The following is the third 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. Check out more parts of “White Silence in Charlotte” here.
“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.
The Anti-Racism Fight is an Ongoing Journey
Jennifer de la Jara
Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education
Hometown: Valdese, NC
Valdese, North Carolina, is about an hour and 15 minutes from Charlotte. Growing up there the racism, both overt and covert, was so much part of the culture. It wasn’t an issue of me being silent in the face of racism — more poignantly, I remember the first time someone pointed out to me as a child that I was being racist. It was so ingrained. I’ve come a long way but I have not arrived by any means. I’m on a journey.
There were very few Black people in Valdese in the ’70s and ’80s. I remember one Black family in elementary school and only a few more in high school. No Asians or Latinos, it was very white. My family regularly used the N-word as part of the common vernacular. It wasn’t even in anger, but casually using it to refer to African-Americans.
I was in seventh grade and a new friend moved to town, which was rare. She was from Florida. And here I was at 12 years old using the N-word. She said she wasn’t comfortable with me using it. I didn’t put up a big fight, but I thought “Okayyy, who doesn’t use it?”
Looking back now, I didn’t realize that it was harmful, but roots run deep and words have power. The idea of Southern pride and cultural homogeny ran deep. You might wonder, with as few African-Americans as lived in Valdese, why there was so much occasion to use such hostile language. While our town had very few Black people, the town of Hickory is 15 miles away, and many Valdesians worked there. It was a bigger, more diverse town, nearby Morganton too. And mine and other families wanted to preserve the power structure.
There was a lot of pride in the Confederacy and in what being a Southerner meant, from a position of the moral high ground. These vestiges of Southern culture weren’t explicitly articulated, but they were there. It was the idea that we’re different, proud, that we do things the right way, with values, morals, showing respect. We stick to our own. Black folks needed to prove themselves as an acceptable kind to pass.
There was a power structure behind that, and people [used language] to participate in that, even when it wasn’t necessary, even though it wasn’t common to run into Black folk even at the grocery store. We wanted to maintain the order. It’s honestly mind-blowing when I think about it.
I can’t say I immediately changed my behavior, but seventh grade was the first time I was put on notice that it wasn’t okay. Prior to that I had no reference points; all my family was from Valdese and everyone we associated with acted the way we did.
It wasn’t until I went to [University of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill, which is still the South and still has a lot of racism, but it exposed me to people from the rest of the world and I realized things were different. I was from a working class family in a mountain town, and when I went to Chapel Hill it was the first time I experienced classism. I felt the sense of not belonging, of being rejected by rich, privileged students, and somewhere in my soul I knew I never wanted to be like that. I never wanted to make someone feel like they didn’t fit in or weren’t part of the group.
That’s what propelled me to want to be different, to want to not be an asshole, because I’d been on the receiving end of that. My time at Chapel Hill so profoundly impacted me that I made the decision to move to San Francisco after graduation, specifically because of all the cultural diversity. And my life kept going down a different trajectory ever since.
I took the opportunity to educate myself and started learning about redlining, African-American soldiers being denied their GI Bill benefits, and when people talked about undocumented folk I dove into the research and started to learn about the things we’ve done politically, militarily, the financial interventions in Latin America, all these imperialist efforts. I made the choice to say I need to know why I believe what I believe. It’s important to have knowledge so I could state my case convincingly, not just have a feeling. I needed the knowledge to effectively persuade others.
I was at a book club on Sunday and we were asked when we first realized racism was a thing. One woman said her father used derogatory language, then immediately followed up with “Oh, but he wasn’t a bad person.” At my turn, I said I’d grown up in a really racist household, too. My parents were good to me, but whether or not they were good people is not a distinction I’m willing to make.
More white people need to process that. If someone is not being good to others and I value the acceptance of all people then I must go beyond acceptance and actively strive to be anti-racist. And if they’re not on that path they’re not in my good category. It’s a distinction I’ve come to realize helps me to understand. It’s one of the reasons white folks are having such a hard time. “Grandma is so good to my kids, I don’t want to think of her as a bad person!” But is grandma good to others? That’s a different question.
The end goal isn’t to think of people as good or bad. Ibram X. Kendi’s work on anti-racism helps shift white people’s focus from that binary. It’s usually not that someone is or is not a racist, but sometimes people have thoughts and actions that are racist and sometimes they have thoughts and actions that are anti-racist. I may have a thought or take an action with end results that are harmful or cause disparities and was therefore racist in that moment. It’s a spectrum or continuum, and I can reflect on that and intentionally choose anti-racist thoughts and actions.
I challenged my mom to stop saying the N-word when I was in college. I don’t remember doing this, but shortly after Trump was elected we had a conversation about race. We argued about a lot of things in my 20s. But mom wanted me to know she had changed her behavior. I hadn’t noticed, because you don’t tend to notice what people aren’t saying. She explained that she’d gotten angry when I called her out on it back then, but was now grateful that I had.
That doesn’t mean my mom is now an anti-racist! But I use that story to encourage people to keep doing the work. And she thinks Trump is a lunatic.
For her to stand up and say he’s unfit to be president is a big deal; she lives in Trumpville. Baby steps. It can happen.