|I had been in the contact zone. My experience wasn’t such a positive one; it wasn’t drastically negative either, but it was enough to open my eyes to see in a fairly different light from what I was used to. The “Contact Zone” is a term coined by Mary Louise Pratt in her essay Arts of the Contact Zone and describes when two different cultures meet. A contact zone allows for interaction between cultures so that cultural boundaries can be broken. People from different cultures and races can have a positive or negative influence on each other. Countries around the world that helped Haiti after the devastating earthquake that hit in 2010 could be regarded as a positive interaction between the different countries. The United States worked with other governments and aid agencies around the world assembling supplies and manpower. Overwhelmed rescue workers in Haiti rushed to set up makeshift clinics. France also sent three military transport planes, including one from nearby Fort-de-France, Martinique, filled with aid supplies. Britain and Germany sent governmental assessment teams and Germany offered to make available 1.5 million euros, or about $2.2 million, for emergency assistance. These international aid organizations and gestures remain the most positive forms of the contact zone that the Global South endures from the Global North.
There are negative interactions and conflicts in the contact zones of the Global North. In “Just Walk On By,” Brent Staples tells the story of how he came into contact with white people and how he felt he was treated differently. The story starts with a memory where he is walking behind a white woman at night and she is automatically terrified that a "black man" is walking behind her. Another situation that distinctively represents a conflict in the contact zone happens when Staples is a journalist in Chicago in the early 1970s and 1980s. He rushes into the office of the magazine he is working for with a deadline story in his hand but is mistaken for a burglar. The office manager calls security who chases him down through the hallways of the office. He has no way of proving who he is to security and must desperately search to find someone who recognizes him. Throughout this essay, Staples relays endless conflicts that can occur between cultures in the Global North’s contact zones.
My own story of conflict in the contact zones match nicely with what Staples describes. I remember it like yesterday. The whole family went grocery shopping. The day started off nice and calm. Everyone got up, got dressed, and we all got in the car. It was my mother, aunt, grandfather and me. We were headed to Walmart, my grandfather’s favorite place. While the rest of us were shopping, he’d go sit in the McDonald's restaurant in the front and talk to any one of the friends he recognized. He had a lot of friends. Sometimes, when we were done, he’d tell us to go put the groceries in the car and he’d be ready by the time we’d come back. We usually ended up just waiting in McDonald's with him until he had spent all of his money on coffee, because when there’s no more coffee, there’s no more conversation for him.
My mom, aunt, and I met each other by the jewelry section in the front of Walmart when we finished shopping. We wanted to make sure we weren’t all running around the store looking for each other; plus, we all liked trying on some of the new rings they had on display. We got in line, paid for the groceries and were headed for the car. This time my grandfather didn’t stop in McDonald’s. I should have known something was wrong right then and there. We got in the car after packing all the groceries in the trunk.
I thought we were headed home but my grandfather told my mother: “Turn up the bridge. I have a good place in mind to go eat lunch if y’all are hungry.”
My mother and aunt replied, “Sure that sounds good.”
Meanwhile, I said: “How about pizza?” My mother gave me a look in the rearview mirror and I knew pizza was off the table.
By the time we arrived to our destination, I had woken up from a long nap, and I was somewhere I didn’t recognize. I only remember my grandfather saying: “Pull in right here. This is the place.” My mother pulled into this small parking lot, tapped my leg and simply said: “We’re here.” I got out of the car, closed the door, and was in no hurry to go inside that place. It didn’t look like the place that would easily draw a crowd, at least not a diverse one but my grandfather and aunt were already inside trying to get a table. My mom was just as hesitant as I was and was walking even more slowly than me.
When I first walked in, I thought we were in the wrong place. Slowly, my grandfather and aunt came into view as I looked around the restaurant for a while. Let me give you an image of how it looked inside. Close your eyes and imagine a white domino. Now imagine that white domino with four, small black dots on it. We were those four, small black dots, and the people in the restaurant were that white domino. My grandfather spotted us and signaled for us to come sit down. We signaled back to my grandfather by waving our thumbs back at the door. We turned around, walked out the door and sat on the bench outside.
My grandfather, growing up in 1940s Louisiana, had been through situations like this so this type of atmosphere wasn’t new to him. My mom had told me stories of when she was younger. My grandfather would take her to certain places like these to go eat lunch, but she was young so walking out wasn’t an option. I had only heard stories; I had never actually experienced this level of hatred first-hand. I had never walked into a place with so much separation, so many staring eyes, countless appalled faces at my entrance, and a place where no one else looked like me, a place where I wasn’t the dominant one, but dominated. I couldn’t help but think about all those people staring at us when we walked through the door.
My mom turned to me and said: “I know you were uncomfortable.”
I looked at her and said: “No I wasn’t. I just wasn’t that hungry, that’s all.”
“I wasn’t born yesterday,” she said. I looked at my grandfather and aunt sitting inside eating amidst the glares and icy stares and I looked at us sitting outside. I couldn’t help but think of one thing. I turned to my mother, who was looking very hungry and thirsty as she refused to go back inside and simply said: “We should’ve ordered pizza.”