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.