Last weekend I went to a barbecue in a weird little nook just off Franklin Avenue, tucked by railroad tracks and an interstate on-ramp. I’d lived a few blocks away in 2002 and 2003, when I rented a shoebox-sized apartment on Jonquil Street. But I’d never visited this little patch of ground.
The host, a PhD student my boyfriend knows from LSU, called it a farm, but there wasn’t much by way of agriculture. Some chickens sleeping in their coop. A trailer. A warehouse collapsing on itself. The host said some dude had hidden a bunch of heroin in there. The dude wound up going to rehab, but he wanted one final bender before sobering up, so his dad went out to the warehouse to find his heroin. The host said the dad had a lot of compassion. I said he sounded like an enabler. So, we had different ways of thinking about things.
But I got past the rough patch and was having a pretty good time chatting with the host and his girlfriend about their black bean burger recipe. Other people started to arrive, people with names like Rotten Milk and Arrow.
Arrow had long blonde hair braided under a baseball cap. She was from a small town in upstate New York. I told her about my sister, who lives in Rochester. She told me about her aunt, who owns orchards and wineries. Then she asked the host how he was doing.
“So you’re liking your program?” she asked. “You said there’s a lot of international students.”
“Yeah, there are.”
“That makes sense,” Arrow said thoughtfully. “I mean, who else is going to go? Honky Louisiana people?”
It pissed me off. And I didn’t really feel like talking to anyone much after that. Part of me is still angry, part thinks I’m being too emotional, and part feels relieved. Because I know that’s how a lot of transplants see Louisianans: backwards, hopelessly bound by their own prejudices. A Southern accent conveys stupidity. Denham Springs is the heart of darkness. At least this particular Northern white girl was upfront about it. But I suspect she might not have been had she known I was from Baton Rouge.
Louisiana has a lot of problems. There are racists, sexists and homophobes here. It’s also impoverished, diseased and murderous, plus it has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And yeah, the education system is troubled, especially in Baton Rouge, where failing school districts have prompted “a new apartheid.” Also, there was that hurricane not so long ago. So when I go to a party and I hear Louisianans are too dumb to go to grad school? That just feels like being kicked when we’re down.
I would suggest, to anyone moving here, before you accuse Louisianans of being backwards, stupid or prejudiced, ask yourself why? Why do you think that? And what historic, economic and geographic factors might have conspired to make Louisiana’s parishes bloodier, sicker and poorer than the counties you came from? Ask yourself, ask other people, learn about the place you’ve chosen to call your home before you insult its people. Because to do otherwise, well, that’s prejudice, plain and simple.