A Theme from my Recent Travels: Race

As I think back on my recent trip (you can find all of the posts about it under the tag ‘The Mississippi Journey’) one of the things which stands out is how often I noticed (and while blogging, commented) upon race. I did not expect that to be one of the themes of my trip.

Maybe I was so surprised because I am white – part of white privilege is being able to ignore race in ways that non-white people in the United States cannot.

Also, in my previous travels, I have always tended to notice race when it was different from the mix of races which are different from what I am used to. For example, when I was living in Taiwan, I got used to not seeing many other white people, sometimes going weeks without seeing another white person, so when I went to Osaka and Kyoto (literally the very first two places I went after I moved out of Taiwan) I was blown away by how many white people there were, and in my subconscious, I still think of Kyoto as ‘a place full of white people’ (I probably would not have had that impression of Kyoto if I had gone there straight from the United States rather than straight from Taiwan). Indeed, I remember that when I met people visiting Taiwan, a common reaction was “where are all of the white people?” and my response was “this is Asia, why would you expect to see lots of white people here?” and then they would tell me that there are way more white people in Beijing/Shanghai/Tokyo/wherever. Since Taiwan is the first place in east Asia I ever went, I did not really understand that there are parts of east Asia which have a lot more white people until I went to some of those places myself.

Another thing which stood out during my travels was different levels of racial segregation. Granted, I was a tourist, not a researcher – not only did I not do any careful data gathering, I was focused on sightseeing, not research, and as such my observations are very limited and almost certainly not representative. That said, I saw the highest levels of racial integrations in the following places (I consider racial integration to be people of different races interacting with each other on relatively equal terms):

1. Downtown Chicago (I didn’t go anywhere outside of downtown Chicago, and based on what I’ve read about Chicago, there is a lot of racial segregation by neighborhood)
2. New Orleans (all neighborhoods I visited, though I mostly went to touristy areas, and I also understand that I probably would have seen more racial segregation if I had taken a more extensive look at the city)
3. Downtown San Antonio

Notice a pattern? I tended to see the most racial integration in downtown areas of major cities. Even in Memphis, which has some really obvious racial segregation, I observed more racial integration in downtown Memphis than in other parts of Memphis.

Actually, I take that back. The place where I saw the most racial integration, hands down, was in the sightseeing lounge of the California Zephyr. The place where I saw the second highest level of racial integration was in the sightseeing lounge of the Sunset Limited. Apparently, Amtrak has higher levels of racial integration than downtown areas of cities, probably because Amtrak passengers are racially diverse and it is harder for people on a train to avoid each other than for people in a neighborhood to avoid each other.

Where did I observe the highest level of racial segregation? Vicksburg, Mississippi, and St. Charles County, Missouri. I think it would be really hard to be in Vicksburg, and then be in St. Charles County the next week, and not notice race.

Vicksburg, as I mentioned, is about 60% African-American, yet based on what I saw, I would have guessed it was 90% African-American. In the neighborhood where I slept, nearly everyone was black, and most of the people who weren’t black were some other kind of POC. I walked through neighborhood after neighborhood in Vicksburg where it seemed that everyone was black. In downtown Vicksburg, I saw both black and white people, but not in the same places (I don’t count because I was an out-of-town visitor). For example, at the Rail Depot Museum, everyone was white, and at the Lower Mississippi Museum, everyone (except myself) was black, even though they are just a block away from each other. The retail area on Washington Street is very white, but blocks away, there are black-owned businesses. The only place I saw black and white people interacting with each other (excluding myself) was at the bus station – most of the people there were black, but there were a few white passengers other than myself. I did not ask anyone in Vicksburg about this since asking about racial segregation did not occur to me until I was gone, and I don’t know what would have been the best way to ask about it anyway. I would also like to note that nobody in Vicksburg, of any race, made me feel unwelcome in their neighborhood.

St. Charles County, of course, was totally white. I mostly stayed in my host’s house, so I did not get to observe as much as when I was in Vicksburg, but whenever I got out, I never saw any non-white people.

Now, lest one think that Vicksburg is so racially segregated because it is in Mississippi, I would like to note that I observed significantly more racial integration in Natchez, which is also in Mississippi. I wouldn’t call it a paradise of racial integration (notice that I did not put it in my list of most racially integrated places), but I did observe white and black people working side by side in the same business doing the same work, and in Natchez it was not obvious to me whether I was in a ‘white’ or ‘black’ neighborhood the way it was in Vicksburg, Memphis, or St. Charles County, and generally, I saw a lot more white and black people talking to each other in Natchez than in some other places.

Now, these observations are probably partially based on random chance – maybe I just happened to observe the less racially segregated aspects of Natchez, and the more racially segregated aspects of Vicksburg, and that if I did proper research, I would find that my initial impressions were inaccurate. Everything I say in this post should be understood as a record of my impressions, not an accurate depiction of any place I visited.

Anyway, did I learn anything from my observations of racial relations during my recent trip? It’s not so much that I learned something new (well, I learned a lot of details about, say, the history of the civil rights movement, but that is besides the point) as that in deepened my understanding of things I knew something about before. For example, I knew that we are a racially/ethnically diverse nation, but actually visiting different places and see a lot of the differences myself drives that lesson deeper, and some aspects of racial integration/segregation are easier to see as an out-of-town outsider than as a local.

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