Friday, November 06, 2009

For White Outsiders Who Are "OMG Offended" About That Justice of the Peace in Louisiana

My younger brother married a woman from a Cajun community in an unincorporated region of Louisiana called Des Allemands (the irony of a place with that name consisting almost entirely of Cajuns still amuses me). It's a very sparsely-populated area. Wikipedia says that, according to the 2000 Census, there are about 2,500 people who live in Des Allemands. It also says that 10.44% of the population (~261 people) identified themselves as African-American. That is not a lot of black people, folks!

It shouldn't be much of a surprise to hear that it's not known for being especially welcoming towards people of color. It's a real sundown town and my advice is that, if you are a person of color who plans to travel through that area, it would be wise to take that characterization seriously. It's a place where the word "nigger" is the default term used to refer to black people and I'm not exaggerating one bit here.

My sister-in-law has never lied or tried to hide the way her family felt about the idea of her marrying a person of color. They were dead-set against the marriage. However, from the minute when we first met her family, they were wonderful towards us. My dad and her dad sat and talked about fishing for hours while our mothers looked through family albums, cooing at all of my sister-in-law's pictures from back when she was a pageant baby. They still keep in touch with each other via telephone calls even though they live in different states now.

After Hurricane Katrina, my brother and his wife moved in with her parents. I remember my brother telling me about how proud her grandfather was to tell people that his granddaughter had found a good husband. He still used the word "nigger" from time to time, but he defended my brother any time someone tried to hassle or criticize him. They get along great now. He's helped them out lots of times when, as a very young couple, they sorely needed it.

Every year, they invite us out to the Crawfish Festival, which is the biggest event that the area hosts. Whenever we go, we never see more than a handful of obviously black people other than the ones in our family. The white people out there always ask us if we are enjoying ourselves and where we are from. They are all extremely friendly. My momma and daddy love to zydeco on the outdoor dance floor with all of the other white people in their age group. The older Cajuns that can only speak French have treated me like I'm family when I spoke back to them in my broken Louisiana French.

We have a damned good time, but always make sure we leave before sun-down. It's really easy to figure out what sort of things are likely to lead to troublesome situations with the folks out there. The unstated rules are fairly clear. I never feel like that when I'm around whites outside of the south. Most of them would never use the term "nigger", but they'd just as soon watch you die than to offer what most white people here would consider basic courtesy.

That Justice of the Peace who said he even allows black people to use his bathroom was being more progressive than I think most of these ignorant "OMG offended" white outsiders ever bother to become. It's been a minute since I read it, but in "Black Like Me" I seem to recall John Griffin writing in depth about how whether whites allowed him to use even the nastiest, ricketiest, outhouses on their property revealed a lot about what sort of people they were. People who were perfectly friendly and had no problem selling (the black) him their wares, would become stone-faced if he asked to use their bathroom, even though they had no problem allowing him to use it when he looked like a white man.

The context wasn't worth understanding for most of the white people who were so indignant about the actions of the Justice of the Peace. The writer of the article I linked to didn't even bother to find out that none of this occurred anywhere near New Orleans. Hammond isn't even in the same parish as New Orleans. Hell, it's not even in a neighboring parish!

Distance between Hammond, La. and New Orleans, La.= 43 miles (69 km)

This was just another opportunity for white society to reinforce its own hierarchy of whiteness. I think it's the same with the experiences of mixed people of color who are part white. What we go through doesn't mean shit to the average well-meaning white liberal unless it can be used to prove some point about the issues that concern them.

Our experiences are constantly de-centered and I think it's because de-centering is one of the hallmarks of white society. Any entity that chomps its way through other societies will inevitably chomp through parts of itself. I think that the outcome of the elections regarding gay marriage in California and Maine is an excellent example of how this works.

5 comments:

libhom said...

I think that Justice of the Peace got exactly what he deserved. I don't think context justifies any kind of bigotry anymore. I'm sick of it, and I want it all to stop yesterday.

livinonfaith said...

Growing up as a white person in the south, it is sometimes very difficult to put into words the complex relationships that exist between black and white people. Your story comes as close as any I have heard.

In the south, for many people, there is an unspoken allegiance, a code of honor, for lack of a better word. You generally treat your neighbors with common respect, no matter what their color. For example, if someone's house is damaged in a storm, women may take food and men might lend a hand to help with repairs.

While racism certainly does exist, the rules of human decency still apply and there is a sense of loyalty to the people you grew up with, black or white. You know these people. Especially in a small town, you have worked beside or played with or done business with just about everyone in the town. If not, then with one of their family members.

I think you will understand that I'm not saying there isn't racism. There obviously is still a divide. There is also still a tendency to lump black (and some white) people into the "good ones", deserving of help, and the "bad ones", undeserving of help.

When I went to college, just about everyone from up north would talk about how racist we southerners were and how liberal and progressive northerners were. Then when we "racist" white southerners would actually interact with black people, the northerners would stand back and act all out of place, because most of them had never really met many black people. It was all just lip service. It's pretty easy to be nice to some mythical imaginary person. It's different when suddenly there is a real human being standing in front of you and you actually have to confront your own prejudices. And, amazingly, these progressive northerners had a lot of prejudices to confront.

It sometimes seems to me that as more people from the north come into my town, this complex system of honor has been profoundly disturbed. The sense of loyalty and extended family is evaporating. It's become more like every man for himself and the racial lines have been pushed even farther apart. I don't want to go back to a world where blacks are considered inferior to whites or have to "know their place" in order to survive, but I truly wish we could regain the ideals of basic respect and decency toward our neighbors.

bint alshamsa said...

Libhom,

Your comment epitomizes exactly what I've said in this post. What happened in Hammond has absolutely nothing to do with caring about the experiences of people in inter-racial partnerships or people of color who are part white. Your comment centers YOUR experience, not our's. It's not about what we have to say about what goes on in our communities and what would really help. Instead, white Americans are concerned about how this (and other incidents) make THEM feel.

My post has absolutely nothing to do with whether the Justice of the Peace got what he deserved. It's about whether PEOPLE OF COLOR are getting what we/they deserve. My post has absolutely nothing to do with whether the actions of the Justice of the Peace were justified. My post is about whether the actions of white people who claimed to be offended were really justified.

I really hope that you will refrain from centering the opinions of white people and, instead, consider what I'm saying. As a person (born and raised in the state where this occurred) who is the offspring of a multi-ethnic relationship, living in a multi-ethnic relationship, AND the mother of a multi-ethnic child, this incident is one that affects me a hell of a lot more than it ever will most of the white, liberals who are speaking out about this.

Lucie said...

Thank you so much for your postings on this. As a white person living in a state that is something like 93% white, I needed your explanations of this whole situation.
However, don't discount white liberals. We have our place.

bint alshamsa said...

Hello Lucie!

It's really great to hear from you. I'm glad that you were able to get something from this.

My post isn't about discounting white liberals. It's about explaining where so many of them go wrong when it comes to dealing with issues involving people of color, especially those people of color who are multi-ethnic or in multi-ethnic relationships. This isn't a situation where people of color, myself included, are discounting white liberals. It's the white liberals who are discounting us. Instead of white liberals talking about what they/you need, it would be nice to see even a couple of them taking the time to discuss what the people involved need from them.