The following is the last 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.
Stop Letting Racism Slide
Hometown: Salisbury, NC
There were five public high schools in Salisbury. Most of them were overwhelmingly white, three of them were redneck, and one was preppy with a lot of wealthier kids. My school was 70% Black, and my best friend was a Black guy named Jeff Baldwin.
I’ve always had Black friends without even thinking about it, since kindergarten, but Jeff was a transfer. He came from a rich private school. I never met his parents but I assumed they had money. He’d hung out with white kids his entire life and had “white” mannerisms, but Jeff had an edge. He was a class clown and everybody knew him, because Jeff was hilarious.
I used to shoot pool a lot in a dingy pool hall in downtown Salisbury. I normally went with one or another of my white friends, it just worked out that way, but this time Jeff came with me. It was the first time I brought him there, and I started setting up for us to play two older white men. I guess they were rednecks. They weren’t wearing rebel flags or anything but they were country. They looked over at Jeff and told me, “We’re not playing with him. We don’t play with people like that.” I knew what they meant. They didn’t say it in front of him, but they saw who it was.
Instead of making a big deal about it, I went over to Jeff and made up an excuse to leave. I knew he’d experienced that kind of thing plenty in Salisbury already, but I didn’t want to hurt him by telling him what they said. Later I thought I should’ve challenged those dudes. They’d have probably beat us up, but … it was just so casual, so strange. I didn’t hang out with rednecks. The only time I really came up against them was at the pool hall. And I had just brought my Black friend there for the first time, to have that experience.
I never told Jeff about that. But I felt like I failed to defend his honor or stand up for him. I just kind of bitched out and tried to de-escalate. I got chased off from where we wanted to be because my friend wasn’t welcome. It stuck. I started to get “woke,” listening to Rage Against the Machine and a lot of hip-hop. At the time, I thought my white friends weren’t racist but I see them on Facebook and they’re racist now. They’re like, “I don’t see color” and I realize now that they must’ve always thought that way. I had known most all of them since kindergarten and thought I had a really great high school experience. I never heard of anyone getting bullied or beaten up, or it seemed to be a rare occurrence. But I realize the Black kids that I was friends with probably suffered all kinds of racism. People around me would say, “Well, why don’t Black people get better jobs or stop going to prison?” And when I was younger I’d say, “Well, why not?”
It wasn’t until I started working at Johnson C. Smith University and studied the communities around there that I began understanding the structural roots of racism. I bought a house in Enderly Park that was built in 1958. The deed had stipulations like no fencing within 10 feet of the street, no loud noises, and buried at the bottom, no one of the Black race can live here ever, unless they’re a servant. I was like damn, I moved into a racist house! But it’s not uncommon, even in Charlotte, and lots of white people don’t know stuff like that exists and how it runs in cycles, perpetuates poverty and destroys families and communities. Then they look at Black people expecting amazing citizens, demanding amazing citizens, but how? You did everything in your power to make sure that can’t happen.
The more I studied, the more I thought, why doesn’t everyone see? I’ve been working 20 years at an HBCU [Historically Black College or University] so maybe I see more than most do, but they know better. I used to make excuses for individuals: “They don’t know any better, they’re just ignorant.” But you can’t let people slide anymore. That’s what happened to get here, people have been letting it slide their whole entire lives. But you can’t let it slide anymore.
I used to date this girl who didn’t like that. We brought a friend of mine with us to a party and the other people weren’t being blatant, they weren’t calling him the N-word, but they weren’t being cool, either. They were mocking him. He heard more than I did, but I caught a look and drifted back to where he was. I could tell he was bothered. They were just clowning him. He said “Let’s get out of here,” but I went in: “This is my friend, eff y’all.” And there was a record skip moment and we left.
The girlfriend blamed me for causing a scene, and said people don’t change. “You think they won’t do it again?” she asked. And maybe they will, but isn’t it worth it? I’ll call someone out 500 times if they’ll change that 500th time. Plus, there are repercussions now. They can get fired, they can lose friends. Whatever it takes. I think it’s working. I don’t think it’ll change racist behavior but at least they’ll shut up and not broadcast it.
The only thing that bothers me is I don’t stand up to my dad as much as I should. We had a good conversation over email last week, which works best for me and him because he tends to talk over you, not listen and insert his point. I was writing, telling him what I’ve seen and learned about desegregated schools and the prison industrial complex and stuff he probably doesn’t believe in.
He’s always been a subtly racist person. He’s one of those people who are amazed when they meet a smart Black person, and I pointed that out to him. My dad used to be a superintendent of schools; he’s right-leaning but has always been liberal about education. But he must know that education is a huge structural issue. He wrote back and said he felt I had learned a lot working at an HBCU. He thinks I’m like this super brave person who’s put myself in a dangerous environment — I’m surrounded by African-American students and scholars! He calls me their affirmative action hire. He doesn’t get it.
I’m not doing anything brave. Honestly, I feel conflicted. I don’t have the right to tell the history and stories of some of these folks. But when I meet them and talk to them, they see I’m genuinely interested. Because they’ve been promised so many things, it’s about building trust.
These could be sad stories of communities being ripped out of place, but everyone I’ve met has been a builder and rebuilder; sharp older ladies and tough-as-hell gentlemen. And I was completely humbled in the face of some of these people. They were determined not to let injustices defeat them.
Another thing [my dad] said that pissed me off was that Black people were explicit in their own enslavement in Africa. I guarantee Africans were not the reason the slave trade didn’t collapse earlier. The only reason people came up with an excuse like that was to make themselves feel better. Just apologize. But I was proud of myself for standing up to my dad. Usually I don’t engage him on anything where we’d disagree politically.
This is the first time as an adult that I’ve felt something is changing. I feel empowered and inspired. For a long while I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes. Now I realize you do have to. You have to show solidarity. It’s not enough to say I’m supporting you. Stand by them and say it loudly to other people. I’m writing to city councils and mayors and senators. I used to say it didn’t make any difference, but if enough of us do it will really change.