Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A White Girl Slapped Me

Late into the evening HANO took me to the French Quarter. He said that I couldn’t come to New Orleans and not go the French Quarter. We were walking down the main strip where there are bars with upstairs balconies that overlook the street. The balconies were packed with white people drinking and throwing those colorful beaded necklaces down to people walking by. As we walked under one of the balconies a necklace hit me on the head. When I looked up I caught the eyes of the white woman who threw it. Her face had those sharp non-fat features. She was tan with jet black hair and green eyes. She was pretty. It being the French Quarter most of her breasts were exposed and I noticed that too. She looked slim and fit. She was already laughing and waving her beer around when our eyes met. Then, while we were looking right at each other, she yelled the white girl yell.


Her yell and her smile and her appearance shook me. I had spent the day like an apprentice studying the suffering of black people. I’d listened to the woman with her child in her arms declare she was homeless. I’d seen scores of young black boys in sweaty long white t-shirts aimlessly smoldering in the shade of FEMA trailers all over the city. I’d been to the processing pen for Section 8 returnees and watched depressed looking black people sitting for hours waiting to be processed by government workers. I’d also been through the destroyed wards and seen whole swathes of people’s identities and backgrounds still destroyed, now overgrown with weeds to insult their injuries. I’d listened to a brother explain that he goes to a funeral every couple of weeks because, “the depression is getting to be a little too much for us.” I met the director of one of the homeless shelters who explained that most shelters that accept women and children do not accept men so several men sleep on the streets nearby to be close to their wives and children. I’d watched the soldiers like HANO and Sister hold hands with each other and promise to protect the fragile hope.

Then the white girl, let’s call her Ashley – or Brittany or Kirsten or Molly or Hannah - takes a drink, drops some beads on my head and yells the white girl yell.

I’m not even sure how to continue and explain what that felt like.

It is unfair, if not simply mean, to begrudge people their happiness so I won’t. I struggle; however, to understand this class of white women. Admittedly I don’t know any of them personally, but they appear to be like canaries – whistling and happily chirping along on top of American life. Atlanta is a haven for them. They can been seen on any given evening jogging all over the place in the Virginia Highlands, in Midtown, in Grant Park with blond pony tails bobbing back and forth underneath their khaki colored caps. They go to tanning salons. They say, “Oh my God, that is sooo true,” instead of, “You know what I’m saying.” They drive Jettas and BMW’s and drink complicated long explanation drinks at Starbucks. Their images are plastered on all the billboards and ads for high rise condominiums – be white, live, work and play in the Aqua Towers or in the Spire or in the Such and Such Luxury Lofts at Buckhead. Indeed they serve the traditional mining function of canaries in some neighborhoods. When you see single white women walking their dogs or jogging alone, you know the neighborhood has been adequately transitioned and is “safe”. In so many ways they appear to be a protected specie, living an insulated life on a balcony with their friends throwing decorations or charity or whatever they feel like down on the passersby.

Having this enigmatic and chipper white girl drop those beads on my head felt like she slapped me. She was chirping from her perch right in line with my stereotypes of her and then she threw the necklace on me to make sure I knew she was up there. It seemed like Ashley lived in a different world, was from a different planet and spoke a different language. Even when I’m happy, I don’t understand that yell.

I hadn’t said anything during all these thoughts. When I looked at HANO he was looking right at me and said, “Breh, if we could take turns on the balcony, we wouldn’t be suffering so much down here.”



IK said...

The way you're able to capture things astounds me, and every time I read a post I sit in awe of the spirit of understanding you hold. I always learn from you.

Oblivious. That would be the only descriptor I could come up with to talk about your friend on the balcony. (Okay, well, also: annoying, embarrassing, trifling, and shameful.) But you -- you're a word artist, and you've panned out on her arrogance and obliviousness to the general disconnect between woo-hoo white women and the Black people they try to avoid (i.e., walk over). And the suffering they try to avoid. And the responsibility we try to avoid.

You got it.

Damien said...

I did nothing more than fly over the devastation when I recently visited New Orleans for the first time. I was visiting for New Orleans Jazz Fest, and told myself I was doing it to to help out the local economy in the wake of the storm. But what I think I was truly going there for was what I spent time there doing: eating, drinking, and watching the live jazz I love to watch (of course buying as much of the music I heard as I could for the same, aforementioned reasons).

Take homes from this experience? A fantastic trombonist from Sweden, via France, who has been playing since she was five. An old white man who bought me some shots of the local booze and told me of the work he does restoring boats damaged in the storm, time he spent before buidling the same boats. The 17 dining rooms of Arnaud's (http://www.neworleansrestaurants.com/arnauds/) and Arnaud's mini museum to opulence that spawned the current traditions, your beloved white girl, and the event that the life line of NO's econ omy depends on (http://www.mardigrasdigest.com/html/mardi_gras_history__timeline.htm). On Frenchman Street I saw a black man named Chaz wail on a washboard(www.washboardchaz.com)--plus two white accomplices, one on steel guitar another on harmonica--with such vigor that the sidewalk would fill up and overflow into the street just to listen to what poured out of the club's doors. I got a ride home from a young Indian man in his cab, who was working two jobs and putting himself through school. I tagged along behind Grace's outgoing nature through a variety of neighborhoods, from Anne Rice's to the soft-faced black grandmother's, who sold us some ice cold water off her back porch as we walked to Jazzfest. I too saw a white girl's breasts, revealed in exchange for worthless plastic, and couldn't get my camera phone out quick enough while explaning to my girlfriend she should never engage in such behavior.

I had the time of my life.

I have no way to relate my experience to yours, but I've taken a closer look back at my own visit since I've been reading these posts. I tried to put myself in your position and gauge my thoughts feelings, and tried to relate it to my time there (mainly because I love the place and want to go back). I definitely feel some guilt and will have to think more on my differences from slappy, as I've grown up with these girls, from Marin County to Santa Barbara. Me sharing my trip above is my way of welcoming you to do the same since, as cheesy as it sounds, I truly want a continued relationship with the city and its people.

One thing I would share, taking the fact that I can digest what you are saying in the post rather easily:

I thought about the young exhibitionist I saw and how it made me feel. I understand and for the most part agree with what you say in this post. But I also hope a part of you was laughing as hard as I do at these chicks. Remember that her hand and tiny brain will never get close enough or act fast enough to slap you.

I begrudgingly give it to you that she is capable of doing so metaphorically. ~dbme

Grace said...

My first reaction to this post was to wonder, like Damien, what makes me different from the Ashleys in America. Especially as a white girl whose blond pony tail bobs as I run through my gentrified neighborhood, the outward appearances of Ashleys and me seem uncomfortably similar. In college we (the other white girls) had a name for those white girls: Rice Girls, because they're white and they stick together. But there's an obvious hypocrisy there. I certainly don't want to match that stereotype, nor do I want to appear to. I comfort myself by noting that I don't visit tanning salons, don't have or want a fancy car, and don't expose my breasts in public (though I narrowly avoided it on Bourbon Street). I may occasionally yell, "Woo hoo!" The real difference, I think, between me and what Kamau perceived Ashley to be, is that I'm not as oblivious, as ik termed it. But which is worse -- to be oblivious like Ashley, or to be cognizant of injustice and do little about it, like me? Which leads to that endless tug-of-war between comfort and responsibility in life, which I will think about anew after reading this (on that subject I'd recommend listening to the Keb' Mo' song "Victims of Comfort," if you haven't heard it).

Departing, though, from Ashleys in general and turning to the Ashley on the balcony in particular, I'd submit that we actually don't know anything about her and her level of obliviousness. Maybe she's very familiar with inequity and volunteers at a youth center or a food pantry in her home city, and this was her time for a wild, breakout night on vacation. Maybe she's not as pea-brained as Damien took her to be. Annoying and embarrassing at that moment? Definitely.

Regardless of who this individual was, the contrast between the alienation and destitution you saw that day and the frivolous debauchery you saw that night is totally unnerving, and you just can't get away from the fact that the black people and white people in those two different settings live in completely separate worlds. It strikes me that Ashley that night seemed to represent the whole self-absorbed, hyper-commercialized chunk of white America (which is by far the most visible chunk, especially in urban places) that dominates the media, the public discourse, and the economy, blithely steamrolling over poorer communities of color as they go. (I'll add that I think theirs would be a miserable culture to live in -- one where tanned skin and Banana Republic clothes and silver SUVs and $100 haircuts and wild nights with public breast exposures are things that people feel they must attain to confirm their personal value -- ugh. But that sort of psychic misery is, of course, not even in the same universe as the suffering of the homeless mother who approached the HANO van in New Orleans.) And again, this leaves me thinking about what makes me as different from them as I like to think I am, and how I can become even more different than I am.

Anyway, thank you, Kamau, for continually writing and making me think. I love the canary metaphor.

A question for Damien: Why take that girl's photo even while dismissing her as stupid and ineffectual? Just curious.

Damien said...

Answer: It was my attempt at being humorous in this sea of moralistic prose. I see it has failed. I shall stick with being righteous in the future.

kamau said...

grace...you may be right that ashley is not as oblivious as she appears to be. i really do wonder though, how much of our individuality can we protect from a public image that doesn't match who we are? if the two don't match, why would we take on public personas that are so different from the private persons we think we are? having said that, i don't think we shouldn't be allow to take on whatever style we want regardless of who we think we are.it just creates a challenge for people like me who are only exposed to the public version of ashley. for example, most young black men that take on the big pants, braids/locks, gold teeth style are subjecting themselves to the attitudes the public has developed about young men that look like that. we don't really allow them the opportunity to distinguish their individual characteristics from those of their public persona.
in this case i am guilty of treating ashley the same way these young black men are often treated. i responded to her based on the way she presented herself to the public - and the history of my public experiences with white girls who look and behaver like her.

Grace said...

Good points, all, Kamau.


Damien said...


luvlife0702 said...

Ashley was drunk. and black folks need not switch places with her to get anywhere. she may have been on her little vacay after saving up cash or she may have been a rich girl with a family lawyer. ither way, ignoring drunk white people is something i learned to do growing up in ottawa. dont think about them unless i'm the doorman or they throw things on my head. so i understand why you gave her a thought. but after teaching lots of girls like her, i know one thing for sure, most of them don't even have a thought in their head about their relationship to you. not one. and even when you push you have to push hard to even get them to consider your existence. but i was there the june before and hte june after. visited some fo the same places you did given a tour by an ex-student who works with common ground and all kindsa folks and was back in the city two days after she left so she could work with red cross and what not. (jesuit education!) hwen i went, the quarter was still empty. cars were still in trees and boats were hanging upside down. only the casino was back in biz and even it was pretty empty. what happened to you is what folks in jamaica or Haiti or DR or many parts of Mexico live with everyday: people with money having a good time without a thought about their suffering. As is said in Life and Debt, "their banality is your enjoyment" (i paraphrase but it gets at the core of the issue. that's why we gotta be conscious of our footprint in the world. and 99.9% of us aren't.

Gregory said...

Dear God. Did you even read what you wrote Kamau? If a white guy said something like "Then the black girl, let’s call her Shemiqua, – or Beyonce or Quinesha or Uneek or Tamicka - takes a drink, drops some beads on my head and yells the black girl yell", black people would be raising all Hell. How about "Her face had those dull, fat features." Why don't you just go ahead and call "Ashley" a honky or a cracker or lily-white? Oh, that's right, you want us all to know that you're an educated, what did IK call you, oh yeah, 'word artist'. One might call you racist, or a hypocrite, if that had really thin skin.