It’s been little over a month since I’ve moved back to this country that many like to refer to as “The Melting Pot”. There’s a fondue restaurant down the street from me here in Savannah called The Melting Pot, but the racial dimensions defining our interactions in this country certainly haven’t melted as well as fondue. Others have called this good old US of A a toss salad or a mosaic instead suggesting that there are all of these cultures in the same place but not melted together. These terms try to express the reality that assimilation really can never take place when immigration happens and people maintain many facets of their original cultures. I like the idea of remembering where you came from and adding to our collective culture as a nation, but I still don’t feel like this adequately describes where we are as a population. I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the lines that separate us all racially here in the USA as I try to get used to living here once again as a member of the ethnic majority.
But before I go forward discussing this country, let me go back for a moment to where I just came from. In my community in Haiti I was clearly the minority. In a community of over 17,000 people, most of the time I was the only white person that lived there. There have been a few more that have moved in, but there’s never been more than 5 Caucasians stable there at any time. I was clearly in the smallest minority group present, but that didn’t necessarily mean that I was part of the weakest group. By showing up there with my skin color and nationality, I was automatically afforded with a sense of power, not because of my own actions, but because of the history of the culture I was entering. This is a power that many foreigners unknowingly abuse when entering Haiti which results in some of the effects that I’ve discussed in previous posts in how we view those living in poverty. This is why, for myself I still had to work hard to gain respect in my community in Haiti, and to prove that I could work with the majority despite my race that would historically suggest exploitation and misunderstanding. When a minority enters the US, however, the opposite happens where ethnic minorities coming into this country get neglected, marginalized, and pushed aside to a place where they feel they have no value in the society and they have to struggle endlessly to get their voice heard.
“Yeah, but we have a black president,” you might say. That proves our country’s not racist, right? We’ve got a black man in the highest position of power possible, so we don’t really need to debate race anymore, right? Well let me tell you a little story…
I was in my hometown in Iowa a couple of weeks ago and went out to eat at the local bar with my parents. It just so happened to be one of the nights of the presidential debates and that was playing on the television in the bar when we walked in. There was only one other man in the bar besides the two women who worked there so we sat at a booth where I thought I’d be able to hear the debate while we ate. After we’d been there a while and one of the bartenders came over to give us refills my Mom said to her, “You know, I think we should have the next presidential debate right here in your bar.” The bartender’s sincere response was, “Vickie, I’d sure be happy to host them here, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think that black man would make it through my front door without getting shot by someone.”
Now I love where I come from in small town Iowa, but unfortunately I knew that bartender wasn’t joking. And I know that my hometown isn’t the only place like that, nor the worst, in the country. My point, however, is not that racism still exists in this country. I’m not the one to speak on that. There are plenty of other people who can share personal experiences to prove that reality. But what I’m having trouble adjusting to is the fact that yes, technically, we don’t discriminate based on race on things like jobs or education or whatnot. On paper, we provide all the same official opportunities to people of all races here, but for some reason, we can’t get to a point where we rise above allowing racial identity to determine the way we think about and interact with each other.
I am living now in a place that is truly quite racially diverse. Yet I walk down the street and everyone is still grouped by races. I walk into a restaurant, same thing. Every part of our lives are still stereotypically marketed to different racial groups based on style – music, religion, fashion, even food is all divided into different types that are deemed appropriate for a certain ethnic group over the next. We may not have official discrimination anymore, and we may share restrooms with each other, but we certainly haven’t been able to overcome social segregation. We are a nation addicted to maintaining our lines that define “us” from “them”. We are not truly interested in melting.
This is by far the most difficult thing to get used to here. But it’s something that I’m not sure I want to or even should get used to. Sure, in Haiti anyone that didn’t know me would yell “Blan, Blan!” at me in the street, usually followed by some racist comment about money or khaki pants. But there I just yell an insult back at them and then moments later we’re best friends. I honestly have never felt that racist comments in Haiti are usually mean spirited they’re simply a test to see if you’re willing to understand them and where they’re coming from. Because the racist negativity in Haiti comes from a very painful past, but once you acknowledge that, melting happens much quicker. In the US however, everyone is aware of our racial issues from the past but we still seem incapable of ever truly melting into authentic relationships with people who are seen as different as we are. It’s because we’ve made race a thing here. I just wish it wasn’t a thing.
I’ve got more I’d like to write about this issue, but I’ll leave it for another post another day. For now I’ll just keep walking through these streets, walking along these lines we draw.