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 (hcn.org). He is a writer in Paonia, Colorado, and the author of the collection Pump Six and other Stories.