Cutting Texas Off the Map

When I lived in New York City and I told people that I was from Texas, I often got a pitying look that implied that I had somehow escaped a fate worse than death by moving to NYC. They would not believe me when I told them about my middle and high school experiences of growing up in an incredibly diverse community, where the four Ronnettes in our high school production of Little Shop of Horrors were Vietnamese-American, Lebanese-American, African-American, and a blonde Caucasian.

Meanwhile, I had seen some serious sexism and racism on the streets of New York City that people often liked to ignore, or pretended were just anomalies, as if somehow the Northeast corridor was the direction in which the country was evolving, and everyone else could just go fuck themselves.

So I am not surprised when I see this report from SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) about hate crimes during and after the 2008 election. The four featured incidents took place in two New Jersey towns, Staten Island, and Providence, RI.

Now, I know these were just samples of a wider report. I would never be smug about hate crimes happening anywhere on this planet, and I also know that recently, a black man died under hate-crime-like circumstances in small-town East Texas, where the KKK is still frighteningly alive. And look, NYC and the Northeast have beautiful, wonderful things to offer the world. I lived there for 10 years, I’ll always love the City, I know these things.

But this observation triggered a larger frustration in me. I had little idea how much those disparaging looks over the last 10 years had dug under my skin. I was surprised and not-surprised when I read last week at Racialicious that Time Out New York recently named 40 New Yorkers who made an impact on the city in the past 13 years, and only 3 of them were people of color. Two of the 40 weren’t even human. AND they then vigorously defended their decision! You cannot tell me that race issues, ignorance, and backwards thinking don’t exist in New York, Boston, any town in this country.

A group of my dear friends even joked about the electoral map on election night, “If we just cut Texas off the map, it wouldn’t be so bad.” I know it’s been a long, rough road, they were nervous about the returns, and they were just blowing off smoke by kidding around (kind of).

But you know what, guys? Even though McCain won Texas, Obama won its four major cities: Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Those cities comprise over 5.5 million human beings.

I mean, Houston, people! The place where I grew up, the land of permanent, professional, resident companies in all major performing arts disciplines, the second largest population of Vietnamese-Americans in this country, an established GLBT community, AND damn good food to boot. Obama also won the Rio Grande Valley along the Mexico border. Let’s not get into the stereotypes people have about that area.

And even though I’ve moved back to Texas, I STILL get the look of pity when I tell people here that I grew up in Houston. I know that many of them are multi-decade veterans in the progressive movement in places that, on the whole, probably haven’t supported them or their ideas. I don’t begrudge them that experience; I would likely be bitter or dismissive if I’d seen some of what they’ve seen.

Of course, I also got my fair share of “damn Yankee” jokes from Texans when I told them I lived in NYC. (Including my late grandfather, who was eternally entertained by that joke. I miss you, Papa.) But more often than not, people in Texas were intrigued, impressed, and curious when I told them where I lived. Many had actually been to NYC and loved it, or had kids or grandkids living up there.

The bottom line of my irritation is this: I’m just not ready to amputate any section of this country because of my perceptions of that area. Real, complex people live in every city, town, and village of this country. Some of them stand for things I find abhorrent, some of them do some fucked up shit, many of them hold beliefs that I feel are dying out as part of an old way giving birth to a new. Including in Texas, and, yes, even in Houston. But they are still human beings, and I want to talk about them as such.

this rant triggered by angry asian man’s post


Filed under Politics, Race, Relationships

14 responses to “Cutting Texas Off the Map

  1. right on, sister – that was an EXCEPTIONAL POST! and I know EXACTLY how you feel!


    I must have heard 100 times these past 2 years, “it’s those people in the Midwest – they are the ones to be afraid of in this election. The coasts are just fine.”

    I was incensed – I had to remind them over and over again, “Excuse me, Obama lost the primaries in NY, NJ, Penn, and Mass. But he won in KANSAS, MISSOURI, IOWA, and UTAH!”

    IOWA, a freaking WHITE STATE is what gave his campaign such unstoppable momentum!

    The media does this too by presenting his less than 50% lead was “racism” when in fact, no presidential candidate since LBJ in 64 had received more than 50% of the vote. And of course, Obama made history on this topic – just like . usually, if you lose NH, you lose the election! so many barriers broken!

    All my friends in the midwest are liberal, well-travelled, well-read and if they are none of those things then they at the very least are open-minded! Sometimes people who are conservative just have a different perspective of how to get to the same destination!

    I always joke about the hypocrisy of Manhattan diversity. The subway might be diverse but you know exactly who is getting off at what stop – there is an illusion of tolerance in Manhattan on many levels.

    And I lived in Boston and I have never experienced such racism. I had never heard the n-word so openly used in my life. It made me physically ill.

    To me this is what Obama was speaking about – we aren’t red states or blue states – we are the United States!

    It’s also why I refused to make fun of Sarah Palin and call her white trash and why I refused to simplify John McCain as evil.

    One of Barack’s best moments was when he said he too was from a single mother and would never judge anyone’s decision to keep a baby.

    You are an amazing writer and your argument was thoughtful, engaging, and well-presented! thank you so much !!!

    We aren’t going to change the world by being the same close-minded liberals -who think everyone who thinks or lives differently than us is beneath us. We have to get more clear on who we are as human beings – not just what “our politics are.”

    And it’s writing like this that will help us get there! Thank you so much!

    A Midwestern Girl 10 Years in NYC

  2. Em

    This all goes back to the idea of the “real America.” We ALL are real Americans, who are all governed by the same body. I feel the same diss from NYers about my cracker heritage, and the diss from the crackers about my new Yankee home. The problems that arise from these attitudes are about judgment, not geography. Great post!

  3. Em

    p.s. I get hassled about the color of my skin and hear others getting hassled for the color of their skin FAR more in Manhattan than I ever did in 23 years of living in the rural South.

  4. Charlotte

    Good for you for being angry about injustice and prejudice, even though it is not directed at you, especially because it is not directed at you. I invite you to consider what I see as we are heading into what seems to be a new paradigm. Just this morning as I read Talk of the Town in The New Yorker; emailed Alice Walker’s letter to Obama, to anyone and everyone I thought would appreciate it, I was thinking how interesting this time is we are witnessing. On the one hand the financial markets are tumbling, our economy is in the tank and we are all going to feel the impact of this; and on the other hand there is such a healing that is taking place, such an outpouring of poetic words being spoken and written, of tales from hearts cracked open that thought they would never be unfrozen from the cynacism and saddness that begun 30 yrs ago (and more). I am convinced that the depressing economic upheaval and the excitement of an Obama presidency are somehow balancing each other. According to the Mayan calendar we are living in “no time”. No time is the space in between two paradigms. OK so I am soaking in all the healing and you are there to remind me how far we have to go. That is a kind of balance also and I thank you for reminding me. Earlier in the week the NYTimes profiled some people in the deep south, poorly educated, economically disadvantaged and really scared about a black man becoming president. Would love to fast forward four years from now and see how they feel.

  5. Love Magnet

    Thanks for Your Crucial Minutiae which is not so minutiae!!!
    As a native New Yorker who has lived in Houston (how fun is that – another connection between us besides our names!), I am struck by the cogency and aptness of your post.
    I am grateful that you opened me up to this new information and new side of you!

  6. Vu

    Yeah man – that Real American shit pissed me off so bad. It was great to see cities rise up and say that it’s not just small towns (read white America) where you’ll find real Americans.

    On the other hand,I can’t abide willful ignorance from people that about what Texas is like (I mean, cowboys and tumbleweeds – really?)

    I’ve been thinking about moving back to Houston actually, nowhere else in the country can we sit around having Viet iced coffee and a proper bowl of pho surrounded by a bunch of other Vietnamese people.

    And Elisabeth – you’re so right about Boston – THE most racist town I’ve ever been to. I still love it for some reason – but yah. Between Boston and New York, I can’t count how many times I got ching-chang-chonged, chinked, and told to go back to wherever. If you’re gonna slur me please have enough respect to get it right. The word you’re looking for is Gook.

  7. Charlotte

    Dear Brother Obama,

    You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after
    decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you, North America is a different place. It is really only to say: Well done. We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your
    rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about.
    I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that theworld is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits
    sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely
    daughters. And so on. One gathers that your family is large. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as whit haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real
    success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not yet clear to them that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of almost everyone.

    I would further advise you not to take on other peoples enemies. Most damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those feelings occur in all of us, not just in those of us who profess a certain religious or racial devotion. We must learn actually not to have enemies, but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise. It is understood by all that you are commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely.
    However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, hate the sin, but love the sinner. There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a peoples spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led.

    A good model of how to work with the enemy internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust
    characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.

    We are the ones we have been waiting for.

    In Peace and Joy,
    Alice Walker

  8. Wow, I think I may have been the one who passed along the joke about cutting Texas off the map. I can’t remember who made it on our end, but I promise it was made in a spirit of laughter and love…it was just so damn red at the bottom of all that lovely blue. It was not meant, in any way, to refer to the real people of Texas or be taken as a rejection of all that is wonderful about Texas. I apologize.

    As someone also from a place that gets eyebrow raises and is often reduced to its less than wonderful parts, I share your frustration. There’s no question that the ignorance and stereotypes so many Americans have about those outside of their little comfort zone is limiting for all of us and impinges social change.

    I think it’s just important that we all continue to keep that local/global perspective and stay celebratory and sober about the places we call home–good and bad, evolved and antiquated, courageous and in need of a good kick in the pants.

  9. Thank you, Jennifer, for this post. It is right on!

    In our travels across the country this summer for the We Are the Ones Project, Rob and I saw “forward thinking” communities in the most unlikely of places, and “backwards thinkers” in places we expected to be more progressive. I wrote a post in early October on Red State/Blue State prejudices because I was disappointed to find them in myself.

    In The Audacity Of Hope, Barack Obama explains that divisive prejudices, in any form, cannot serve a progressive agenda. I dearly hope that Obama will lead the way toward recognizing our collective capacity to put aside the prejudices that divide us, so that we can begin to solve our country’s most pressing issues and serve our common goals.

    It is inherently difficult to approach our differences with empathy and an open mind; anger and defensiveness are so much closer to the surface. But if we are to create a “more perfect union,” we must begin to approach each other as individuals rather than stereotypes.

  10. Thank you, everyone, for your passionate comments on this post! I’m grateful to know that I’m not alone in my frustration.

    Elisabeth – thank you for adding your perspective. I also had a hard time listening to all the personal attacks on Palin, even though I disagreed with her on almost every single subject. And what a powerful line: “The subway might be diverse but you know exactly who is getting off at what stop.” I witnessed that phenomena for 10 years but never phrased it in such an eloquent way. Thank you for that!

    Em – Thanks for your great distinction that it’s about judgment, not geography — great way to put that!

    Charlotte – I’m fascinated by your mention of the Mayan “no time.” That metaphor certainly resonates with the unmooring I feel from so many of the institutions that our country and world have been built upon for centuries (and millenia, some of them): patriarchy, racism, living beyond our means, isolation instead of community, mindless consuming of resources. It’s thrilling to live in this interstices, to be part of the redefining. And you know that I LOVE Walker’s advice to Obama to take care of his own joy, his own pleasure. That’s the only way any of us can lead!

    Love Magnet – you are so sweet; thank you for chiming in!

    Vu – In many ways, it was your experiences in the northeast that gave me concrete examples of how that area is not immune to racism. I love the image of US cities rising up and saying No Thank You to the stereotypes.

    Court – Thanks for graciously allowing me to use your off-hand (and kindly intended) comment as a springboard for this topic. Clearly, it’s been bugging me for a long time! I love the idea of mixing the celebratory and sober perspectives towards the goal of kindness and progress.

    Rachel – You bring up the fantastic point that it is easier to be defensive and angry. True empathy takes a ton of energy, but it seems to me (and I know to you as well) that that kind of relational activism is the best way to use your energy, and the most likely to revitalize it as well.

    Again, thank you all for chiming in here!

  11. Gareth White

    What I also find fascinating is that so many TEXANS discount Texas. Like when I tell them that I moved down here from Brooklyn, they ask me how I’m handling the deprivation of culture. Last I checked there were plenty of different cultures mixing it up in this fair city. YOU GO GIRL! love you so.

  12. Really insightful, Jennifer. When I first moved to New York for college, I remember several people saying, “I wish we could just keep New York and California and cut the middle of the country out.” Having come from the middle, I couldn’t help but feel a bit hurt as I imagined my family on some giant island, floating away from the “better” part of the country.

    I do understand the frustration people feel, particularly as they sense that other regions of the country have different values and ambitions. The thing is that I’m not so sure that the differences are as clear cut as they’ve been presented by those seeking to divide us.

  13. Thanks for that example, Gareth — I get that sometimes, too, and it’s like, wait, isn’t Austin the alleged “live music capital of the world”? Is that not culture??

    And Cristina, I relate so strongly to your image of your family floating away on that giant “middle America” island. I agree wholeheartedly that the differences are not as clear cut as we are made to believe.

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