This will be my second what-I-did-on-my-vacation column, and all I did was go down to the Rio Grande Valley for a week, so maybe that means I ought to go on more, better vacations? When I was down there, I swore I would tell somebody about one part of it when I got home, so I guess that’s you.
If you never have visited “The Valley,” as we call it here in Texas, then you don’t know. It’s not the United States, and it’s not Mexico. If you drive, you get below San Antonio and then you cross a broad band of scrubby brush country. Finally you burst into this strange, crowded, busy Hobbit-land of low-rise buildings, palm trees, citrus groves and vast trailer parks, a sunny green landscape that manages to be modest but not shabby, vibrant but not showy, a cross and amalgam of things. It’s Americo or Mexica, both or neither, all at once. It’s the borderland. And it’s quite wonderful. That’s not exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.
The vast majority of the people you run into on a daily basis in the valley are Hispanic from Mexico. Anglos are a distinct minority. So here’s the deal. Every place I walked into, people were absolutely sweet to me, really open, nice, friendly, courteous. By the second day of it, I was already thinking, “OK, what’s up with this?”
When I walk into an all-minority scene in Dallas, a store, a service station, a doctor’s office, I get the shrink-back. If you’re an old white person, you know what I mean. C’mon. You know. It’s that little shrink-back, that contraction around the mouth, the slight squint and furrowed brow. It’s people saying to themselves, “Oh, crap, here comes another one.”
Another what? You know what. Us. Trumpy-looking people. And then on vacation I do wear a gimme cap, so that doesn’t help. Hey, since he’s been in office, I’ve gotten used to it. Other people in this country have always been judged on the basis of their appearance. So now we old white folks get a taste. With the rallies and the hats and the terrible things old white people say on TV, did we think we were going to just skate?
Hell no, we have to pay a certain price, and the price is having other people assume that people who look like us are probably assholes the minute we walk in the door. I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to where I expect it and I can take it. Of course, being a reporter all my life has given me the benefit of special training.
So here I am in this charming, quirky part of the world, walking around Edinburg and McAllen and Brownsville, and all of these non-Anglos are opening doors for me and saying stuff like, “How are you today, sir, beautiful day, isn’t it?”
I’m thinking, “You're going to start talking to me about the Bible, right?” But, no. They were just being nice. Then it hit me! Holy moly, I had this very same experience earlier in the year on my only other vacation, when my wife made me go back and revisit Detroit. I mean, no kidding, you see what I mean about my vacations. Next stop, Chernobyl.
I hadn’t really been back to Detroit in decades. My wife, a native Texan of many generations, has this idea that you have to stay in touch with your roots. I lean more toward amputation. But we had a great visit, during which I had exactly this same unnerving experience of people being really nice and open and easy with me, only this time, instead of Hispanics, it was black people. Wow. I thought, “What is the deal with this friendliness crap? Do these people not get CNN?”
We were only there for a few days, after which we drove up north to the part of Michigan I know even better, the land of deer slaughter and endless fishing, where I was just invisible. Everybody on the street looked like my twin, like there was a factory somewhere with an assembly line churning out old white dudes in gimme caps. Past a certain age, I couldn’t even tell the old white guys from the old white gals. I forgot about my Detroit weirdness.
Then almost a year later in Edinburg, a bell sounded in my head. All of these Hispanic people were being nice to me. It was exactly like all of those black people in Detroit being nice to me. What gives? Is there a common thread?
OK, in both places, whites are in the minority, in fact distinctly so. So maybe that’s it. When whites are in the minority, minorities aren’t worried about them, so the minorities behave in a more friendly way toward the whites.
So, wait. The obverse would be that when whites are the majority, we’re really nice and friendly and open with minorities. Right? We both know that’s definitely wrong. There is no evidence of that. In fact, the more majority we are, the worse we are, in my experience.
The farther away from the Mexican border, in fact, and the fewer Mexican people whites are accustomed to seeing in their daily rounds, the more open whites are about expressing anti-Mexican feeling. All of that horrible junk that President Donald Trump talks about Mexicans in his all-white rallies in Minnesota — rapists and murderers and so on — he didn’t say one word of it on his recent visit to the border. Guess why. Everybody around him was of Mexican origin.
Of course! It’s not that the black people in Detroit feel especially unthreatened by whites. I have no idea if they feel threatened or not. It’s not that the Mexican people in the borderland feel like they’re one up numerically on the whites. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. That’s not it. It’s not about how they feel. It’s how we feel — the old white people.
I looked around the valley to check myself. I paid very close attention to the people who looked like me, and the valley has a lot of them, the so-called winter Texans who go down there and sit outside their trailers like happy pink lizards on smooth rocks letting the sun get their blood going for them. I could do that full time, by the way, just eating oranges and napping. It’s great.
But here’s the thing. When we white people are in the minority, we are much better behaved. Some of the white comes off. A modesty falls upon our withered shoulders. We don’t go into the store and officially announce ourselves as assholes. Maybe that’s why they don’t treat us as official assholes.
It’s an intriguing possibility, possibly ripe for academic study and experimentation. Pay a bunch of white people to behave halfway decently. Have them speak politely and show respect. And what? People would be nice back to us? That would be an earth-shattering finding. It could change everything.
And yet I swear that’s what I experienced in Detroit and Edinburg this year, and I do think the numbers have everything to do with it. Americans, I don’t care what ethnicity we are, we go to France, and we are universally obsequious before the French, which is absurd. How could we cringe before people who eat snails and songbirds? But we do. Nothing brings out good manners like being surrounded. Of course, being surrounded is the one thing most white people in the really white parts of the country never feel.
We happened to be down there the same week Trump was declaring his border emergency, and there was a crashing sense of cognitive dissonance. He kept talking about this really scary place, this hell where demons are tunneling into the nation with fiendish plots to turn all the white people into drug addicts against their will.
We were in that place. The real place. If I was feeling dissonant about anything, it was the easygoing charm, the friendliness, the sheer courtesy of the place, not to mention the humming economy. Everything the president described about this place was the polar opposite of what my eyes were telling me.
You know what? I was a very young child in small, all-white towns in the Midwest. I got old enough there before we moved to remember those places. When I hear old white Americans yearning for a halcyon past, telling me, “I just want my country back,” I think they may be remembering similarly homogeneous and uncomplicated times and places.
Something like those times and places exists now, places where people can be decent, polite and easy with each other. But I think they may exist mainly where white people are a little bit surrounded or at least don’t completely rule the roost. Ironically, my two best examples happen to be two places for which old white people seem to reserve their greatest horrors — Detroit and the border with Mexico.
Now, just because these are my own best examples doesn’t mean there may not be many better examples out there. As you may have concluded by now, I don’t get out much. Much as I enjoyed Detroit and loved the border, it might be an interesting experiment for someone to pay me instead to spend a couple of years in the south of France. Would I remain patriotic? Or would I start gobbling songbirds and telling people I was Canadian? Really, I would need to go there and just stay for a few years, possibly in a small lovely villa, to get a solid answer. Again, it would be better if someone else paid.
In the meantime, I put it to you. Instead of more white, maybe what we really need is less. Everybody might be happier. I know it makes shopping a lot easier.