Thursday, May 19, 2005

Racism in America (Part II): New Orleans

In my last post, I wrote about some good news about racism in the United States, and how my wife and I have traveled through many places in this country and not experienced any problems with racism. Today's post is about one of the places I did experience problems.

New Orleans is an interesting place. It is home to the French Quarter and its famous Bourbon Street, where one can find all sorts of jazz clubs and bars that are open all night, for its annual Mardi Gras celebrations, and for a rich history. I have been to New Orleans a number of times on business and to attend conventions, and each time I had fun, but there was always an undercurrent that made me feel a bit out of my element.

During one of my visits, I figured out what that element was. I was eating dinner with some other Canadian colleagues, who were with me in New Orleans for a conference. "You know something interesting," I remarked to one of my colleagues, "I have been here for an entire week, and have not seen a single interracial couple the whole time I've been here."

"You know," my colleague replied, "it's funny. I didn't notice until you pointed it out, but now that I'm thinking about it, I haven't seen any either."

"Me neither," remarked another colleague.

When you are in an interracial relationship, you tend to notice other interracial relationships. They are like a bellweather for racist attitudes. Everywhere you have more than one ethnic group, you have interracial relationships - the question is how open the interracial couples are about it. If they experience a lot of problems, they will tend to keep their relationship a secret, but if they don't, you will tend to see them walking together on the street, eating together in restaurants, and talking together in bars. In New Orleans, I saw none of that, and was unsure why.

The next trip to New Orleans, I found out for myself. I was there for a conference, and I had brought my wife and oldest child with me, and everywhere we went together, I could feel the stares: eyes, drilling into me like laser beams. My wife and I would be walking down the street, past some people going the other way, and I'd feel that sensation, only to turn around and see the people we just passed with their heads turned, gawking at us. White or black, it didn't matter who we passed, it felt like everyone was staring at the two of us. In one clothing store, I made the "mistake" of giving my wife a hug and telling her I love her, and we were asked by the shopkeeper to either "stop it", or leave.

Then, there were the comments, and what surprised me is that almost all the negative comments were directed at my wife by other black people. One person commented that my wife was a "traitor to her own race" for being with me, another called her a "sellout". I couldn't believe it - these weren't even people we knew, or were even talking to, just people we were walking past on the street.

When I got back to Canada, I told other people about the experience I had in New Orleans, and most were surprised - they had never heard about this side of New Orleans. For me, I was surprised that I would experience racism in a place like New Orleans, which is best known for its good jazz music, lively night scene, and a fun, relaxing atmosphere. But, apparently, I am not the only one to have experienced this type of problems. A recent study found that black customers at Bourbon Street bars were more often charged more money for drinks, more likely to have minimum drink purchase policies applied to them, and more likely to have dress code policies applied than white customers.

What was also surprising to me was that the racism I experienced in New Orleans was so obvious, and yet in other places like Birmingham that have a worse historical record for race relations were very welcoming to us. This is both strange, and very sad, because there are many other things to like about New Orleans.