The Cost of Casual Bigotry
     Every October since 2005, I have attended the annual Clay Fest held in Gruene, Texas. These have always been fun and interesting, so I returned for the 2010 Clay Fest, eager to see and photograph the artwork and also, hopefully, to find something interesting to bring home. As it turned out, an offhand comment by a vendor named Randy Brodnax made me so angry that I left the grounds immediately without buying anything, determined not to return. I've gotten over the anger, but it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth, as did the lack of response by the event organizers to my complaint about Brodnax.

     The problem grew out of the fact that many vendors at the various Gruene crafts' fairs do not accept credit cards.[1] That posed a problem this year because I do not carry a checkbook (I prefer to pay for expensive things with plastic) and I didn't have enough cash to pay for what I wanted. Even so, I had decided that if I found at least three pieces I wanted, I'd go get money from a nearby ATM and come back. I had already seen a couple of things I liked, and was heading toward the ATM when I came on Brodnax's table. I asked if he would accept a credit card. He told me no and then without my asking, he explained that he didn't use them because credit card companies were always trying to "Jew you down." Of course, I've heard that same dumb phrase hundreds of times in the past 45+ years, and while I don't ever let it pass without comment, I usually just explain that it's as offensive as any other racial or ethnic slur, regardless of how innocuous it may seem. That day, however, it just rubbed me the wrong way, so instead of my normal reaction, I told Brodnax that I'm a Jew, that he had just lost a sale, and that he could just 'Bite me.' He just shrugged and I walked away, choosing to ignore the behind-the-back 'truth must hurt' comment and the jeering laughs of some of the other people who were standing there.

     The next day (24 Oct), I sent a message to the e-mail address shown on the Clay Fest Contact page. Unsurprisingly, even though it's claimed on the webpage that the organizers "will respond as soon as possible," they never did. This is, after all, the Texas Hill Country, and both New Braunfels and Gruene (and the surrounding area) have a strong grounding in German culture, antebellum Southern 'hospitality,' and Texas small-town saywhateverthehellyoudamnwellplease–itis. I'm not really a PC kind of person, but even in reputedly-coarse Philadelphia where I grew up, people knew enough to keep their racial and ethnic slurs to themselves unless they were among friends or were willing to fight. They were especially careful when it came to doing business because even if they didn't like you, they still wanted your money.[2]

     In the e-mail I sent, in addition to the complaint, I offered some suggestions. I wrote:
1) Insist every vendor have a way to take plastic money—maybe you could set up an ATM or run a processing station for payments to those vendors who don't have their own. That way, people don't have to carry checkbooks or cash, and you're not supporting potential sales-tax avoidance.

2) Issue a set of guidelines to vendors about dealing with the paying public. Racist, anti-religious, or any kind of negatively stereotypical commentary should be avoided. If you want to have a world-class festival, your vendors need to remember they are not sitting on the front porch of their Texas hick-town home chewing the fat with some of their pals. Moreover, every white person doesn't think it's ok for other white people to 'share' their opinions about Latinos, Blacks, Jews, and others just because we have the same color skin.


     The second point has been a recurring theme of mine for decades, but I never stop being surprised by the things white people will say to me or in my presence because I am white and I don't look 'ethnic.'[3] I'm even more surprised—but not by much really—at how often a person of color will feel comfortable trash-mouthing another race or ethnic group in my presence, as if because I'm not one of those people, I must be okay with it. I even get some of that from men who assume that demeaning talk about women is acceptable as long as there are no women present.

     In fact, I am not okay with any of that, under any circumstances, ever. Moreover, I know a lot of men and women of all colors, cultures, and religions who are also not okay with that. Certainly, it's true that many people indulge their ignorance with dull-witted abandon, and even I'll err sometimes, but that doesn't make it any less boorish, crass, or despicable.

     As for Mr. Brodnax, I suspect he is a decent enough fellow who just repeated something he's heard and said a few hundred times in his life. I'd also guess that if I'd responded with less anger, he would have said something to the effect that he doesn't have anything against Jews and that 'jewing someone down' is just a common saying, just as I've been told dozens of times. All of which may be true, but I don't accept any of that as valid excuses anymore. Americans know better. Brodnax certainly knows better, he just didn't care enough to be careful of his words. I'm sure I caught him by surprise, but I would bet even money that if I had been wearing a Star of David or a yarmulke he wouldn't have said that, just as I know that if I were black or Latino, people wouldn't casually use racial epithets to refer to those people around me. Not because people don't think those things, but because generally they just know better, even in small-town America, where many people still tend to say whatever they care to, and take great pride in doing so.

     I realize Brodnax is just one vendor, and that the lack of a response by the organizers does not mean they agree with him. Even so, clearly he didn't care if he'd been offensive and neither did they; moreover, it would seem they also didn't care that Brodnax's comment cost other people money too. I was definitely going to buy some things, just as I always have, but in addition to himself, Brodnax cost two or three other vendors a sale as well. And not only that day, because I have no intention of visiting another Clay Fest, and I will absolutely be telling people why.

Notes:

1. In the past 4-5 years, I have walked away from at least a dozen crafts fair purchases because vendors did not take credit cards. I understand why they do not take them (including the desire by some people to avoid having to collect and pay State sales taxes), but this really is a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Aside from the cost of getting to the show, booth spaces at these events are usually expensive. Any vendor who doesn't do everything he or she can to maximize return on the investment is either only in it for the hobby value or doesn't really understand sales and marketing. Either way, it is clearly not understood that whenever an interested buyer is forced to walk away from a purchase, not only did the seller lose that immediate sale, he also lost future sales and referrals, and may have even generated some bad word-of-mouth publicity.

   As to the value of making it 'easy' to buy, I shop at Amazon.com for about 85% of all non-grocery items, including not only CDs, movies, and books (which I sometimes buy used), but also things like a vacuum cleaner, exercise machines, GPS, camera equipment, and a radar detector. Why? Because shopping on Amazon is far easier and far more quickly done (with a LOT less aggravation) than having to go to one of the local rat's mazes like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Sears, or any over-priced mall store. In fact, USA Today just reported that "Amazon sold a record 158 items every second on Nov. 29," and that on the same day Amazon claimed "online buyers purchased a record 13.7 million items worldwide." Why does Amazon do so well? Because the company makes it absurdly easy to find, look at, get opinions about, and purchase at reasonable prices what you want, whether new or used, and they don't give you grief about returning things. Amazon is the best general merchandise store (vice specialty stores like Mens' Wearhouse or Discount Tires) I've ever frequented, and as far as possible, I just avoid all other big retailers entirely.

2. It is absolutely true that people in the Northeast U.S. are more terse and less friendly-seeming than people elsewhere in the country, but generally they are far more tolerant of other cultures, races, and ethnicities than any place I've lived in the South, the Midwest, or the West (except for California), and they tend to be a lot less mean-spirited. The rudest, meanest people we ever lived among, bar none, were in Lebanon, Missouri; the most overtly racist were in north-middle Indiana.

3. In addition to not looking 'ethnic,' I don't have a Jewish last name because I use my stepfather's. I also don't wear a yarmulke or tefellin (phylacteries), and once I was told by a whiney, bitter black guy that if I'm going to make a big deal of what someone says about Jews, I should at least wear something to let people know I'm a Jew. I suppose that would be the decent thing to do, but then I'd also become a magnet for every nudnik who just has to tell me about his boyhood best friend who happened to be Jewish (but who wasn't one of those Orthodox Jews, who wear that funny cap all the time), and was actually an okay guy and all. . . . Feh.

4. Yarmulke: A skullcap worn by Jewish men and boys, especially those adhering to Orthodox or Conservative Judaism; Tefellin: The phylacteries worn by Orthodox and Conservative Jewish men during morning worship, which are either "of two small leather boxes, each containing strips of parchment inscribed with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures, one of which is strapped to the forehead and the other to the left arm." From the American Heritage Dictionary (electronic version), 3rd Edition (v. 3.6a), © 1994, Softkey International.

Update note: As of today (12 Sep 16), I have not been to an annual Clay Fest in Gruene since 2010, and I'm not planning to go this year, either.

     Updated 12 Sep 16
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