Where to Address Xenophobia? The Mailbox

Last night I was getting my mail at the communal mailbox.  I gathered my bills, nodding to a young mother strolling with her baby and talking animatedly on her phone and smiling at a  short woman about my age wearing a Southern Girls Love Jesus t-shirt.

“Do you think I should call 911?” she asks me in a hushed tone, pulling out her Iphone.

“What happened?” I ask, my eyes immediately darting to the pool, dreading the thought of a drowned child.  I know CPR.  I should go over there.

“Her,” she says gesturing to the young mother.

She looks ok to me although her conversation is increasingly animated.  I step closer to make sure the baby isn’t sucking on roach poison or something.  She is snoring softly.

I am still waiting to deal with this emergency situation to the best of my ability.  I’m a life guard.  And a Girl Scout.  But I’m stumped, and Southern Jesus Girl begins to dial.

“Wait,” I say.  “What is it?”

My neighbor looks at me like I have two heads and lowers her voice to a whisper. “She’s one of them. Like the Muslims?”  She says MOOOSlums, and I just stare at her.

I squinted at the blond woman wearing shorts and tevas as she absently rocks the stroller while she talks.   Southern Jesus Girl has lost me. But I’m glad I don’t have to do CPR.  I always worry someone will throw up in my mouth.  Or die.  Or I’ll forget to sing Stayin’ Alive in my head to keep the rhythm and will sing Another One Bites the Dust instead, which is supposed to also be the right rhythm , but that has to be bad juju.

“Lisssten,” she hisses.

“Because she is speaking….?” I say finally.  This is the best guess I have.

“Yes,” she says, pleased with me. “Arabic!” She finally breaks out into actual sentences which go something like “sharia law bombs report suspicious behavior can’t be too careful raghead Allah false prophet bomb.”

“But that’s Russian,” I interrupt.

“Are you sure?  How do you know it’s Russian?”

Because I am not an idiot?  Because I have a master’s degree in linguistics?  Because I watch Orange is the New Black?  Mostly it’s the not an idiot thing. I really have nothing to say at this point, but she looks like she’s going to actually call this time.

“Excuse me,” I say to the Mom.  “Excuse me.”

She looks up from her phone and gives me a cold stare for interrupting her international rate phone call.

“What language are you speaking?”

“Russian,” she says with a perfect Mississippi drawl and a look that almost melts my eyebrows.  She whirls her stroller around, turns her back to me and walks away.

Southern Jesus Girl puts her phone away with relief.  I glare at her and walk away in the footsteps of my Russian neighbor.

I am not at all pleased with how I handled this situation.  Not only did I manage to piss two people off, but I did nothing to address the fact that Southern Jesus Girl thinks that speaking Arabic is a criminal offense.  It is not lost on me that it was not so long ago that Russian speakers probably got the cops called on them for overhead conversations.  Our xenophobia is legendary. And enduring. But this young mother was let off the hook.  Because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, presumably.

While I am confident I would have come to the aid of an Arabic speaker as well, I would have needed to come up with a better tactic than pointing out that the language in question was currently not spoken by our enemies. Which is really not the point.

But I did not.  I did not take the opportunity to try to educate Southern Jesus Girl. I was hot. I was tired.  I was still thinking about the BeeGees.  This actually happens to me more than you might think.  Somebody mentions Barry Gibb, and I’m just gone, for hours sometimes. What were we talking about?

But it was my responsibility to say something because I know better.  It’s as simple as that.  Whether it’s a racist joke, religious persecution, or just plain ignorance that I face at the mail box, I need to speak up.  I need to say out loud that this person you are threatened by is just a person.  She is probably tired, and the baby has cried all day, and now she is talking to her mother about sleep training.  And if she had been speaking Arabic instead of Russian, all these things would still be true.  I need to say that Arabic speakers, that Muslims, are our neighbors.  They are unlikely to be terrorists.  They just want to get their mail.  If I don’t speak up, then who will?

I’m just not that confrontational of a person.  Sometimes I let people be wrong on the internet.  But I am a middle aged white woman with all the privilege and protection that brings.  Maybe I need to practice being uncomfortable.  Enough.  This happens too often for me to claim I was caught off guard. Saying nothing accomplishes nothing. I can’t address my neighbors’ bigotry when they are standing at the voting booth, thinking Trump’s wall is a good idea.  I can’t complain they didn’t know any better when I chose to look the other way instead of taking a stand at the mailbox.

Life’s going nowhere.  Somebody help me.  Somebody help me, yeah.




Don’t Call Me Miss Daisy: In Defense of the American Dream

Most places I go, the way I talk identifies me as a foreigner. Someone who was raised elsewhere.  Every time I have my hair done, I get “You’re not from around here, are you” as soon as I open my mouth.  And just fyi, saying you have a “rat’s nest” in your hair, meaning a particularly stubborn tangle, does not go over equally well everywhere.

People who study dialects and the computer programs they write can usually place me right where I grew up, on the East coast of South Florida.  This particular test also guesses Orlando, Atlanta, and what looks like Albany, NY as possibilities, which I assume reflects migration patterns. But I’ve taken others that can pinpoint the county where I spent my childhood.

That’s pretty specific, but unless you happen to know someone else from that area, and they’d probably need to be anglo, you are unlikely to recognize my speech pattern other than knowing it’s definitely not a southern drawl.  In other words, while I have spent most of my life in the South, people think I talk like a Yankee.

This means waiters try to explain to me what grits are.  Saying, “y’all” does not come naturally to me, nor do the “yes sirs” and “no  ma’am’s”  that are expected in the south.  I’ve tried to pick up some idioms.  People here say “red light” to describe any traffic light.  They ask you “where you stay” as opposed to “where you live.” My personal favorite is “to fall out” which means to collapse.  As in,” Get Miss Daisy some lemonade; she looks like she is about to fall out.”

If that last sentence brought you back to plantation life for just a minute, your Yankee is showing.  The practice of using Miss plus a woman’s first name is alive and kicking (I also hear the male equivalent with Mr., but less often). I am not adjusting well to the deference I don’t feel I deserve. Grown adults, both black and white, who perceive me to be older or of higher status call me Miss Daisy all the time.  I can’t stand it.  I find it terribly uncomfortable, yet it is clearly meant to be respectful.

If it takes me back to being the white lady holding the pitcher of lemonade on a cotton plantation, that’s clearly my problem.  I’m the one living in a foreign culture.  The fact that black women are also addressed this way does not seem to make me feel better.  It bothers me enough, I have started asking people not to call me that.  And if I apologize and tell them where I come from it comes out sounding racist, they are usually sufficiently horrified to remember my preference.

Maybe, like the flag, it is past time for this vestige of southern gentility to bite the dust.  There are many ways for us to show our respect for each other without designating class distinctions in the way we address each other.  Maybe that’s why it bothers me.  I still believe in the American dream that tells us that class is not a foregone state, it is mutable.  You are not trapped.  You are temporarily poor.  Hard work and education can change your lot. Addressing someone by class dismisses the dream.  You are who you were born to be.  And you will forever be addressing your elders and betters in a way that reminds you of this.  Has the South given up on this dream?  Have we all?

This is Not a Burning T

Someday, I think Southerners are going to look back on the whole confederate flag controversy with a good deal of chagrin and embarrassment.  And there are plenty of us who already find the flying of the confederate flag over state buildings to be antiquated and unnecessarily divisive.  I find it somewhat overwhelming that this simple symbol is so pervasive in the post-Civil Rights era, and that we can’t just take it down with a minimum of fuss.

Mississippi is the only state in the union that still features the Confederate Battle Flag as part of its official flag.  Georgia, that bastion of liberal ideology, adopted a new flag in 2003.

Changing the state flag sure seems like a no-brainer, but instead of enacting any of several proposed laws to remove the Stars and Bars (as well as rejecting proposed legislation that would withhold funding from Public universities who refuse to fly it), the Governor has instead proclaimed April Confederate Heritage Month.

This was followed several days later by some good old-fashioned anonymous cross burning.

Reactions to the little bonfire were very telling. “Who would do that?” asked some of my white friends, incredulously.  “I can’t believe anyone would do that.” There were even some protests that it wasn’t a burning cross at all, but a burning “T.”  Mounted in a posthole.  Spontaneously combusting.  In the middle of Mississippi.

The great shock that some white people feel over the burning of the cross is a special kind of racism born out of a possibly benevolent effort to forget our past.  Stories of hangings of family members in downtown Jackson get passed down to younger generations, but white families do not share these stories.  Whether this is about shame or about a war they have lost may depend on the family, but either way, there are real trees here that had real bodies hanging from them not so long ago, and it is my privilege that I tend not to think about that when I stand in the shade.

This does not excuse me from speaking out against the flag, but frankly, those who believe confederate heritage, and by this of course they mean white confederate heritage, is somehow more important than a small gesture of reconciliation are beyond my reach.  I don’t have a lot to say to them.  Instead, I must appeal to the apathetic, those who don’t think it really matters either way.

This is a harder sell than you might think. In 2001, a non-binding referendum was introduced that gave Mississippians the opportunity to change the flag, but only a third voted to get rid of the confederate symbolism.

Things have changed since then, of course.  After the June church shooting of a Historic AME Church in South Carolina, new attention was brought to the fact that the confederate flag is used as a symbol of racial hatred.  Why this was news, I’m not sure, but Dylann Roof, the alleged murderer, was found to have quite a collection of pictures of himself with confederate flags displayed like status symbols, and this hit a chord in some people.  This is not who we are.

Still, while a vocal minority cry out in protest, others refuse to budge.  “Why are my black friends not angry about this?” Complained a facebook post.  Well, maybe it’s because that just because it has finally occurred to white people that the flag is racist, this doesn’t mean that black people are suddenly obligated to change their priorities in their fight against the 72 other racist things they need to deal with before breakfast.

I still think it’s important.  That it matters. It matters because people are still burning crosses, and we need to take a stand that this is no longer acceptable behavior no matter what side of the war your people fought on. The flag has to come down.  And it will come down.  This question is when, and what has to happen first to facilitate its removal?  Will it go quietly?  Will the government respond to threats of economic boycotts from outside companies?  Will we have another opportunity to vote on how we want the state to be represented?  Will public institutions and private businesses, one by one, simply choose not to fly the flag?  Will the courts be involved?  What will it take for us to simply do the right thing?