Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Hamptonian Ignorance

While out in the Hamptons this past weekend, I went out to dinner with Rumi and her bf, DWB. We went to a casual little seafood restaurant on the edge of town - nothing fancy or hip - that had stuffed lobster for about half the price you would pay downtown. DWB's version of slumming it. It reminded me of a nautically themed restaurant I used to go to in the small town in Connecticut in which I grew up; a place where I once bit into a cherry tomato, after stabbing it inartfully with my fork, causing all of the juicy tomato seeds to spray out across the table, while my boyfriend and his parents looked on. I am nothing if not graceful.

While we were munching on oyster crackers and sipping some wine that DWB had ordered, DWB said what a shame it was that the restaurant had been doing so poorly that it had had to expand it's customer base, and nodded towards the bar area where a small group of people sat drinking and laughing loudly with one another. The group was fairly boisterous, and the noise alone made them stand out from the rest of the restaurant patrons, a reserved and stuffy bunch of mostly families and older customers. The group happened to be black, and the rest of the restaurant patrons happened to be white.

Not wanting to assume that DWB was a racist, but not capable of letting that pass, I asked him what he meant by his comment. He explained that it was rare to see a black person in the Hamptons, and it was clear by the presence of this group of African Americans that the restaurant had had to expand its customer base by providing "special" deals. Clearly, he was assuming that the group of African Americans had less money than your typical Hamptons customer. I said that it sounded like he meant that the restaurant was expanding it's customer base by class, and not necessarily by race, in order to bring in more business. I was trying to throw DWB a bone (not that being classist is any better than being racist, mind you, but at least classism has an economic reality that could have made sense in the context of discussing a restaurant's efforts to bring in more business by lowering its prices on certain dinner specials).

Picking up on his other comment, I said that it was hard for me to believe that the presence of a black person in the Hamptons would be a rare thing. The Hamptons are a place where the wealthy go to escape the crush of the city, no question about it, and for a very long time (i.e. Slavery, Segregation, Pre-Civil Rights Movement) "wealthy" meant "white," or more accurately, "not people of color." But, times have changed. There are tons of extremely successful, highly educated, wealthy black people, and the idea that they wouldn't be making their way to the Hamptons just like all the other rich people in New York seems more than a little bit incredible. Maybe DWB doesn't see people of color in his circle, but I have no doubt that they frequent the Hamptons, just like their wealthy white cohorts. When I brought this up to DWB, he commented that there were probably some wealthy black people in the Hamptons, but it was rare to see a group of "fat" black people, and then nodded again in the direction of the group sitting at the bar.

By "fat," he meant "not stick thin" (which is what most of the women I saw looked like in the Hamptons), but he also meant "lower class." Apparently, in DWB's circle, all the women are supposed to be perfectly fit, focused on their figures, and pretty. Fat women - even white women - are not appreciated. Men, on the other hand, can look like this, as long as they're loaded. It's despicable.

Several times now, when I've spent any time with DWB, I've noticed how judgmental he is of the women around him. I've also started to see how it affects Rumi, who just the other day commented that "It's so easy to get fat." My roommate is about 5'6" and just over 100 pounds. She exercises almost every day and watches what she eats. It would take force-feeding her buckets of lard to make her fat. Me, I've been eating chocolate, marshmallows, ice cream, and all manner of other comfort/junk food, and it's made me unhappy and a bit squishier than I would like, but it's not made me fat. As my friend Pele said about ten years ago when we were both studying at UVA, "your body wants to stay at the weight that it's comfortable with." I'm beginning to think Rumi might have some body issues, and that DWB might be contributing to them, and I don't like it.

While I'm on this topic, Rumi also said that tofu is fattening and that I had been eating "a lot" of ice cream. For the record, since moving into this apartment two months ago, I have consumed exactly two pints of ice cream. One pint of Sharon's chocolate sorbet and one point of Chocolate Chip Mint ice cream. I can't believe she's been watching what I eat and I can't believe she thinks 2 pints is a lot! And, what of this business about tofu being fattening. I've heard of tofu not being as good as animal protein (a common argument of my brother's), but fattening? I don't think so. Comments?

Getting back to the issue of race, DWB's comments made me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. First, I don't like racists and I don't like racism. Second, I believe in equality of all women and I'm certainly not going to watch any of my sisters getting sold down the river, especially not for an old, rich white man, who at the age of 71 is making his 34-year old girlfriend feel self-conscious about her body. Third, half of my family are black. Fourth, about half of my friends are people of color. Fifth, prejudice on the basis of any reason, whether it be race, class, or sexuality, is wrong, close-minded, and ignorant, and I have no time or patience for any of that. Sixth, as a women living in this still male-dominated society, I often feel that I have a lot more in common with people of color than I do with white men, or at the very least that there is a common shared experience between women and people of color (noting that women of color are tagged twice in this) to which white men are excluded unless they take the time to learn and understand, which thankfully, many of them do.

That night, after we got back from dinner, I took the earliest opportunity to let DWB know that my Dad was married to a black woman, that my step-family was black, and that I had an adorable niece and nephew by my black step-sister and her white husband. While DWB was processing this information, I also informed him that my last boyfriend was Indian, and that I had recently gone on dates with a black lawyer, an Indian lawyer, and a finance guy of Indian, Chinese, and Jamaican descent. I was seeking to make DWB question some of his assumptions, and I think I succeeded, albeit only marginally. DWB found it somewhat interesting that my father had married a black woman, but he found it absolutely remarkable that I would entertain, as he put it, marrying into a "minority" group. It aggravated me when he used that term because he obviously meant it in a pejorative sense. I emphasized that I had been brought up in a family where who the person is, not the color of their skin or their cultural background, is what's important (color and culture can be incredibly attractive, but it's never a negative). Obviously, DWB was raised in a very different environment.

From DWB's perspective, women generally seek to "marry up" (keep in mind he's really old, which is not an excuse but it provides some explanation for his antiquated notions of dating, if not his lack of social awareness) and he was surprised that a woman like me (white, educated, smart, attractive) would be willing to marry "down" by putting herself into a minority group. I'm not making that up. He actually said that a white woman would be marrying down by marrying into a minority group. I had never heard that before, and was frankly shocked that anyone educated still thought along those lines.

God, did that piss me off. It didn't piss me off for me, and it didn't piss me off on behalf of my possibly brown or black future husband, because I'm sure he'll be tough enough to laugh off the absurdity and idiocy of those types of comments, like EXBF once did. However, it did piss me off on behalf of my friends and family, and it really pissed me off on behalf of the future brown or black children I might one day have. It pissed me off on behalf of all the beautiful multiracial children - including my sweet niece and nephew - born into this fucked up society that still persists in viewing the races as divided from one another, with whites as the privileged race, and everyone else as the "other." That perspective is fucked up.

I don't think DWB is racist. If I had thought that, I wouldn't have stayed the weekend, and I certainly wouldn't have made small talk with him while helping him in the kitchen. I think he's a privileged white male from an older generation who is ignorant on a host of issues relating to gender and race. When I made my points countering his statements, he listened to me with a seemingly open mind, and said nothing which lead me to believe that he thought that whites and people of color were not inherently equal. He's a Jew for god's sake; he should know about prejudice and be sensitive to the evils that come from it. I don't think DWB is a racist, but he should know better.

If playing rich girl means more of this ignorance, in the future I'll pass.


Karianne said...

Reading through your post, the quote from your friend about weight really made me think. I think that I needed to hear it tonight.

I'm agreeing with your non Hampton decision. I'm worried about your room mate.

Now go enjoy some ice cream!

Gypsy said...

I have the same problem with my grandmother. I used to struggle with her about it but I finally realized that, sadly, I'm not going to change her mind and I'm just going to bang my head against a brick wall if I press the issue with her. Of course, that makes me feel like I've given up on change, but ultimately I guess I'm picking my battles.

Good for you for opening his eyes a bit.

just curious said...

What is the difference between a racist and an ignorant person displaying prejudiced behaviors?

Buttercup said...

Karianne - My friend's right about that. Bodies like to be in balance and they can even out things when we make it difficult for them to be balanced - by say eating a pint of ice cream one evening. :)

Gypsy - Family you can't choose. That's tough about your grandmother. Some members of my family are not the best on GLBT issues.

Buttercup said...

Just Curious - Good question. I think the difference is intent/belief. I'd say that a racist hates or believes that members of another are inferior. An "ignorant person displaying prejudiced behavior" is behaving out of ignorance, rather than out of hatred or a sense of their own superiority.

That being said, obviously if the ignorant person's ignorance is called to their attention and they continue to behave in a prejudiced manner, then I'd wonder about their beliefs and motivations. Sometimes a little education can open peoples' minds.

bubbles said...

There is a lot to say, I will just say a couple. One thing DWB was probably rigt on: class does have some sort of relationship with weight. In part, this is probably due to access to healthy foods, gym memberships, personal trainers, but may also be, as you pointed out, part of the culture of the rich-- who place a high premium on being skinny.

My other comment is that racism is related to power. DWB might not be the stereotypical bigot-- but he can afford not to be-- for example, he doesn't need to go to restuarants that have a policy of discrimination because he can afford to go to restuarants that a large segment of the population cannot and do not go to-- he has control over his social interactions and chooses places that are "exclusive." (e.g. he can limit his interactions to Black people that he finds "acceptable"-- like the skinny ones living in the Hamptons).

InterstellarLass said...

This only goes to further my view that disgustingly rich people have a completely skewed view of the world. They're used to getting what they want and being able to say what they want. But, that doesn't excuse him for making obviously ignorant statements.

Prue said...

Your comments about racism were eloquently put and absolutely correct. Having nothing to add to them, I will only lightheartedly say - don't give up on the Hamptons entirely, even if you do rightly give up on going there with DWB. My favorite food network cooking show stars Ina Garten, who is a healthy and pleasantly plump brilliant cook who lives in East Hampton and has fabulous cool friends who appear (on TV at least) to be not the least bit sizist, sexist, or racist. So don't let one moron put you off of what could be a fantastic weekend destination in the future.

Buttercup said...

Lass and Bubbles - Your points about the rich being able to control their environments (and thus living a skewed existence and perhaps not having to confront their possible prejudices) are well taken.

Prue - Thank you kindly. :) About the Hamptons, I know, I won't give up on them entirely, but I'll have to think about this Hamptons' connection.