One Saturday morning in 2018 I set out to get some coffee after dropping my daughter for pregame warm-ups. Picture it: the beginning of high school soccer season, a sunny moment filled with promise and jitters. At the CC’s — itself crowded with people there for a vintage car show — I stood in line, daydreaming and people-watching when I heard behind me: “Ching a chonk a chong chink chink.”
I’ve known noises like these since my childhood in Kentucky. And as was the case that morning, it was a group of kids who stood looking at me as I turned around. Who repeated themselves when I said, “Hey guys, that’s really not nice.” And when I raised my voice to say that their remarks were racist, a woman swooped in, fierce with anger and self-righteousness, asked me how I dared to speak in such a way, and told me that I needed “to get the fuck out of here.”
The young woman taking orders was big-eyed and said nothing. No one said anything to me. I didn’t say anything. I took my coffee and left.
When I posted the above on Facebook in late November 2018 I did so because I was mostly angry with myself. I wrote: “I was and am angry with myself for not making a scene, because that moment needed it.” I was actually thinking less about the hate speech directed at me and more about an impulse making the rounds at the time about the power of finding and making beauty, joy, love — specifically as guerdons against the kind of hatred I encountered. That impulse, however generous, however politically powerful, I wrote, was not sufficient because there are times when beauty, joy and love aren’t the right response. There are other forms of political being, I wrote, including anger, that are perhaps more productive responses, even if they are riskier. Even if they produce discomfort among friends and family.
In 2018, I had come to know incidents like these as occasional, occurring with no real consistency: except that they tended to occur in public spaces when I was alone. In November 2018, I had lived and worked in Lafayette for just under 20 years, having moved here with my husband to teach in the Department of English at UL. Once in a while I’d heard “ugly” words uttered at me as I did at CC’s. But then I would remind myself of the number of times students had approached me to admit at the end of term that they had wondered what a person with a name like mine could teach them about “English.” Those young people had been willing to reflect on their initial skepticism and decide whether it was warranted. They had been willing to think that they perhaps did not know enough about me before they passed judgment.
It’s 2021 and the occasional incident has, however, become a pattern. It’s been almost a full year since COVID-19 appeared on the scene and began to wreak its special havoc. In that time, I have been the object of verbal assaults at least once a month. I know this because I started marking it in my planner for me to note and mull over, mostly in private. I write this here, leaving my planner pages for these pages, because I am tired of hearing well-meaning people, including good friends who are distressed for me, insist that Lafayette is a good place of good people. I am writing this because I am tired of people asking why I bring up race regularly in conversation (I applaud my 16-year-old daughter for doing the same, even as it has made her friends and school uncomfortable.).
I am writing this because the claim that “this isn’t Lafayette” makes no sense when it is precisely happening in Lafayette. I am writing this because I am so angry at you, Lafayette, and I want you to know it.
February 2020. Target. An older white man tells me to go back where I came from.
March 2020. Albertsons. An older white man tells me that the kung-flu is going around.
April 2020. Albertsons. A younger white woman tells me that I think I am better than she is because I’m wearing a mask and that if it weren’t for people like me …
May 2020. Target. An older white woman asks whether I should be living here since I’m not American.
June 2020. Barnes & Noble. A younger white man tells me that all immigrants are the problem. Yep, even people who read can be assholes.
July 2020. Target. A younger white woman becomes enraged when I ask her children to stop making “Ching Chong” noises at me. Yes, this incident sounds a lot like the 2018 incident. Some might call it a pattern. A trope of behavior.
August 2020. Shell gas station. An older white couple asks me how long I have lived here. When I say that I was born in the States, they reply that they don’t believe me.
September 2020. Panda Express parking lot. An older white man looks at me as I pass him to enter the restaurant and says, “slant eyes.” The irony is not lost on me.
October 2020. Target. Two white male teenagers passing by me mock-sneeze, saying “kung-flu!” in so doing.
November 2020. Albertsons. An older white woman tells me I should buy the Cajun Coast rice brand because my people’s rice can’t be trusted.
December 2020. Super One. Going through a freezer case I look up to see an older white woman. She hisses at me that the Chinese are ruining the Louisiana crawfish market.
January 2021. Chevron gas station. At the pump, filling my car, I turn around when an older white man asks me, don’t I know I can’t drive to China in my Japanese car? I drive a Honda CRV. He drives a Toyota Tacoma.
February 2021. CC’s. An older white man tells me that my people hacked the presidential election and that Trump will be back.
March 2021. A few mornings ago, driving out to my daughter’s school to pick her up from watching a friend play a tennis match, a car alternated between following and pulling alongside me for at least 10 minutes. Each time the car pulled alongside, the driver — an older white man with an older white woman seated beside him — turned to look directly at me, holding my gaze. The last time the driver did so he made eye contact and mock-coughed three times, jabbing his finger at me.
This isn’t ignorance. It isn’t stupidity. It’s people choosing to believe certain things, so explaining their behavior as either means they don’t have to learn anything from it. Choosing to hurl that belief at a target with impunity. And that is not acceptable. I don’t dispute that many wonderful people live in Lafayette; I count many of those as dear friends, but I want to remind those wonderful people that Lafayette is neither untouchable nor innocent.