Thursday, May 31, 2012

Defending the South

I'm currently enjoying the wonderfully sunny beauty of San Diego, CA.  I've been in California for the last 2 and  1/2 weeks, first flying into SFO, then spending lots of time with family and friends, attending a conference in San Francisco, and then flying down to San Diego for some QT with my cousin J.

There are many things that I'm struck by whenever I return to California, especially the Bay Area.  First, when my cousin A and his wife S picked me up from the airport and took me to their favorite sushi place in Alameda (the appropriately named Sushi House) the first words out of my mouth when we walked in the restaurant was "Where did all these Asian people come from???"  Yep, the entire restaurant (which easily could seat 200) seemed chock full o'Asians.  Truthfully, there were African American, Latino, and white clientel scattered amongst and with their fellow Asian American patrons, but overwhelmingly what you encountered, from the staff to the patrons, were Asian faces.  Or specifically, Asian American faces, and judging from conversation, not recent immigrants (at least didn't hear many, if any, Asian accents).

So I'm back in the land of Asian Americans.  Which is always nice--to feel like I'm not in the minority.  That I'm not the only person of color or Asian American in the room.  Quite frankly, especially in the Bay Area, especially in San Francisco, Asian faces are everywhere.

And it feels great to be back in California because this is where my family (whom I love) and my close friends from college (whom I also love) are--and the food...don't get me started with the food!  Today I had classic beer battered fish tacos from a place in Point Loma called Cotija Taco Shop that were DIVINE--and they were inexpensive--just a hole-in-the-wall place with GREAT FOOD.

But what I find, what has been unexpected about my return to the land of my youth and young adulthood, is that I find myself feeling defensive and defending...the South.

In particular during the soccer match of my best friend B's oldest daughter (who's 10) I was introduced to a variety of Bay Area soccer parents, who were all super friendly.  My friend B introduced me as her "best friend from North Carolina"--which I used to feel (when she did this after I first moved to NC) to be not quite accurate, but as more time has passed, I realize that for the time being, I am definitely staying put and that it's true that I am "from" North Carolina since my husband, dog, house, and job are all in NC.

So what I got from every person I met was this "Oh, let me give you some advice about things to see/do/eat"--and then I'd explain that I actually grew up in Hayward and went to UCSB (which is where I met B).  And at that point in the conversation (and I had this conversation with over a dozen soccer parents because we got there early and I got introduced to a lot of folks) was something along the lines of:

"Oh, you must be relieved not to be in the South anymore--it's so racist there!"

"Oh, you must be SO GLAD to be back in California!"

"Wow, what made you live in North Carolina???  I could never leave California!"

"You must be so glad to have some good food while you're here"

"I bet you are so happy to be away from the South and back in a more liberal place"
[this, was especially meant in light of the recent Amendment One debacle]

"You could never get me living outside the Bay Area, especially not in the South!"

Now, each and every time I got this reaction, I was very polite, but also firmly said things like,

"Actually, the county I live in voted 69% against Amendment One"

"I live in a very liberal college town and feel really comfortable there--and there's racism everywhere"

"The town I live in has a very good local food movement and was voted in the top 5 best small towns to eat in by Bon Appetite"

"I actually really like where I live, and Southern U. is a great school"

What I found myself doing, in other words, was defending the South.  Perhaps what I was doing was defending my own little corner of the South, but none-the-less, I felt like I had to correct the stereotypes, misperceptions, and arrogance of my questioners.  Especially since my husband is born and bred in this area (I do refer to him as Southern Man for a reason), and he speaks with a Southern accent, as do his family.  As do many of my students, friends, and neighbors. 

The thing is, I was one of those people not too long ago.  I would have said any or all of those things.  And I'm embarrassed and slightly ashamed about what a snob I was--about how condescending I was about anything that was outside of my California bubble.

And I must say that in terms of a more nuanced understanding of race relations, of stereotypes, of white privilege and class privilege and all of those intersections (like regional privilege), confronting my own misperceptions and misconceptions of the South has made me a better anti-racist educator.  It has made me aware of the ways that I have stereotyped and typecast people with a southern accent.  It had made me realize the prejudices that people outside the South has for anyone who drinks sweet tea (and doesn't realize there's any other kind of way to drink iced tea) and that it's still OK to make fun of people from the South.

Don't get me wrong--the South is far, FAR, from perfect.  There are a lot of ass-backwards things going on here (Amendment One???)--but there are ass-backwards things going on in the Northeast, the West, and the Midwest.  Anti-gay legislation and bullying happens everywhere.  Racism happens everywhere.  Yes, there aren't as many Asian Americans here, and that's something that I feel sad about, personally and professionally.  But I also believe in the words of Gandhi:

"Be the change you want to see in the world."

And so, for the time being, I will be revel in my California vacation.  I will soak up the sun (it's 68, sunny, with a slight breeze and a few wispy clouds in the sky).  I will bask in my family and friends.  And I will go home to my little corner of the South, and I will work to change the things I think need changing and to celebrate the fact that I have new family and friends to form my southern community, and that I can do my anti-racist educating in the South with a better understanding of having been born and bred outside this place I now call home.


Jennifer said...

Love this! And it's so true. I am from California also, and moved to the South with all the same prejudices in mind. I found it to be completely different than I expected. I'm also married to a Southern man, and we are a biracial couple. We've never received a second look here in Georgia, but every time we hit "liberal" California, we turn heads. Funny how Californians think their mostly segregated lifestyles are so much more progressive than the rest of the country...

dc said...

I LOVE THIS POST! Thank you for standing up for the good people from all over this country.

This is insightful and so well said.

sleepyccs said...

I personally prefer the more honest bigotry of the south east to the refined bigotry of Cali.

AmericanStudier said...

Good stuff! Having grown up in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town not dissimilar to yours in all sorts of ways, I definitely agree.

I would, though, note that I think there's a pretty complicated generational divide at play. To my mind, many of the most egregious current American attitudes and narratives do stem from older white southerners, those who most especially have seen "their country" change over the last half-century. While that's not limited to the South by any means, I have found it to be centered in the South for sure.