Above: my wife Tracie (left) and our oldest daughter Georgia P at Hermann Park Conservancy in the heart of Houston not long after we moved to the city from Austin last year.
On Friday night, I was at Terroir, the natural wine bar in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite wine destinations in the country and I go there every chance I get. In part, because I love the wine selection and the vibe of the place. In part, because one of my best friends from my New York days, Bill R., is one of the managers there and I love hanging out with him.
He introduced me to some of his regular guests and friends as my colleagues and I sat there for the better part of the evening tasting whatever wines he proffered.
No fewer than three times, when I made the acquaintance of fellow revelers and they asked me where I was from, their response came in the form of a question and feigned sympathy.
“You’re from Houston?” they asked as if on cue. “I’m so sorry.”
Ever since I moved to Texas in 2008 and especially since I moved to Houston in 2014, this happens a lot, nearly everywhere I travel.
I’m not really sure how people expect me or any Houstonian, for that matter, to react. Do they imagine I’ll thank them for their earnest concern? Do they not realize that they are, in fact, mocking me?
But what troubles me even more is their inability to grasp the intrinsic racist subtext of their sardonic manner.
If I were from, say, rural Mexico or north Africa, where our fellow humans have faced extreme socioeconomic challenges for generations, would they say, “You’re from Chiapas? I’m so sorry,” or “You’re from Benghazi? I’m so sorry.”
Can you imagine how offensive that would be?
And beyond the morally reprehensible tone of their sarcasm, do they not perceive how rude they are being?
In a social setting like a natural wine bar, where the guests ostensibly share an affinity for a style of wine that reflects progressive attitudes, how can I respond without escalating the tension that has been created?
I could answer by thanking them for feeling sorry for me and telling them that my life in Houston really sucks and that the only reason why I live there is because I my financial situation is so challenging that I accept my bitter fate of residing in America’s fourth largest city.
I could tell them that my ugly shrew of a wife forces me and our two bratty, cosmetically challenged, ingrate children to live there because she takes pleasure in our suffering.
I could reveal that despite my higher education and my career as a writer in the wine trade, I inhabit an intellectually and gastronomically inferior urban environment because I masochistically enjoy denying myself aesthetic and sensorial fulfillment.
But all three of these options would require dissimulation and when they realized I was lying, what kind of first impression would that make?
It’s true that Texas and Texans are often considered by their fellow Americans as having backward social attitudes and attenuated cultural self-awareness.
It is also true that Texas governor Greg Abbott recently deployed the Texas State Guard to ensure that the U.S. government wasn’t using the military training operation known as Jade Helm 15 to take Texans’ firearms away from them.
Texans often propagate the very same mythologies that make them and their state so unsavory to the palates of their compatriots.
But this is no excuse for the microaggression that comes in the form of their “I’m so sorry.”
And in today’s American society, where there is a heightened awareness of social politesse and racial and social sensitivity, their microaggresions are no more acceptable or tolerable than the outright racist attitudes they might expect of my fellow Houstonians.
I don’t tell them that, of course. To do so would be a proverbial conversation stopper.
I simply say, “no, please don’t be sorry. I love living in Houston. It’s a great place to live and I have a great life there. It’s actually not that place that you might imagine it to be. In fact, it’s one of the country’s most ethnically diverse and progressive cities. My children go to school with kids from all over the world. And the wine and food scene there is great, too.”
That usually ends the conversation anyway. Most people seem entirely nonplussed that my view of my own life is contrary to what they perceive my life to be. And in my experience, no panegyric will convince them otherwise.
Of course, not everyone acts this way when they learn I’m from Houston. Some people say things like, “I’ve heard great things about Houston” or “how do you like living there?” or they just say, “cool.”
But as someone who grew up in Southern California, lived in Europe on and off for ten years, and lived in New York City for ten years consecutively, being on the receiving end of this pungent microaggression has been eye-opening for me.
It’s been amazing to see how people size me up drawing their impression solely from the knowledge that “I’m from Houston.”
If only they could take a stroll with me and my family in the Hermann Park Conservancy to visit its Japanese garden or zoo, to see the collection of fossils in the Natural Science Museum there… They’d probably say something like “you don’t look Houstonian at all!”