A Bad Night in Rochester: Racism & Classism

Tonight my friend Dan and I went out to see Brokeback Mountain at the Little Theatre in downtown Rochester. We did a bit of bar hopping before and after the movie. Not to drink really, but instead to "check out the scene." The first bar we moseyed on into was Daisy Dukes. Opened just this past winter, the country bar is named after women's short shorts and has its very own bucking bronco. Very impressive.

Next we checked out The Old Toad. I had heard about the bar's wait staff previously, it's true, all of the bartenders and servers are imported specially from the UK. But whatever it takes to make yuppies happy, right? I left with a bitter taste in my mouth after reading two signs posted on the exits by the Monroe County Police Department. The pigs command that we stop giving money to pan handlers, and instead, send the homeless to a handful of Christian Churches. So now the State is telling me what to do with my spare change and the homeless get a side of Jesus with their dinner?

I feel like I should say something positive in here somewhere: The raspberry daiquiri at Mex on Alexander St was decent. Oh, and the movie was good.

The final bar Dan and I went to left me with a horrible feeling in my gut. The horrible feeling was my own racism and fear churning in my stomach. I wanted to see what "the scene" was like at this Asian Restaurant/Cocktail Lounge near Java's cafe and the Eastman School of Music. (Sorry, the name of the place escapes me and Google isn't helping me tonight.) I felt surprised at what I found, and my reaction has made me unhappy with myself. Dan and I walked in and, with the exception of maybe one middle aged woman and the two people behind the bar, the lounge was entirely filled with black people. This is difficult for me to write, but I want to get to the bottom of my fears and racism so that I can overcome them. Here's the bottom of it for you: The bar was filled with what appeared to be poor black people from the city of Rochester.

Somewhere along the way I learned to be scared of black/people of color (and this is an interesting term, many people I know consider me "of color sort of") who are not of my socio-economic class. It's possible I may have come down with a bad case of 15-year-old girl syndrome tonight. I felt like Dan and I were getting weird looks/bad vibes from the other people in the bar. I even thought about how the vibes might have been worse if I were not "of color sort of," or if Dan didn't look like a working class weirdo. Sorry if you read this Dan: with your unkempt masses of black, curly hair, flannel shirt, and Converse sneakers.

I digress and want to get back to the scared feeling. The black guys looked tough- but so what? What was going to happen to me in a public bar with 20 people around? Dan and I stayed for 5 or 10 minutes, while I tried, unsuccessfully, to buy a drink. I felt this stupid, goddamn fear from the moment we walked in. But I didn't want to walk in, take one look at the patrons, and flee with my caucasian friend in terror. That would have been so rude, obvious and embarrassing. It must be so hurtful to have people feel afraid of you because of the color of your skin and the side of the railroad tracks you live on. Or, if you live in Rochester, which side of the Genesee River you live on. It must hurt to have the corporate media constantly focus and obsess over crime stories that involve black males. I usually don't get hot for Michael Moore, but he has a really good point in Bowling for Columbine when he studies our nation's culture of fear. Moore asks, why does the TV show COPS film the hunting down of poor people of color, instead of focusing on the crimes of white Enron executives?

What exactly did I have to fear tonight in the bar? Where should my fears have more appropriately laid instead?

-By Alia


joe said...

I get the same feeling when I go into this bar near my home to pick up food and all these old middle class whites stare at me. That's just an ageist thing I guess.

Jennifer said...

Wow Alia, all I can say is, thank you for writing and sharing your fears. We all have them and I've worked for years on anti-racism dialogues and committees to try to get at it and it is so multi-layered and complex. Race is difficult enough and when you add class into it you're hitting the issue that American's can't seem to talk about but which drives so many dynamics.

I was just in Rochester yesterday and Thursday (I live in Syracuse) and as I enjoyed a fabulous yoga class at Breathe Yoga in Pittsford and then walked along the Erie Canal I remarked to my husband how odd it was that we saw no other black people than ourselves all morning. He reminded me that we'd have to go to the west side to see black folks. Hmmm. Things are no different here--we are the only people of color on our block. Yet, there are folks who are nervous or afraid of coming into the city (Syracuse) because of the unspoken reality that: there are poor black people there. It drives me crazy--we, our address and a handful of (mostly upper middle-class) black folk I know notwithstanding, live in a severely segregated city.

Part of solving the issue has to do with relationships--building them and keeping them--between people of different races and classes. We don't mix enough in this country--let alone upstate New York. If we did, we might find ourselves a little less reticent about entering a bar such as the one you encountered and the folks at the bar might not have viewed you with what sounds like suspicion.

So how do we build relationships with people who are different from us? How do we decrease the fear factor given the way the media works? A good first step is owning our fear and then making a bridge. I hope your post really gets some conversation started.

Jesse said...

This is a side note, one thing that I love about this website is that it brings out opinions and voices that might normally not be heard. So often in our society, we are told to defer to experts and leaders for the proper ideas and opinions. Not excepting the importance that the insight experts can give, this limits the voices that can be heard in society. Here, though, we can have a discussion on topics fastidiously ignored by the mainstream media (for example, classism, the persistence of racism and ageism), and we need not be "experts." I myself am a shoe salesman and a waiter and I know Alia files papers for a living... not exactly high profile intellectual careers, but any reader of this site can realize that our ideas are important and often powerful.

Getting to the topic of this very candid post. So much in our society works to divide us against one another and cause us to fear differences. Alia is right on the ball when she brings up Michael Moore's discussion of the "culture of fear" in Bowling for Columbine. Last year I attended a discussion lead by a man named Howard Eagle, a teacher in Rochester public schools, on racism. It was a liberating experience to be able to talk openly about something that festered within all of us.

One point that was brought up that I think deserves mentioning here is that there is a difference between black folk and white folk, or Haudenosaunee, or people of Chinese descent, etc. Of course, this does not deny the innate humanity within and deceny that should be accorded every human being. However, cultural differences do exist and are important. Part of the point of this website is to celebrate what makes those who live in Upstate New York different and unique form peoples who live in other places. This is not to deny the value of their traditions, but to say that our own are valuable as well. This point was particularly important in the discussion group with Mr. Eagle because several non-white members of the community brought up how they often felt that white anti-racist action (especially originating from the middle class) often worked towards integration, or what they felt was the erasing of their unique heritage. People of color, whether they be Native Americans or Tunisian-Americans, are often put in the corner where they are told to "integrate" and copy the whites (something that is, of course, difficult if not impossible) or be condemned for "reverse racism," or something similar.

There is so much to say on this topic and so I will only make on more comment. Racism, classism, ageism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of oppression are not new to our region. The city of Binghamton was the Northeastern headquarters for the KKK throughout the first half of the twentieth century, for example. But we also have a long and storied tradition of resisting that same oppression: was it not here that Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass chose to live? Was it not in Seneca Falls that the first Convention on Women's Rights was held? These are powerful, conflicting, legacies that we must admit and understand if we are to move forward.

Morris said...

What I'm interested to know as a black person is what led you to the idea that black people scary?

Jesse said...

To let you know, Alia sent us this in January and she is not one of our regular contributors. I will see if I can contact her to reply, but if none is forthcoming, it was because I couldn't get ahold of her, not because we are disregarding your question.

Ann S. said...

The name of the place was Cathay Pagoda. It has since closed. I am sorry to hear that you are so afraid of black people. I am more sorry to hear that others are praising you for your "honesty". I am far more SCARED of you than you are of me. You could be my boss, my neighbor, the man cooking my food, interviewing me for a job, or overseeing my child's daycare. That scares me because with such hate in your heart, would you fire me for being black? Would you not assist me if I were your neighbor and in danger? Would you spit in my food, not give me the job, or mistreat my child all because I am this "evil" "intimidating" black? Really, who should be scared? Next time I walk into a restaurant filled with a room full of "poor" "looking" (whew - what stereotyping) whites from Rochester I will be VERY afraid. One of them or all of them might think like you.