I drove to Milliken, Colorado in my boyfriend’s grandmother’s Mercury Sable and an orange gingham skirt. I hello-ma’am’ed it up in lipstick and chunky heels, wore my favorite Hidden Folk perfume with katafray in it—this wasn’t drag, it was so no one would assume anything slant about my body or ask questions about my tattoos. My Midwestern femme look is a costume, which doesn’t mean it’s a disguise. Wearing it is a violence and a privilege—it lets me be seen or not, in lots of different rooms, capitalizing however I want—but above all it’s a lie. Nobody fits cleanly into one box. As a white person today I feel it is my job and my work to be angry and loud and clear some space—and it’s also my job to shut the hell up. I did not drive to Milliken to say I’m lucky and held responsible, though of course I am.
I drove to Milliken to eat BBQ on White Appreciation Day. Like a fraternity prank, the celebration started as a joke but then became real—too real—and on June 11, Rubbin’ Buttz BBQ offered 10 percent off to white patrons. The sign in the window said: Because all Americans should be celebrated.
You didn’t even have to identify as white to get the discount; you just flashed your Casper, and then you got it. And I did, I dressed like a patron not a protester, went on assignment, and paid for two full meals. In this way the marketing was super successful. If there was no White Appreciation Day I would never have gone to Rubbin’ Buttz. But I did, so now what? While writing, I was thinking about Rachel Dolezal, about the McKinney pool party, mourning the murdered in Charleston, etc.—this list grows like page 134 of Citizen, like a monster mushroom forest—trying to connect something, to find hope. But fuck: the house burns too brightly to see.
The drive to Milliken was familiar. My dad was born in a similarly-sized town in Nebraska, with a similar racial makeup—Milliken is 80 percent white—and I remember visiting the Dairy Queen in my own grandma’s car, and the guy telling me that when I was old enough, all I had to do was drive safe and nobody would ever pull me over. Just keep being a good girl. I’m not about to make a chart of the worst kinds of racism—that crap gets radioactive pretty quickly—but if I did, tolerant indifference would be near the top.
Later I remember holding hands in an auditorium of mostly white kids—save one of my best friends who was Filipino and named after Jesus—and we all sang “We Shall Overcome,” though we did not know what we were overcoming. Ten years later, my high school teacher Mr. Van Dyke said you must burn hatred, burn indifference out of you, and five years after that I moved to Chicago and was the only white person in a room for the first time ever. I am not trying to blither about myself: rather, I am trying to respond to the person who says if you don’t like it, then leave. I don’t want to leave home. I think maybe I was trying to, when I moved to Chicago, but instead I broke my heart and built it back up a whole bunch more times. No matter what, my heart is still mine, my voice still sounds like my mother’s, and my skin’s still friendly ghost. But now, ten years after that first day in Chicago, I can go back and say hey, White Appreciation Day is race-baiting in real life, real time and it totally sucks. Stop. Stop stop stop.
Anyway, Milliken was familiar. Most people here are in agriculture or construction. The streets were dirt until 1985, and the speed limit everywhere is 25. There is a baby skate park, whose mural is changed every year after a vote. There is a parking lot full of school buses. There is a diner advertising free anti-drug information sessions to parents. The drugs it listed are teeth-vein-and-home-wreckers, but I didn’t see any information about counseling or shelters.
Rubbin’ Buttz is downtown’s friendly place, started by Scott and Amanda Nix and purchased by Edgar Antillòn and Miguel Jimenez earlier this year. Antillòn and Jimenez kept the menu, the name, and most of the décor, including a corner shrine of plastic pigs and cows who don’t yet know they are food. There is a string of huge flags—for America, for Colorado, for military service—weathered horseshoes and pro lassos, and signs saying HIPPIES USE BACKDOOR and A DREAM IS A WISH YOUR HEART MAKES. It is a small restaurant, with one row of booths and one of tables. Its bones tell a story about freedom and the luck of the American man who has some and is afraid to lose it. It radiates, quietly, again and again, the violence of tolerant indifference. Again, yeah—if didn’t like it, I could have left. But Milliken, Colorado looks like Plattsmouth, Nebraska, which means in a way it looks like home. I think about spending the night at Grandma’s, when sometimes I’d imagine angry ghosts outside the window.
In April, Antillòn asked his Facebook hive if they would support a “Mexican BBQ-restaurant owner having a White Heritage Day.” Some friends said yes, some no, but the majority realized it would be great publicity. Antillòn hemmed on it a bit but then he went ahead, on CNN and everything.
His argument was that as a first-generation Mexican-American, of course he has experienced racism, but he’s experienced freedom too, which everyone deserves. Antillòn never specifically defines either term, but to the credit of his logical math, he extends this vague reasoning across the board. He’s not gay but he’s complimented when men hit on him, he doesn’t smoke weed but he thinks it should be legal, and he hosts free open-carry classes at the restaurant.
However, I got the sense anything that threatens these gender roles or these particular freedoms is itself threatened in return. For example, the women’s room at Rubbin’ Buttz is right-angle clean, set up with pads and tampons in a little butterfly box, and a baby blanket and free diapers, it was great, but to get to those sometimes you have to walk past a sandwich board saying WE PULLED OUR MEAT COME EAT IT! When the restaurant received a bomb threat in response to White Appreciation Day, and briefly closed because of it, Antillòn posted Facebook photos of the delicious meat everyone missed eating. To me this feels shaming and infantilizing: you make a fuss, you don’t get dinner.
I walked into Rubbin’ Buttz while One Direction was playing, a woman saying if you don’t have any avocado that’s okay, just give me extra pickles. Outside it rained, and there were two Colorado state troopers wearing special plastic shower caps over their wide-brimmed hats. A train had stalled on the tracks at the other end of the street, and a calm line of traffic was growing. It kept growing, and people started leaving their cars for BBQ. Inside Rubbin’ Buttz, I sat across the room from a table full of proud-looking people wearing PORCH HONKY & PROUD t-shirts. Everyone who came in knew someone else, shook hands and asked about the baby or if the ice machine was fixed. Nobody directly mentioned White Appreciation Day, but people talked about coming a long distance, or coming out today especially, or ha I thought the traffic was for BBQ instead of the train!
I ate Carolina-style brisket and cherry hot sauce, a garlicky, mustardy potato salad that didn’t need salt and tasted just like my grandma’s, and two warm, creamy honey corn muffins. I ate quickly and quietly, like a funeral had happened, and I needed to eat to remind myself of my body. The food was delicious, and I said so. When I got my receipt the discount was already on it, which made it feel like a secret, which made me angry. It felt like a reward for getting sunburns easily and cleaning my plate and not making a ruckus. If this is being a white person, then being a white person is boring, is Casper, is pure capitalism. It felt weird to go someplace because I am white, because I am a writer, then not actually talk about either at all. In my bag I’d brought Mab Segrest’s autobiography, C. Carr’s Our Town, and the music issue of Eaves of Ass, where Craven Rock quotes War: “I’ve seen you round for a long, long time / I remember you when you drank my wine / Why can’t we be friends?”
Antillòn says the day was very successful, and while the restaurant and his family are keeping the profits, he is considering auctioning off the White Appreciation Day sign to support the local Boys and Girls Club. I asked him if he felt safe all day and he said yes—everyone here has a gun. This was the first time I felt bright fear. My brain connects this to light, to live wires, to homes on fire.
In sum, if I was writing this as a novel, which it isn’t, the most dramatic points of the day were that stalled train and me tasting grandma’s potato salad again. I left the restaurant with ribs for my boyfriend in a beautifully-packed paper bag (not one rebel drop of grease all the drive home), and Yelped the local public library. The place where it directed me is now a youth center, and I sat there while girls shot hoops way across the way and I thought maybe I was going to vomit. Instead of barfing I found the next-nearest public library on my phone, looked up books by James Baldwin—there were plenty—and requested books by Black Panther Party members until my nausea passed. After that I drove home in a thunderstorm. Now what?
Mairead Case is a working writer and editor in Colorado, where she is also a Creative Writing/English Ph.D student at the University of Denver and teaches at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and St. Francis Center. Her book See You In the Morning comes out from featherproof this fall.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby