The persistence of bigotry, Western-style


Q: What's Barack Obama's new Chinese name?
A: Coon Soon Die.

Work on it a little bit. You'll get it. I got it while I was eating eggs over-medium, hashbrowns and bacon at a restaurant in Hotchkiss, a town of less than 2,000 people in western Colorado. The waitress who was pouring coffee asked who we had voted for in the election and my friend and I said, "Obama."

"Oh, well, then I probably shouldn't tell you this joke."

"No, no," we urged her. "Go for it."

And then she took us on a journey into the land of punch lines featuring assassination.

I grew up here on a small farm outside of town. I know this country, rural and isolated, far from the urban zones of Denver and liberal Boulder. In this part of the West, we're mostly small towns of mining, ranching and farming communities. We're what Sarah Palin was probably thinking of when she said, "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity and dignity."

The people around here would agree. Delta County is deep-red Palin Country. As Obama was turning Colorado's ski towns and gentrified urban areas blue and winning the state, Delta County, like much of rural Colorado, remained a stubborn red. Here, we voted 65 percent for McCain and rejected every candidate who was a Democrat. It's no secret we're a conservative county. But this breakfast conversation presented a new and surprising facet for someone like me. I thought I knew the place.

"My daughter told me that one," our waitress said, "She heard it in school. Most of them, they're not that funny, but that one, I had to give her credit."

I made myself keep smiling. "There's a lot of jokes like that?"

"Oh sure, I was getting tons of them on my cell phone right after he won."

"What others do you know?" I asked.

She shook her head. "I can't remember most of them. They weren't that good." She turned to the other waitress, a soft woman with an apple-pie demeanor.

"What was that one about the Rose Garden?"

The other waitress came over, warm and motherly. "Why are they tearing up the Rose Garden at the White House?" she asked, smiling. A beat, and then, "Because they're putting in a watermelon patch."

"Wow, I guess that's sort of funny."

"You get it if you're from the South," she said.

"We've heard the stereotype," my friend scowled, but I didn't want him to cut short our little anthropological spelunking into casual racism just yet.

"So what grade is your daughter in?"


And as we chatted about how her daughter is taking karate lessons and soccer, and as I told her about my son's interests and acted as though everything was normal, the implications sank in. What these two friendly waitresses didn't know is that my son is like Barack Obama -- a "mutt," because he's biracial. My four and half year old, who dressed up as a dinosaur on Halloween and who can recite the names of continents and who just learned to play soccer this year, is half-Indian and half-white, and he's growing up in a place where some parents laugh and repeat the racism of their elementary-age children, who in turn must have learned it from other parents.

A few weeks ago, as the world woke with surprise to the new face of the free world, I thought, to echo Michelle Obama, that I was really proud of my country for the first time in a long time. I watched a new American presidency take shape and imagined the world my son would one day inherit and was proud that skin color and race had at last given way to the "content of a man's character." For me, there was a deep relief in that.

But now, in this river valley, below snow-capped mountains, surrounded by good smiling people, I can't help thinking of a riff on another joke I just heard:

Q: What do you call a black man who graduated from Harvard Law School and became commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation in the world?

For most of us, the answer is, "Mr. President."

Apparently in this corner of America, the answer is still a little different.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a writer in Paonia, Colorado, and the author of the collection Pump Six and other Stories.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Persistence of Bigotry
Robin White
Robin White
Dec 02, 2008 08:40 AM
The story exposes an increasing insularity in America--community divisions into what David Milliband has called "ideological echo chambers," a predilection for wanting to live where there are others with your world view/panoply of opinion. Red counties/suburbs are "redder," blue, more blue. It would be difficult for the author of the story to confront racism, but that is what we will have to do. The author is confronted with a very difficult ethical dilemna--what happens to standings with friends who harbor toxic opinions? It is a form of bullying (buy into my humor or else).
racism alive & well
JoAnn Holloway
JoAnn Holloway
Dec 02, 2008 05:06 PM
I read this article with a chill crawling up my spine, and I don't think it was the flu virus I'm battling. I'm left with the strange feeling that some regional socialization patterns stopped evolving sometime around the 1950s. I doubt the children and parents telling those "jokes" have been any where near racially diverse regions along the coasts or in major urban areas. There is a naivity expressed that is neither sweet nor acceptable. We are a nation of differences, and the balance of these differences is what makes us strong. The slandering "humor" carrying veiled and unveiled threats against an accomplished, well-educated and bold leader who has worked hard to be where he is today reveals what makes us weak.
they can change too...
T. Sundmark
T. Sundmark
Dec 03, 2008 02:46 PM
I grew up in western Colorado, in a family that regularly made racial jokes and sneered behind the backs of many people whose skin colors were different from the local majority. I confess, with shame, that I even made a few of the offensive remarks myself. But then I grew up, saw the bigger world and realized the ignorance of my family's views. Interestingly they would never have said something hurtful to a person in front of them. People oftentimes don't understand the implications of their words, and that they are perpetuating racism. What gives me hope is that people can change, even those with whom change seems unlikely. When my youngest sister joined the military she fell in love with a black man. Now I am an aunt to three bi-racial children. Those of my family members who never left western Colorado to see the bigger world got a taste of the bigger world coming to them. My dad, one of those people that I never thought of as the type to change, became a very outspoken advocate for his grandchildren.

The recent election has many people feeling scared, but my hope is that over the course of President Obama's term they'll see that it's all going to be alright, maybe even better than before.

Thanks for the great essay.
race and the presidency
john egbert
john egbert
Dec 05, 2008 01:58 PM
In a recent campaign article by Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, he explained that the Republicans were sublimating racism by using "othering", meaning, "He's not like us, we can't trust him, don't vote for him." Others' comments made in this blog are poignant and understandable. Having lived in many parts of the US and Canada, people easily fear those outside their tribe. All of us will act on behalf of family and tribe and work against those tribes that we imagine may hurt our own. Only the most dedicated pacifists may be exceptions to threats and fears. I can't imagine the tolerance they've been able to develop. Are you or I in tribes? Of course. When I thought about being a conscientious objector in 1968, I knew I had to answer the question, "Would you defend the United States?" The answer was yes. I did not qualify. I opposed the Vietnam War, but I would defend the U.S. and still would. Now 40 years later, I do the best I can to be tolerant and accepting of differences. I enjoy much of the diversity that I've experienced. It's easier for me than rural folks described in this blog because of my advantages, my knowledge of history and anthropology to understand and thus tolerate. I've afforded the ability to travel, to broaden my horizons and appreciate differences. I am privileged. In this day and age, I see it as an advantage to family and friends to become a global citizen. I believe that we need to break down irrational fears. But guess what? Not everyone else sees me that way. The world is still a deeply provincial place and I, too, would be very uncomfortable in more places than I care to think about. I feel my travel options are fewer than they were when the current administration took over 8 years ago. My global citizenship is illusory and one based on a interest in the world, but not a sense of acceptance by others. It's based more on the macro-view that we are aware of the world's climate, species,economies, etc. We can Google only so much reality, and even U-Tube can only get us so far. I have but one passport and it opens some doors and shuts others. So what are the ways these fears break down: contact with others in the trenches, playing games, the workplace, school, cultural exchange, and making the effort to reach out to new people. How will Facebook-like processes evolve so that foreign people can develop new interdependencies and identify with other global people? For now, some cultural prejudices may not bend. I have no plans to do what Greg Mortenson of Three Cups of Tea and the Central Asia Institute does in Pakistan. I am not that brave. Back here in the U.S., small towns used segregation effectively in the past and still do. It's given integrity to their culture, and perhaps it's generally true that it's used the fear of the other to reinforce its bond. How for example, did the white people of a tiny village in Labrador become prejudiced against blacks? I know. I lived there. This kind of psychological process is true all over America today. I grew up with the same syndrome many years ago in Ohio. The name of the place is almost incidental. Segregation is not limited to race, but also to political values and class distinctions. In small towns whose economies are linked to the land, working class folks take great pride in their identity. They easily disassociate from those who buy their resources, the city people, the politicians unless they are tribal members(Sarah and Todd Palin for example), and make sure they keep an arm's length from environmentalism or any factor that might infringe on their ability to protect their tribal base: guns, control over local land and water, schools, and so forth. Ecotourism works best when locals see its advantages; otherwise tour operators will be resented for introducing outsiders who may in turn buy land and change things. I can afford to protect my expanded tribal base because I am not locally based. I depend on others oil, food, information, transportation, and health care and so I necessarily have to relate to all sorts of people. Cities are thus more tolerant places, as is true of any place where people have no choice but to work together. Growing up in a small town, if we didn't need someone, that new person would always be a stranger. Today, we are mostly an urban population, yet one where many of us in the West romanticize certain values of those we may criticize. We admire the individualism of ranchers and farmers, the tight communities where any insider will sacrifice mightily for a neighbor, but as this blog makes clear, small towns, like cities, are not going to reach out and make cultural accommodations for new arrivals. By being a giver in a small town, you'll have a chance of getting people to realize you have something to offer. Persistence and time can make a big difference. You'll have to decide if you want to join the tribe or not, or perhaps see if conditional membership is acceptable. Moving to small town America may work if you're a teacher or an employer, but their boundaries and yours will be tested. Tolerance and acceptance are still quite different.
a simple solution
Dec 04, 2008 01:28 PM
As the mother of bi-racial children who chooses to live in the "redder" places, I have a simple solution that has worked; learn to not be offended.

If met without anger, bigotry has a way of melting under patient persistance. At least most change their outlook, and the ones who choose to maintain their slanted ethnic views will not be changed by your offended retiliation. So there is no point in bothering yourself with it.

And you can't "judge the cild for the father's sins." My children have found friendship amongst the children of some of the persistent bigots. Children will stray from their parent's slanted direction.
Persistance of bigotry
Dec 05, 2008 03:52 PM
john egbert has great insight.

We are genetically and culturally conditioned to distrust those outside our family and "tribe" or clan. Not being that way was a distinct survival disadvantage when we were hunter-gatherers competing for game, and later when it protected tribes from raiding and pillaging by others.

Race is clearly a primary factor, as was/is religion. Cultural "gang colors", if you will. In a more diverse market economy, racism is an odd, and hopefully shrinking vestigal character flaw.

There is another rationale for racism these days, however, because I think we can all logic our way past these more ancient reasons. (Well, most of us can.)

Its a surrogate (and a somewhat flimsy one) for the huge resentment many people feel about paying in to the welfare state. Nobody likes to think they are carrying the economic load for not only their family but someone elses too. Particularly in rural areas where the working poor abound, and when times are hard, the idea that someone off in some big city is cashing welfare checks at their expense is pretty pervasive.

I've heard the stories when local towns were responsible for their poor, not some nameless distant federal government mailing out checks. Then everyone in town knew if you were getting assistance, and how much. If you walked in to the local bar, they'd refuse to serve you because you were spending their tax money, not yours. Yeah, it was humiliating. As well it should be, to provide sufficient incentive to avoid it.

I'd hazard that many of the social support programs are, in the long run, going to be responsible for putting racism on life-support a while longer. That's the price we pay for making charity a tax-supported mandatory activity. People use race as a quick and dirty replacement for welfare-culture, and feel entitled to make the stupid jokes.

Dave Bastian
Dave Bastian
Dec 09, 2008 11:27 AM
I continue to renew my High Country News subscription because of articles such as this one. Thank you High Country News and Mr. Bacigalupi for giving me a perspective I don't often get to hear. Keep it up, it reminds me that there is still much work to be done!
Dec 11, 2008 03:29 PM
I’m a white man who was raised in a small town in rural Idaho with zero racial diversity. I grew my hair out in high school, as I was big fan of Motley Crue and Skid Row. Those of your raised in similar situations wouldn’t be surprised at the verbal abuse I got from my schoolmates.

I married a black African woman in 2003 in the back yard of my childhood house in Idaho. Honestly, I was a bit concerned about taking my wife to my hometown. We had lived in a city in Massachusetts for two months while I finished up my grad degree. She liked the diversity there a lot, especially since half the students in my international development program were international students. However, she did notice that in a big city, most people don’t pay any attention to you and are not particularly friendly to strangers. This was not the case in rural Idaho. She might have gotten a few stares, but for the large part, she was impressed at how friendly people were and how warmly she was greeted by strangers.

The same goes for the small town we live in now in western Colorado. She’s one of the small handful of black folks in town, but in the 5 years we’ve lived here, she has been treated great. She worked as a receptionist at the main health clinic in town, so ¾ of the town know her and absolutely adore her. We live in a very blue-collar town, 45 miles from a major ski resort. Funnily enough, we hear of more racist antidotes from that rich resort town than we hear in our “redneck” town. I have a lot of respect for these coal miners and oil and gas workers who treat my wife the respect every person deserves.

All in all, I am more than impressed at how open minded and tolerant people in the rural west have been. I know that kids are worse, so that’s why I got a ration in high school for my hair. I’m not looking forward to what our mixed-race kids will have to put up with in a rural town, but maybe I’ll be happily surprised in that regard also. Also, maybe part of the issue is that my wife is not black American, but African. Maybe folks have stereotypes about black Americans that they don’t associate with my wife. Additionally, I see and hear much more racism towards Latinos here than blacks. Maybe (surely), they talk behind her back, but we really don’t mind what people say that we can’t hear.

I don’t want to downplay racism in the rural west. This essay is spot-on and so are all your comments. However, I just wanted to impart our story, a testament to the kindness and tolerance of people in the rural west.