In life, you expect at least some humans to be hateful bigots because, well, not everyone can be nice and stable, that’s just genetics. And it’s easy to find foreseeable xenophobes like the commenters on YouTube who get off saying anonymous mean things to people, kids and puppies in video threads; grandpas who fought in the Korean War because you have no concept of what actually happened in that war and yea, sure, rice can get boring; and then people with like confederate flag tattoos, blue-eyed kids in Jane Elliott’s 1960s Eye of the Storm discrimination exercise or Elizabethan era time travelers stuck in 2013 who get confused and think it’s OK to call black people “Moors.”
But with that expectation in mind, it’s always staggering when someone blatantly espouses his or her racial intolerance in conversation with you — at you — under the confusing assumption that you share his or her sociopolitical views. As if the color of my skin, with its ghostlike pallor, is somehow a reflection or component of my feelings toward those with, say, a beautiful burnished mocha complexion. (The only emotion I have toward that is envy.)
So I was incredibly surprised when I went to the Renaissance Festival recently and encountered not one, but two, completely insane examples of regular humans — albeit costumed humans — being openly mind-blowing dicks and racists toward gay people and black people. (For the record, outside of this experience, I love the Renaissance Festival.) Ren Fest actors were getting into conversations with strangers (aka me) about how, luckily, all the poor black people are going to kill each other off and then we won’t have to worry about them anymore and other super crazy racist shit that is difficult to repeat. (I actually can’t repeat it because it makes my entire body convulse in uncomfortable horror.)
And then there were the carnival game barkers, who kept insinuating that all the men were “gay” pansies who couldn’t win the games of strength or skill. Like being gay was the most painful insult they could hurl at a man to enrage him enough to prove his lust for women by paying to throw a ball at a tin can on a hay bale.
If these people were in “character,” it might make sense? (Just trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.) In 1596, Queen Elizabeth did in fact ban what she referred to as “blackmoores” from the realm, arranging for merchants to deport them from England. So being a racist while taking yourself incredibly seriously in 16th-century sea merchant costuming might be OK? Like Southern Civil War re-enactors? And maybe the carnival barkers are all uncomfortable country boys in velvet pantaloons and leather-tie puffy shirts who need to prove their own masculinity?
Now, I’m not saying that all the people who work at the Renaissance Festival are bigots. I was just shocked that if I drive 45 minutes north of the “city” (and past that Confederate flag barn in Mason), I can be in an area where people feel completely comfortable saying hateful things while chatting it up with strangers. I know that racist people still exist. I know that people who hate gay people still exist. But even if you have those kind of tiny, dark asshole thoughts, at what point are you so comfortable with your surroundings that you assume everyone around you agrees with your limited worldview? As if because we’re both white, we’re somehow comrades in arms against black people, Asians and “brown” people.
I’m completely ashamed that I didn’t say anything to the guy at the time, like even, “Hey. I don’t actually think that black jokes are funny. I’m super uncomfortable with this conversation and I’d like to finish my macaroni and cheese bread bowl in peace.” But I didn’t. I just let him keep talking.
My fiancé did tell the carnival barker guy that he himself was gay — because it’s easier to say you’re gay than you’re black — and asked if the guy had a problem with gay people, which was amusing because the guy’s face dropped in shock; he then asked if my fiancé was being serious and said that in 10 years of doing this gay-bashing egging-on thing he had never met an actual gay person, presumably because he thinks all gay people look like Liberace (like he kind of did at the time).
Now, these types of sentiments certainly aren’t unique to rural role-playing festivals. I’m sure there are at least several racists hanging out somewhere in Over-the-Rhine’s expensive street food restaurants; they just aren’t going to say shit. And there are plenty of places a white man or woman can be part of the inner-racist workings of fellow whites: pizza delivery jobs, Klan rallies, expensive European handbag stores that refuse to let Oprah touch a $40,000 purse for fear that a black woman who literally has an economic phenomenon named after her (“The Oprah Effect”) might not have money.
And, being white, I probably don’t know the half of it. But the fact that people feel OK saying these things out loud is terrifying. The fact that they believe these things is terrifying. I thought we had come a little bit further than that. But Columbia University Sikh professors are being beaten on the street by angry mobs, Pennsylvania school officials are resigning because they got caught sending texts like, “All should just have whatever first names they want … then the last name is NIGGER!” on a school phone and a high school in Tennessee has banned Islamic tolerance field trips after parents complained.
I wish I could have just gone to the festival and been pleasantly surprised by the amount of new vegetarian menu items, but despite the number of enlightened Medieval salads, turns out that people are still idiots.
CONTACT MAIJA ZUMMO: [email protected]