal goblet.

The other thing was the waiters, all black men dressed in white tail coats, as servile and ubiquitous as black men serving whites in a fancy place could be. I remember being puzzled as to why all the waiters were African Americans and asking, only to be told by an elderly family member that this was the way things should be.

I hadn't thought of that particular restaurant in many years, at least until this last week. I knew when we booked our hotel we were staying in a primarily black city, Norfolk, Virginia. I have no problem with that. The area was primarily black and the hotel had a largely black population. Again, no problem. I've worked, worshiped and gone to school with people of many different races and try my damnedest not to hold preconceived notions about people groups (unless they are Christian fundamentalists or old ladies trying to engage me in conversation in the gym. Those folks I will always think the worst of immediately, particularly fundamentalist Christians and their hate.)

I fail at this, oh so many times, but I still try. One of the deepest desires I hold for this world is that we all finally move past racism, to make color or race not matter. I think it will happen eventually but I think it's going to take my own generation dying out to accomplish that goal. Racism seems to be less endemic in the younger generations.

What was surprising about my beach trip was some of the racist reactions I observed in some of the people around me, both in the hotel and outside, on the beach and in the area. There were loads of white people acting like it was still plantation times and saying and doing some surprising things. Like watching an older white lady clutch her purse to her side when a smiling black man passed her on one of the beach paths near the Norfolk public beach. He hailed her, speaking out a friendly greeting even as she pressed her bag hard to her side. Overheard another complaining that she wasn't using the same restroom as 'insert your favorite racist epitaph here'. A thousand small actions, observing people changing sides of the street or making some small remark. The person I was with exhibited many racist comments, attitudes and behaviors, which sort of made me feel sick. I think this is going to be my last jaunt with her because I end up biting my tongue over her behavior and attitudes so many times. It requires more energy than I have now.

But it was also unnerving to find myself on the blunt tines of the opposite reaction. I experienced a very uncomfortable few minutes in the breakfast room with a large group of blacks, I walked in and all conversation stopped before I experienced what it was to be made the object of hostile glares. I still smiled, spoke to those nearest the door. What else could I do?

But it was just one bad moment for me, not much of a comparison to what many African Americans experience every single day at the hands of other Americans.

I don't blame them. If I've learned anything through the years of growing up in South Louisiana it's that the systematic racism of many people is so deeply ingrained that they are not aware of it on any meaningful level. I've questioned most of my more racist relatives. They gasp and swear they aren't racists, it's just this or that group of folks does this or that stereotypical negative thing. Yeah, then they start griping about our President being a Muslim. It just never ends.

I don't know what the answer is to end racism in this nation, but I wish I did. I guess I'll just keep trying my best not to behave the way I was raised. I am so thankful to no longer be living in the Deep South because I'm not sure I could keep my mouth shut enough to not get in trouble. Maybe that's the answer, not keeping silent about this.

I don't think until this trip I really understood how divided we are as a nation. Be afraid because I think this also means that these are the same folks that will be voting for Donald Trump. 'Make America Great Again' seems more like a coded language for 'Let's all hate and suppress various people groups again like we used to do..'

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