The Fable Of Ethnic Loudness And How It Penetrates The White Space

By now you may have heard of the book club, Sistahs on the Reading Edge, a group made up of 11 Black women who recently were enjoying the Napa Valley Wine Train before getting kicked off for “being loud.” Anyone with some melanin knows what the heck that means. Believe me, I spent a little too much of my life trying to tone down my Black woman cackle so I could Cinderella stepsister my way into the list of narrow qualifiers of what makes a proper lady.

Somewhere around college, I’d perfected this schoolgirl giggle—and was still chided by white friends as loud. “Oh, I love it when you laugh,” they’d say – and I’d think Yes! I’ve finally gotten the coveted stamp of white approval!

“Black people are so loud when they laugh,” they’d continue. Cue melting into a puddle of humiliation as they gleamed and chattered about my ‘big black girl laugh’ in this strange loving tone—the one used to describe dogs that roll on their backs for tummy rubs.

So one day I literally and metaphorically said fuck it. I’m going to laugh my head off when shit is funny because no matter what I do, either I’m going to be seen as the rule or the exception, and I’d spent way too much time trying to be an exception, when all I needed for a glimmer of happiness was to be myself.

Still, in all my comfort and pride, the young me I carry somewhere inside felt that burning sting of embarrassment when this story about the book club’s unsuccessful wine train trip popped up in my timeline, and the collective sigh of Black and Latino friends because goddamn it, we are festive melanin-ated people and we show up late to parties and we laugh heck of loud. That’s what we do!

Being a native of Northern California, my family regularly frequented Napa Valley. When my aunts came to visit, my mother almost always booked a limo to chauffeur them up to Napa for the day, so they could enjoy the fruits of many wineries with a side of cheese and salami without worrying how to get home. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Napa Valley, but its hypocrisy is not lost on me. The point of going to Napa Valley is to get drunk. It is, but no one really likes to admit it. I promise you that right now, people will argue that it’s the experience of Napa, it’s the shopping, it’s the beauty, not about drinking, and they would be right too.

That is the strange thing about Napa, it’s a very posh and composed place. Rolling green hills and long driveways to resorts and wineries that spread its beautiful architecture across acres of land. This is where blonde women, bird bone skinny with dark sunglasses that swallow their faces, purse their lips as they lift glass after glass for a sip and go hmmm, hum, and refused to be impressed. This is where wine connoisseurs go – you know, the men in sweaters with bald spots on the crown of their heads at 28 that stand around and dramatically go through the motions of tasting wine. Twirl it in the cup to open up the flavor, hock it back, swish it in their mouth then bob and duck their heads in quiet approval of this hint of nut and that hint of fruity undertone. It’s also child friendly. Parents will taste wine while children skip about asking to try cheeses and jams. Imagine romantic picnics, weddings, family time, all the richness and wholeness of a privileged life. Napa Valley has created a sophisticated culture of not wine, but wine education, while somehow keeping the secret that for all their composure these people are here to get straight up borracho, but heaven forbid you betray your stiff body to your clear inebriation. That’s just not how it works.

The Napa Valley Wine Train experience is especially frigid in many regards. I once attended a Murder Mystery wine train with my friend. We were quite aware of how uniform Napa can be, but the wine train experience was an especially white space that we, as young and Black people, knew we ought to not penetrate. The frowns, the slanted eye glares … even as we bought our tickets, the representative behind the booth seemed almost reluctant to take our money, as if she knew we would cause trouble.

We retreated to the waiting room and kept to ourselves, conscious of our movements, our voice level, this learned need to “not act too Black.” An older Black couple walked in a few minutes later. The husband was a dark-skinned man, but his wife was a complexion that could most certainly pass for a white woman—as long as people didn’t take notice of how her auburn hair was slightly more puffy than the rest. Cursed is the Black woman who straightens her hair then gallivants under the beating hot sun. We met eyes with the couple, relieved, but when it comes to navigating overwhelmingly white spaces, there are two types of Black people:

  • The ones who want to find other Black people if not just for the shared comfort that here is a person who understands how fearful you are to stir white people’s comfort with your sheer Blackness.
  • The ones who do not want a damn thing to do with another Black person because being the token is a strange form of validation that some of us crave.

This couple was very strictly type II. They looked absolutely revolted by our presence and immediately moved across the waiting room as if they could not make it any clearer that we were not together. Once on the train, we sat quietly by, watching the murder mystery take place. The actors moved about the cabins, stopping every now and again to interact with guests, but every single actor moved past us as if we were invisible.

Tired of being ignored, I approached one of the actors. I wanted to figure out who had killed their dear friend, darn it! I tapped on his shoulder and as soon as he faced me, he practically broke character, answering my questions in monotone, his eyes drifting towards the windows as if he just wanted it to be over. I figured that being a mystery murder actor on a train was the type of job that stayed exciting for a week and a week only, but as soon as I let him go, his face brightened and he turned the charm right back on for another group of people.

The cabin swelled with laughter as I took my seat next to my friend, and it was then that we understood just how unwelcome we were on the Napa Valley Murder Mystery train. This is the type of shadow racism that is hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it. No person yelled the n-word at us. There was no KKK around to drive us towards the lynching tree. By every means people were basking in a subdued cheer around us but not with us. They tolerated us. We were served wine when we asked. We were brought food when we ordered, but we were watched carefully. We were quietly ushered to the side, not actively segregated, but passively done so by a hollowed atmosphere that pinged at all of our senses. You can be on this train, but don’t you dare do anything to ethnic it up in here.

So when I heard about these women and their book club, comfortable in their skin, happy to be surrounded by the strength and support of each other—I was far from surprised that they were kicked of the wine train. They’d simply ruined the façade. Napa is a quiet, relaxing, wine education tour away from the city. Want to hear Black women cackle? Go to East Oakland or something. But this is Napa! Act right! California is often heralded as this diverse utopia, but there is a certain amount of contentment among us.

There are certain spaces that you can navigate that are beautifully diverse, filled with many cultures that naturally love each other, and there are certain spaces that simply tolerate you because that’s like in the law now or something. In Napa, it’s the same atmosphere. It’s diverse enough, it’s happy enough, but at some point people like me will hit a boundary. We see a metaphorical line that we’re not supposed to cross. We innately understand it, even if the patrons within these places do not understand their own exclusivity. Sometimes we say, “Hey! It’s 2015!” and cross that line just to find ourselves kicked off the train by those who actually belong.

Carol H. Hood is a writer and professor who lives in about 3 different states while working on her novel, The Misadventures of Tip and JB Turner and her graphic novel, American Witch. Follow her snark shark ways at @carolhenny.