I’m so glad I waited a few days before writing this blog post. I don’t say this often, as anyone who knows me will know, but I was wrong.
At first, like nearly everyone I knew, I was befuddled when Black Lives Matter St. Paul announced last week that they would be protesting the State Fair. “But anyone can go to the State Fair,” my mom and I murmured, shaking our heads. “You’re going to lose a lot of supporters, mister.”
The organizer, Rashad Turner, clarified: they were protesting inequality in the vendor selection process.
We weren’t so sure. “I feel like I’ve seen a lot of black vendors,” I said. Everyone else thought so too. The Star Tribune had a lot of quotes from State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer going, “Well, the selection process is completely blind… everyone has a fair shot…”
Let me clarify for non-Minnesotans: being a vendor at the State Fair is a big freaking deal. Businesses who make it make – I don’t have statistics, exactly, but my first Fair job in high school was fried-cheese-on-a-stick vendor girl; the people who ran that stand also ran a few other stands and the famous Giant Slide; I saw them walk past with cardboard boxes of cash (I hope security has since improved). I saw the house they bought and lived in all year with their proceeds. (Truly bizarre, as one might expect the home of lifelong carnies to be; there was a gas fireplace in every room and a lot of light-up pictures of waterfalls and aquariums.) To make it to the State Fair is to make it big.
Still, I felt like I’d seen black vendors. And there was Jerry Hammer and everyone else who picked who got to sell, insisting that no, color did not feature in the process, not one bit – that there wasn’t even a box to check on the application.
I believed them. This is Minnesota, for God’s sake – the northernmost of the north, the moral center of the country. If this were Westeros, we would definitely be the Starks, or at least we like to think so. And the State Fair is a celebration of how great we are. It is the best-attended Fair in the nation (if you don’t count Texas, which runs for a month instead of ten days, the cheaters). It’s immortalized in song and story and even my novel. How could it be anything less than morally exceptional?
I haven’t written about it here yet – only in fiction – but last year, I worked as a ticket-taker at the Snelling Avenue front gate. It was by far the most menial job I have ever undertaken. A machine could have easily replaced me, but for some reason, none had yet. Accept, rip, say “Enjoy the Fair!” or something, drop into box. Repeat x 1000 per eight-hour shift. I sat on a leather stool some days and stood others, sweating in my blue T-shirt and stupid hat.
Certainly there were lovely moments. Getting to hand-stamp babies, for one. The time I got to wave light wands around and dance people to the exit. And then there were some rain-washed evenings when it was slow. The setting sun behind me turned the clouds pink. Though the pavement in front of our stools was empty, for the time, there was a polite crowd forming on the opposite curb, waiting for the light to change. When it did, I’d hold out my hands, ready to embrace the stream of people wading their way toward the neon glory that was the Fair.
That stream was, needless to say, multi-colored. I ripped tickets of black families and white families and Hmong families; I ripped tourist tickets, grandpa tickets, child tickets. In those ten days I came face-to-face with at least ten thousand Minnesotans.
“And wouldn’t you say that you had a roughly representative sample of the population?” someone asked me the other day.
I considered. 85% white, 5% black, 4% Asian, 1% Native, the rest a Said-sounding “other”?
“I think so,” I said.
And so initially, I confess, this post was a kind of indignant squawk in the face of the protest. If everyone comes to the fair, and the vendors don’t get selected based on race, well, then, protesting seems kind of like an attention-grab, doesn’t it? Like me in high school, theatrically standing up and walking out to protest the war in Iraq? Me in middle school at an anti-abortion rally? I obviously just like a good protest, so I couldn’t fault Black Lives Matter for wanting to join the State Fair party, albeit in a countering group that’d guarantee them their picture in the paper. I did wonder though whether it wouldn’t damage the movement far more than aiding it.
Which, yes, sounds like concern-trolling. Which sounds like I assume the worst of the organizers: that they don’t know what they’re doing, and I, white suburban me, somehow do. Which assumes that ‘raising consciousness’ is a mealy-mouthed meaningless term.
The Fair protest is so superficially inexplicable that it’s raised a lot of conversations already. I’ve talked it over with family, friends, Twitter – the idea that a group would protest something so quintessentially Minnesotan seems to sting white Minnesota to its core. We aren’t racist! we want to yell. We aren’t the ones you should be yelling at!
But in private, when we have moments of silence? We start to wonder.
As did I, after I’d finished my initial post. And all at once I remembered the day I got hired for my ticket-taking job.
I got done with camp and was promptly unemployed. I hadn’t intended on working for the Fair, but I was just out of MFA school and I thought it would be kind of hilarious to have that be my first job. Plus I love the Fair, as mentioned, and I’d be free. Why not?
So, on a whim, I went to the employment office. I knew I was late – that most jobs filled early summer – but I swore I’d do anything. (Now that I’m aware of the craptastic nature of many State Fair jobs, i.e. toilet duty or night gate duty, I would not think that way again, but still.) I bustled up to the office with my application, determined to start my carny career.
How it went, it seemed, was oddly bureaucratic: you handed in your application, took a number, and sat in the waiting room. Once they reviewed it, they’d call you and you’d meet with a counselor who’d place you in the right location. I shot a professional smile at the secretary and settled down to wait, Moleskine in hand. “I am becoming a carny,” I wrote.Then I set my pen down and looked around.
I slowly became aware that I was the only white person in the room. Granted, out of five people. But still.
Moreover, the woman across from me seemed incredibly nervous. She’d pulled out a tube of lipstick from her purse and was scraping the bottom of it with a Q-tip. It was a purplish metallic shade, and she layered it on, her wrist working feverishly as she talked.
“I really need this job,” she told me. “My kids are out there in Shakopee, but I’m willing to commute, because hell, I need anything at this point. How does this look?”
I said, “I mean, your lips are covered…”
She nodded, bit them, put the tube back in her purse for later. We talked some more – about cars? about the weather? I don’t remember, only that it was polite and inconsequential – and then, lo and behold, they were calling my name!
I waved her goodbye and made my way to the back, where a timid young white girl like me said, “Oh, there’s an opening at a face-painting booth!” And I said yes, please, that, and she tried her best to get me in, but she said, frowning at her screen, that it had just filled, and would I mind terribly taking tickets at the front gate?
I did not mind, I guessed, though in truth I was devastated: mourning my aborted career as a painter of childish faces.
When I emerged, I thought the woman would be gone, since she’d gotten there before me. But she wasn’t; now she was standing with a man in a blue polo shirt who was saying nicely, “Look, we don’t have anything available you right now, but we’ll be sure to keep your name on file if anything opens up.” And the woman was rocking again, her lips working hard.
A week later, I went to our first meeting. All us ticket-takers and ticket-sellers clustered in a metal-roofed room; the atmosphere was convivial. I’d gotten my letter welcoming me, and I’d been thrilled: somehow I’d been placed not at one of the side gates, but at what I’d always imagined as the Entrance to the Fair!, despite the fact that this year they’d rejiggered things so the buses dropped off in back nearer the Grandstand. How had I gotten so lucky? I did not know. I took a folding chair, smiled anxiously, and waited.
“Welcome to the Fair!” said Dave, and the crowd roared.
A progression of increasing adorableness took the stage. People who had worked the gate for one year stood up, then two, then five, then twenty, then twenty-five, and then, finally, two old men who had been there for fifty years were given commemorative pins that totally consumed their already pin-covered hats. Everyone clapped. The American flag stood at the front, next to the Minnesotan.
Our boss then started to go over the rules.
“Don’t be drinkin’!” he said. “Now, you’re familiar – no State Fair staff are allowed to patronize the beer gardens. And if you go after, well, you take off your shirts, you hear, Nate?” A roar from the front.
“Okay,” he said. “Now, the dress code. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you – it’s in the handbook. It gets awful hot, but no shorts above the knee.” Everyone nodded. “Hats, great. Rain ponchos? Bring ’em – god knows what it’ll do, it’s Minnesota. And…” he peered sternly around the crowd, “no saggy pants!”
“But I’m not going to have to worry about that with this crowd, huh.” He laughed.
And I looked around.
I hadn’t noticed it before, of course. But nobody here looked like the people I’d seen in the hiring office.
No: as far as I could see, every face in the crowd, which was over two hundred strong, in folksy suspenders or top hats or button-downs… every single face, of every front gate, of the whole Fair… every single face, more or less, was white.
As it turns out, the Black Lives Matter protest is going to arrive at my very gate tomorrow. Rashad Turner says that they don’t plan to enter the Fair, but if need be, they “will adapt”.
Which means they’ll turn to face my ex-coworkers, the string of white people dressed in blue whose job it is to guard the gates and make sure everything inside stays Minnesota Nice.
Which means that there’ll be a moment of waiting, of standoff: a moment where it’ll be the job all of those people (who used to be me) to have to decide what to do.
I thought I knew, but I don’t know if I do anymore.