the race museum


I’m on the last full day of vacation with family in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The weather has been superb, bright, sunny, warm ocean waters and no rain… so far. We rented a condo near the beach and are thoroughly enjoying ourselves here in the friendly hospitable south.

Even though my dad was born and raised in South Carolina, it’s not a place I have frequented. He migrated to the east coast when he was 16 in search of work and a wife and hardly ever returned to the south with his newly created family when I was growing up. So, the first time I was here in South Carolina was as an adult about 17 years ago when a friend and I spontaneously decided to drive down to Myrtle Beach to visit other friends who were staying here for the summer. It was the mid-1990s and I fully embraced the pretty beaches, the endless golf courses, swimming pools, water parks and ton of great places to eat.

However, I also recall curious feelings when staring back at a white woman who stared at me as I ordered ice cream in an ice cream parlor. She didn’t seem to care that I saw her staring, I tried smiling but she maintained her stare. I also remember going out to a dance club and meeting a man dressed like a cowboy, donning the boots and hat with jeans and plaid button down shirt. He slithered up beside me, said “howdy” and told me he lived nearby and wanted me to come visit. I kindly declined. He smiled and said “it’s ok honey, you should know, I love me some black women.” He was white. I just nodded, “oh yea?” And the few black people I met who annoyed me when they appeared to defer to white people all the time. Ugh. The only other place I experienced similar feelings was in New Orleans, LA.

That was then. Now it’s 2013 so I figured things could only be better, and they are. However, as I sat in a pancake house near the beach the other morning with my nieces, ages 11 and almost 13, an elderly couple sitting at the booth across from us kept staring at us as if we were objects in a museum. I figured maybe it was my imagination and decided to ignore them. But it was clear; they were staring and didn’t seem to care that we noticed them staring. After we finished our pancakes and went outside one of my nieces asked, “why was that couple staring at us like that?” The 13 year old continued, “I tried to smile at the lady but she didn’t smile back, she just kept staring.” Sigh. How do you explain potentially racist behavior to this generation of youth? They’re millennials, born on the east coast with a host of multi-racial friendships and unfamiliar with some of the blatant racist attitudes that persist in parts of the south. That is not to say that racism does not occur in the northeast, indeed it does, but it’s often less blatant than this dehumanizing staring thing.

After explaining how some white people don’t seem to think black people are quite human so they stare to see what we do, how we do it, and if we’ll fulfill any of their primitive stereotypes of us, I began an anthropological thought. I told them about a series of essays I have my first year anth students read that deal with tourism and village walks, shaping the tourist’s gaze and representing ethnic difference in Nepal, by Arjun Guneratne. The essays are an interesting analysis between foreign tourists visiting Nepal and high caste Nepalese tour guides who appease the foreign (read “western” or “white”) tourist gaze with exotic representations of the Tharus as primitive jungle dwellers who live as if they’re in an earlier time. The tourists look and stare at the so-called primitive people as if they’re in a museum.

Flipping the script I told my nieces that the white people staring at us were primitive people still living life as if they’re in an earlier time. Lets just stare back as if we’re looking at racism inside a museum. It is 2013 isn’t it? I’m just saying.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ ~Galatians 3:28-29

This entry was posted in Calenthia Dowdy, Ethnicity, Race by Calenthia Dowdy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care