Little Hell on the Prairie

Reflecting on recent developments within the humanist movement while chatting with a friend, I was reminded of a single, short snippet among my fifty-plus years of existence on this planet that had a profound impact on me. An impact that shaped who I am and the work I do today.

In a way, it’s a funny story and in other ways truly not amusing at all. It’s about fulfilling a childhood fantasy spurred by a voracious love for anything written by my favorite pioneer girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder. And yes, I couldn’t get enough of the Little House on the Prairie TV series, despite the protests of my channel-changing older brother.

Being a girl from the Midwest, Ingalls Wilder’s stories of life in the Wisconsin woods, on the Kansas prairie, and the dugout along the banks of Plum Creek in Walnut Gove, Minnesota, resonated with my own little girl adventures. I felt I knew Laura’s trials based on my family vacations canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. It was on those trips that I learned to withstand the elements of nature—chilling rain, muddy portages, stifling hot windless evenings, and carnivorous mosquitoes. I was certain I was a pioneer like my hero, Laura.

So how, as an adult, could I possibly pass up an opportunity to visit anything Ingalls Wilder, even if the destination was 130 miles off our intended route through South Dakota?

Thanks to the South Dakota Department of Tourism and my then-husband’s frequent need for rest stops, I came across a wonderful little brochure advertising the town of De Smet—just two hours and nineteen minutes from our roadside stop in Chamberlain, South Dakota. De Smet, for the less informed, boasts the following:

The “Wilder” Life…named one of the twenty best small towns to visit and the final home of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s parents and older sister, Mary. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society preserves and presents the largest collection of Ingalls family memorabilia, with over 2,000 original artifacts… a must-see for all Laura fans.

As one would guess, my then-husband wasn’t thrilled about my sudden loss of reason after being entranced by a tourist brochure. The idea of driving way off the beaten track to a small town in South Dakota with the primary goal of visiting historic sights dedicated to a young pioneer girl was less than appealing for a Korean-American male brought up on The Adventures of Tintin.

But I was not to be swayed. And indeed it was a wonderful walk back in time into the life of an early European-American settler family, giving a real feel to a hard but simpler era, where the search for opportunity meant surviving one’s surroundings. And, ironically, it was a part of US history that glorifies the move out west for European Americans while downplaying genocide and removal of native people from their homelands. The irony comes with my own personal experience in De Smet—a town, incidentally, named after a Belgian Catholic priest, a Jesuit, active in missionary work with Native Americans who persuaded the Sioux war chief Sitting Bull to negotiate with the US government on the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

After touring all the sites, we found ourselves famished with few options in a town of 1,089 people. Our choices in De Smet were a gas station, a general store, a bar, or the one diner. Being as there were no smart phones at the time, we didn’t know if the dining options would get any better on the drive back onto the main highway. So we took our chances on the diner. How bad could it be?

It wasn’t just bad—it was a nightmare. Strange enough, it was an experience I never could have foreseen being a naïve white woman, humanist believer of all that is good, and magical thinker in progress over time.

Looking back, I realize my husband had an inkling small town dining might be problematic for a multi-racial couple, that active racism was alive and well on the prairie. But I think he wanted to humor my ignorance and was most likely starving as well. So, dine in De Smet, we did—or at least we attempted to.

Walking into the restaurant, I knew we’d made a bad choice. The hostess greeted us with indifference, which isn’t especially odd in a small town inundated with outsiders seeking a slice of American history. But what did unnerve me were the silent stares from the locals as we were guided to our booth. Not even a hint of a smile passed across anyone’s face despite my attempt at a warm welcoming glance in every direction. In fact, most diners looked down, avoiding all eye contact.

The real shock came with the deliberate turning of backs as we settled into our booth. Every customer sitting near the front-windows across from us slowly, with purpose, turned their backs. The old farmer in his bib overalls and work boots, his wife in her kitten-adorned sweatshirt, the heavyset couple with children (the only ones who didn’t seem to notice us) crawling all over them, and the two old men talking over their coffee cups about current crop yields all turned perpendicular towards the windows in a manner that could only mean one thing.

Nevertheless, I didn’t truly want to acknowledge the significance. I desired any reason for their behavior that wasn’t what my intuition was telling me. But as my mother always said, “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” And I certainly was floating down that river—adamant that what I was experiencing wasn’t reality. It couldn’t possibly be.

The only courtesy extended to us, beyond the hostess seating us and supplying menus, was the waitress coming by to give us ice water and inquire about other drinks. We ordered coffee and waited. As the water level in our glasses got lower, we tried to hold onto the pleasant aura of our day. It was a struggle to maintain cheerful conversation as we watched those adjacent backs being delivered meals, paying bills, and heading out. We watched as others who’d strolled in after us were given steaming cups of coffee or glasses of juice, their orders immediately taken and food quickly delivered along with the random straw or extra napkin, all followed by a check, a smile, and an exchange of pleasantries.

It was getting harder to ignore the truth. Especially when white, obvious out-of-towners were being granted service, greeted with a smile and/or given an acknowledging “good day” nod. (In pre-Amazon days it was easy to identify rural dwellers from city slickers simply by dress, as individuals in remote areas lacked easy access to the brand name stores readily found in metropolitan areas.)

The river of denial had become shallower and was beginning to dry up. I watched our waitress pick up meals from the kitchen and deliver them to tables. She would stop along the way to chat up a local or entice a child into play, intentionally avoiding eye contact and unapologetically ignoring any attempt from us to gain her attention. For over an hour we watched the activity of the diner, waiting patiently to finally get some kind of service or even an acknowledgment that we existed. I would say it was surreal, if it hadn’t been so real.

It took my husband speaking the truth out loud to finally break the dam on my river of denial. “You know, Kristin, they aren’t going to serve us,” he said matter-of-factly. “We could wait here all day. And if they did finally serve us, I’m sure they’d spit in our food or worse. We should just go.”

I really didn’t want to admit he was right, but I couldn’t avoid the reality that this was overt racism. This community didn’t want any non-white person within its town limits patronizing their businesses. They couldn’t keep “those” people from visiting history, but they sure didn’t have to serve us in their diner.

I wanted to yell at them, complain to management, or just run from the restaurant. Instead, we calmly and silently got up from our booth, walked the length of the restaurant holding our heads high, and exited out the door without looking back. I don’t remember if anyone turned or even noticed we left. I do know my legs were shaking and stomach was turning as we walked what seemed like a mile to the door.

I was speechless as we reached the parking lot and could feel the tears coming. I had no words for miles down the road, only silent tears rolling down my cheeks. My husband was equally silent but less upset. He’d experienced this before—so many times that it only made a small dent of an impression. He was more worried about me.

As De Smet got farther and farther away in the rearview mirror, I finally got the courage to speak. “Can you believe what happened? Those people had no intention to serve us. They discriminated against us based on what we look like. What you look like. Did you see? They turned their backs on us. Why aren’t you angry? Why did they do that?”

I was horrified, dismayed, shocked, and mostly sad. And then, I couldn’t stop crying out loud. I cried for half an hour, going over and over the scene and trying to make sense of it all. There was no rhyme or reason. It just was.

This was my first experience of blatant, undeniable racism. I admit it was more directed toward my Korean-American husband than myself. However, I was also a victim of hate by mere association. And, unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time we, as an interracial couple or family, faced prejudice and racism. There would be and still are many moments when I’m caught off guard by someone’s preconceived opinions and actions that follow those beliefs.

Just a month ago, my daughter was given a college scholarship from MAKA (Mothers Association for Korean Americans). At the awards ceremony I was shunned by the Korean families and embraced by the white parents who assumed I was a fellow adopting parent. Even when I explained to one father that she was my biological daughter, he proceeded to ask my daughter if she ever wished to visit her home country. Of course, she was confused, and I was livid.

I’m lucky that my heritage is European American with immigrant ancestors from Scotland, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. I am white, which allows me the distinct privilege to not withstand daily discriminatory assaults.

But because of what happened in De Smet and the many occurrences of racism that have followed as a result of marrying a person of color, I do understand. I understand in way that is rare for the average white American. For this reason alone, I strive daily in both my personal and work life to enlighten others about how opinions impact actions that perpetuate inequalities. It’s a small but important step.