by Howie Newton
A few years back, I ventured on an employment related trip to North Dakota. I was in North Dakota for 4 nights and 5 days. What I am delivering here is only my experience, but something inside me tells me that it is highly unlikely that another Black Man’s experience would be anything but similar to mine. The experience moved me so much that I decided to write it down.
The resulting feelings that consumed me on a daily basis while in North Dakota began at the gate in Dallas/Ft Worth’s International Airport while waiting to board my flight for Bismarck. The introduction to what was about to take place over those 4 nights and 5 days began while observing 4 men who were traveling together. These were all what appeared to be Caucasian men traveling together for what appeared to me to be the purposes of either a work-related purpose. The interaction that took place between this group of men and I was one immersed in the relationship or connection within our innermost selves. This relationship or connection was grounded in the dissonance of two cultures that while unspoken were understood just the same.
These feelings were and are my truth and reality. They began to take shape and were sending internal messages connected to aversion, repulsion, silent and subliminal terrorization, power, dominance, authority, degradation, subservience, invalidation, and to be totally honest, even fear and anxiety. These feelings began to pose questions such as, ‘Why am I experiencing these feelings?’, ‘Am I not man enough to dispel them?’, and ‘Why are they so consuming and encompassing?’ Remember, I’ve already stated that this experience would turn out to be something that I never fathomed, and here is where it began to take shape.
My initial feelings associated with this trip were anxiousness and discomfort relating to the distances I would have to travel via rental car to the cities and locations in North Dakota to fulfill my employment obligations. These locations were Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks, and Minot. What I had seen from my research and from information obtained from others with experience relative to North Dakota was that this was flat, open land with relatively nothing in between destinations. So yes, the driving between these locations was taxing, but really wasn’t the most discomforting component of my trip.
So, my arrival entailed the usual routine of retrieving my luggage from baggage claim, and picking up the rental car. I am now confronted with an inner feeling of being dropped off in an episode of the “Outer Limits” or “Twilight Zone”. This was the magnitude of the cultural dissonance I spoke about earlier, that is not just apparent to me, but to the other persons in the airport that I detect are aware of our apparent differences. While this may seem exaggerated to some, please understand that I am also aware that there are just as many others who know exactly what I’m talking about.
This was going to be my reality for the next 5 days. All of this is taking place while also understanding that I have employment related tasks to accomplish also. I leave the airport for my hotel room in Bismarck.
The early morning of Monday June 14, I drove to Grand Forks to begin meetings and other tasks related to establishing partnerships and strengthening existing ones directly linked to jobs. Upon arrival, I learned that my anticipated appointment was actually for later that afternoon. This presented me with additional time to get some much-needed breakfast and I ventured to a local eatery at the suggestion of my business colleague who I would be meeting with later that day.
So, while the feelings that I was beginning to experience were taking shape, to this point I actually hadn’t had any interaction that validated them. At the upcoming breakfast is where I will be introduced to the validation. Keep in mind that the colleague who offered the local eatery as a location for a good breakfast was not aware of the personal bias and or prejudice that was presented by the server at this location, and also was unaware that how she is treated and served there would be totally different from my experience. Even if the server had an aversion to persons of color, she has that right, but I should have never been subjected to her perceived aversion.
My expectations were too high. My expectation was to be treated as a human being and eat a good breakfast. While the food was good, the service didn’t meet the quality of the food served. This isn’t about poor service, but about the reality of the situation. The server’s tone, presentation, looks of repulsion, and an overall presence of contempt now began to provide the evidence of what my feelings began to disclose to me at that gate at Dallas/Ft. Worth’s international Airport before boarding my flight to Bismarck, North Dakota. It was my observation that none of the other persons who were there to eat breakfast experienced the type of service/treatment comparable to mine.
‘Why did I stay?’, you might ask. I had a right to be there, she wasn’t preparing my food (that I blessed so my reality was that I was covered for those who understand what this means), and I arrived in Bismarck the night before around 11pm and hadn’t eaten a meal, so for those who know me—I was very hungry.
Where I was in North Dakota wasn’t a place where diverse racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds seemed to be welcomed or embraced by the masses. This interaction set the tone for what would transpire for the following 3 days. As I continued to venture to Minot and Fargo for the duration of my trip, my interactions with North Dakotans, as well as my observations over the duration of my visit to North Dakota. The feelings are now concrete for me and send messages from peering eyes, uncomfortable stares, moments of inappropriate laughter during personal and professional interactions that usually emanate from nervous or uncomfortable energy. There were actually instances where people would freeze directly in front of me like a deer in headlights not knowing what to do because all of a sudden something unnatural to them is taking place. Another tell-tale instance was when acts of overcompensation would occur or persons would go extremely far out of their way in an attempt to make everything alright.
The blameless occurrences that took place with children were other events that will never leave my psyche. There were two distinct occurrences with children that brought about uneasiness and sincere sadness for me. The children I encountered that brought about these distinct occurrences are definitely blameless in my eyes. Either they were amazed and astonished, or there could be other factors such as information received within their households that brought about these occurrences. Both of these occurrences transpired in restaurants. The first occurrence took place in Grand Forks. I arrived at the restaurant and was being seated by the hostess, and there was a child who appeared to be no more than a year old who was amazed or some other adjective unknown to me that this well-dressed Black Man was there at the exact same restaurant. This child stared at me for probably all of 45 seconds to a minute before being redirected by the mother.
The other occurrence took place on that Thursday, just before going to the airport to depart. I was in another restaurant, and a mother with her 2 small children passed my table on the way to the restroom. One of the little girls must have seen me out of the corner of her eye while passing my table and froze to stop and stare at me, then continued on her way. Upon coming back by my table from the restroom trip, the same child this time didn’t freeze but intentionally stopped. She not only stopped, but at the empty chair directly across from me at my table, rested her arms on the chair and stared at me silently for about 20-30 seconds before catching up to the rest of her family. No one said anything to this child. My feeling at that time was ‘Was I a zoo attraction?’
At this same restaurant after that occurrence with the child, a woman and her family were eating directly in my line of sight off to the left corner of the establishment. Midway through my meal, the wife/woman began to stare at me very intensely, and I reciprocated. Her husband observed this and finally nudged her, and our staring contest ended. “Outer Limits” and “Twilight Zone”, right?
The people I am writing about without mentioning assumed race or ethnicity, were not people of color. While there in North Dakota over a 5 day period, I saw to the best of my memory, 8 Black people. The majority of persons in service positions in North Dakota at the airport, hotel, restaurants, grocery stores, and other locations I had to venture to appeared to be Native American or other people of color. Before leaving for North Dakota, the reality of the state being what I believed to be about 90-95% White people didn’t escape me. To experience what I experienced in real time face-to-face was something totally different. The actual data from 2021 states that North Dakota is 86.58% White and the actual percentage of Black people is 2.91%. When processing this, here is where I lean towards giving North Dakotans the benefit of the doubt. Me, this Bald-Headed Black Man, in a professional position wearing a suit and tie representing to them what may appear to be an upstanding citizen may have really made some North Dakotans feel uncomfortable.This discomfort is also accompanied by the fact that I’m invading their comfortable space without permission. North Dakota being the conservative, red state that it is, is also a stark reminder that this political position has a definitive bearing on the ever-prevalent disparaging racial climate, whether one wants to admit it or not. It is quite revealing from a conversation that I had with a few North Dakotans, that what I bring to light in this commentary is something that isn’t really denied when even some North Dakotans want to expose the genuine truth.
This conversation revealed that they knew I would receive some negative side-eyed looks and wouldn’t be received well or welcomed by the masses. I mention ‘the masses” because there were some interactions that weren’t tainted by an air of repulsion or aversion, but they were few and far in between.
Another very interesting component of this trip was every evening before turning in at the hotel, my wife would deliver a directive. This directive was generated after relaying to my wife my experiences there in North Dakota on a daily basis via phone calls we would have. This directive was for me to obtain any and all items needed before turning in and for me to not come back out after dark. Very reminiscent of being in a ‘sundown town.’
In closing, the benefit of the doubt I mentioned can obviously be relative to the fact that uncomfortable situations make people act weird. I was in an unnatural situation and so were they, but what I experienced you can actually feel coming from within a person’s soul, see it in their eyes, and feel it in the air. My consciousness/spirit/inner being is my connection to my God and never deceives or lies to me, so the benefit of the doubt approach has been dispelled. What I experienced took place consistently over a 5-day period, but in keeping it real, my ancestors experienced far worse. It was good to get home.