Many years ago I was a waiter in a tiny Cajun/Creole restaurant in Omaha. Worked with a chef there, name of Jerry. He was an itinerant fellow. He’d left DC some years previously, working his way down South and out to the West Coast. Now he was slowly working his way back to DC.
After the place shut down the two of us sometimes sat up front helping ourselves to beers from the bar cooler, speaking truths. I was 20. I didn’t know any truths. Jerry was forty-something, a black man in America. He knew plenty.
“The thing about the South is,” he said, “you know where you stand.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Down there they’ll call you a nigger to your face.”
I drank my beer.
“It ain’t like that here in the Midwest, though. Up here they’ll smile at you going out the door. Then when you’re gone they call you nigger.”
I was reminded of Jerry during this whole Hank Williams Jr.-ESPN-Hitler dust-up. Jerry would appreciate Hank, I think, a good ole boy from Alabam’ just calling em like he sees em. Not that Jerry would much like Hank – but he’d know where he stood.
Hank’s shot at truth-telling doesn’t come off very well on New York television. He even succeeded in making the soft-minded suck-ups on Fox & Friends fumble awkwardly and fish-stare the camera. Anything having to do with Hitler chokeholds your attention, but look carefully at what Hank says just before and after:
WILLIAMS: Remember the golf game?
WILLIAMS: That was one of the biggest political mistakes ever.
WILLIAMS: That turned a lot of people off. You know, watching, you know, it just didn’t go over. … Come on. Come on. It would be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu, OK?
WILLIAMS: Not hardly. In the country this shape is in, the shape this country’s in, I mean, no, I don’t think so.
BRIAN KILMEADE (co-host): Yeah, I don’t understand that analogy, actually.
WILLIAMS: I’m glad you don’t, brother, because a lot of people do …
Hank’s brain may still be twitchy from all the cocaine and Jim Beam and father envy, but he’s absolutely right. Lots and lots of regular people in this country agree with him. Lots. Log on to any political site with comments enabled for proof. These regular folks may not have a live TV feed but they do have anonymous internet handles and now, evidently, Hank Williams Jr.
Because it’s not like regular people go around saying this sort of thing in public, right? They wait till they get behind closed doors, in friendly company, to let their freak flags fly.
This is from an article in the New York Times, about the travails of a mixed-race family in New Jersey:
“How come she’s so white and you’re so dark?”
The question tore through Heather Greenwood as she was about to check out at a store here one afternoon this summer. Her brown hands were pushing the shopping cart that held her babbling toddler, Noelle, all platinum curls, fair skin and ice-blue eyes.
The woman behind Mrs. Greenwood, who was white, asked once she realized, by the way they were talking, that they were mother and child. “It’s just not possible,” she charged indignantly. “You’re so…dark!”
Not blunt like the South Jerry conjured for me, but not the polite-smiling Midwest, either.
My wife Nok is dark-skinned enough to disappear in a dark room, as they say in Thailand. Ha, ha. (They worry less about racist aspersions over there). Me, I’m pale enough to get a burn after fifteen minutes in the sun.
Our two children are anti-chameleons. Next to white kids, they look dusky. Next to black kids, rosy. We live in rural Wyoming, where “WYO REDNECK” stickers are proudly sported in the back window of pickup trucks, so I’ve worried about how they won’t ever blend in. But right now my kids are four and one. Their little friends have yet to be inculcated into the color scheme. They just want to play.
We moved from Thailand to Wyoming two and a half years ago. (I should say that Wyoming is categorically not the Midwest. Them’s fighting words in these parts.) In that time, we have never once been subjected to any audible comment, innuendo, joke, or misdirected laughter when out in public as a family. Not once. If there exists the slightest prejudice against mixed race marriages that produce biracial children out here, I’ve never heard it.
So – folks in Wyoming are more sophisticated brokers of interracial relations than people on the East Coast?
I remember Jerry. I doubt it.
What happens after we’ve left the room, after the door closes?