Sometimes It’s Black and White: Race in Louisiana


Growing up in Louisiana, life was very black and white-when it comes to race. I’ve been living in the DC metro area for over 8 years now. Coming back to the South has been a slight culture shock.

Both my parents and my in-laws constantly remind us how inexpensive it is to live in Louisiana compared to DC. Yes, my bank account hears this loud and clear. After 8 years, they don’t bring it up quite as often, but I know they are thinking it.

Still my husband and I resist. While we may not have much left over for savings after our living expenses in DC, we are banking on something bigger: diversity.

Louisiana, like many southern states, has a sordid history when it comes to race. When my husband was in high school in the early 1990s, kids were still sent to school outside their “zone” thanks to a forced desegregation ruling. Instead of going to the school closest to them, students were sent up to 30 minutes away to a different school. The main reason for the ruling was to allow black students opportunities to attend magnet schools that were not near them.

I grew up in a more rural area in Louisiana. My family were the only Asian-American family in the school system. Just my sister and I. I was in third grade when we moved to the area. I remember black kids touching my hair, asking me how I was able to make it soft. I had a neighborhood boy crushed on me during middle school because his father fought in the Vietnam war. He tried to court me with Vietnam war questions and Pearl Jam trivia.

One question that I received over and over from my classmates: “Do you consider yourself black or white?”

There was no in between. Back in the 80s and 90s, they could not comprehend that I was neither. I would laugh off the question and say, “I’m purple with blue polka dots” or just shrug and say, “Neither” with no explanation. I mean, why did I need to explain who I was?

In high school, we had new neighbors move two doors down. Not only was there a girl my age, but they were an interracial family. A rare sight for southern Louisiana back in 90s. The family consisted of 3 kids, a white mother and a black father.

The girl my age was constantly asked what she considered herself: black or white. According to Louisiana law, if you have 1/8th black in your blood, you’re legally considered black (See Plessy v. Ferguson case). She avoided answering the question as much as she could, but it soon became clear that she had to choose which group of kids to hang out with: the black kids. Yes, in my high school, not only was there segregation by jocks, band geeks, nerds, and random misfits, most of these groups were self-segregated by race as well.

Where am I going with this? Coming back to the 21st century. It seems the ideas of race hasn’t changed much since I left the area after high school. Everywhere I look, I mainly see white people and black people. (We’re simple here, we don’t use African-American or Caucasian except to be politically correct.)

Sometimes I see Asian people. I hardly ever see interracial couples or mixed race children.

I think about what kind of life my children would have growing up here. Learning about race for them would be more than how unique their skin color makes them. My parents, though they don’t do it as often, will make derogatory comments about black people. They’re not alone in this aspect. Our kids would be thrown in the deep end of racism.

Would they be asked to choose which part of themselves is more important? Are they more Vietnamese or more African-American? No one, especially a child, should be forced to answer that question. If my husband were white, she would be more accepted in Louisiana.

She will not see many mixed race kids if we lived in Louisiana. We don’t point out other mixed race children to her in DC, but it’s nice to see the diversity as we walk around the park or pick up milk from the grocery store. It’s a normal part of life in DC. In Louisiana, it’s an anomaly.

Sure, some DC metro mothers may think I’m my children’s nanny, but in Louisiana, I would hear “Is she yours?” much more often than I do now in DC. I think that diversity is worth the scrimping and saving to live in DC.

As parents we all want the best life for our kids. My husband’s and my parents may not quite understand why we choose to live there, but we know and we stand by it.

Have you or your children had to choose between cultures or races?

Photo by Cyron via Creative Commons

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