The following is one in a four-part series called “White Silence in Charlotte” in which Emiene Wright asks white Charlotteans about the first time they became aware of racism and how they’ve acted to confront that reality since.
“I am terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. This means that they have become moral monsters.” – James Baldwin, 1963
No one is born a monster. It takes propaganda from all sides. Family pressures, biased education, media stereotyping, and fearmongering cooperate in impressive, if disastrous, ways to produce the standard-issue American racist. They’re not so much hate-filled as unseeing, only vaguely conscious of their own privilege and its cost at others’ expense. But no one is born a monster. They’re made, with a child’s innocence being the first victim.
I spoke with white Charlotteans who are prominent in their areas of industry, asking one question: When was the first time you witnessed a racist incident and remained silent? Excavating the painful, buried memories of the first time they participated in America’s “other” national pastime left some in tears. Others’ voices shook with the weight of regret. The first cut is the deepest when creating the kind of moral monsters Baldwin spoke about almost 60 years ago. This conversation is needed now in civic, public and private life, to re-sensitize whites to the consequences of racism, not only for Black Americans, but for themselves.
I challenge readers to think back on your own moments where courage or language failed. Confront white silence. Talk about it, educate yourselves, and commit continuously to fighting in your own way for the freedoms we were all promised.
A History of White Silence
Reverend, Christian church; co-founder Q.C. Family Tree
My family’s strategy for dealing with uncomfortable situations is to pretend it didn’t happen. The pain of talking about race and racism is too great for my family of origin. There’s a strong resistance to it, either by refusing to talk about it or changing the subject adroitly.
My first recollection of racism was on the school bus. I was probably in the fourth grade or so. There was a comment made; somebody was upset with one of the Black kids who’d just gotten off the bus, and they encouraged the driver to hit the gas while the kid was walking in front of the bus. I remember clearly the student saying, “We need to make some black-top out of this kid,” clearly referring to his racial identity.
I remember knowing that what I heard was really wrong, but not knowing how to speak adequately to it, and being scared to speak up, whether my words were adequate or not. I remember sitting silently thinking I knew something inappropriate happened but I had neither the courage nor the words to respond to the situation. I didn’t talk with anybody about it — I just kind of sat with it. The other white kids were laughing and going along. I knew it was wrong but I was outnumbered or scared.
In high school, I played saxophone in band; it was a big, performative experience. There were a handful of Black teens in the band, but the band was whiter than the school, which was 25-30% black. Out of 70 of us, there were only about four or five Black kids in band. One of them, Stevie, was a big, beloved personality. He was popular, but often, racist things were said in his presence, in the context of jokes.
So we’d be riding back home after a competition on the bus, it’s dark, and somebody would say “Stevie, smile because we can’t see you.” His strategy was to laugh it off and play along, probably his way of coping with the racial stress. It became a kind of passive acceptance of that. They wouldn’t be nasty like using slurs, but they would still be making racist jokes. There was a general acceptance of that behavior from students and adults. Nobody ever defended him or confronted the white students who were participating, and I was certainly laughing along. No one said we needed to think about what was happening. I was a participant but I should have known, or had someone push back.
By the time I was in college, I had learned and been exposed to more ideas. I still didn’t have a great understanding of racism and anti-racism, but I had seen enough and come along enough that I knew passivity wasn’t OK. Racism needed to be challenged. I was at the dinner table and my grandparents were over, which was uncommon because of how far away they lived. My grandmother said something, I don’t recall her words exactly, but it was along the lines that my cousins needed more white friends.
This was a grandparent you didn’t challenge. She was the matriarch. She carried the weight and strength of the family, emotionally, and she’d withhold her affection as a way of maintaining power. At that moment, I had the courage to speak up. I knew that I was right, that I was standing on moral high ground, but she wasn’t pleased. She held onto that grudge for the rest of her life, another seven or eight years.
I think the memory of being silent and of being complicit within that silence worked on me. Part of the way that it continues to work on me is my awareness; I know it’s present in me, even now. I know it can be tempting at times to remain silent, especially as the lesson from my family of origin is to let [racism] slide; don’t raise a stink. I still feel that voice within myself at times. So part of my struggle is to make sure that voice doesn’t win. It’s deeply rooted in me that I’ll have to struggle with that for the rest of my life. Particularly within my family of origin, I have to not remain silent but keep poking and prodding and risk some of those relationships knowing it can be costly, but it’s worth it. For my family to have healing from the ways whiteness has scarred us, you have to keep pushing at that process.