“I am just not sure I will feel safe.”
It was my third time in as many months hearing this concern when asking a room to consider how we are all complicit participants in white supremacy. Some in the room nodded knowingly, affirming this young woman’s sentiment.
In Charlotte, this woman is statistically at the top of social markers of success: middle-aged, college-educated, married, employed and returning to her home after our meeting.
Her assertion that she is not safe to discuss race in Charlotte in 2018 begs many questions — but mainly, “What are you in danger of by having this conversation, young white woman?” And: “Who benefits from your silence?”
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These are not hypothetical questions.
As Charlotte prepares to launch its 250th anniversary, much is at stake. With its history of unrelenting boosterism, Charlotte pitches itself as a city of progress, wealth and stability. Young and old cast themselves in the role of “progressive,” self-proclaimed allies to growth and economic development. But Charlotteans, especially the shiny new ones post-2016, are not to be trusted. They move to Charlotte with a “New South” (read: post-racial) narrative that they aim to protect.
We have to talk about this.
We have real racial disparity leading to real disparate outcomes in health, education and economic mobility. But discussing the problems/solutions/situation makes too many who can truly create change or influence change makers uncomfortable, threatened and silent.
We are doing real harm when we ignore how our daily decisions affect the lives of others. We do real harm when we don’t feel “safe” (read: competent) enough to have the discussion or actively get informed.
Our real nemesis is not wearing a sheet or hoisting a Confederate flag while he or she checks the phone for alerts from Breitbart.
Instead it is our co-worker who insists that they have black friends because they have black co-workers in Hearst Tower.
Or our Dilworth neighbors who sit beside us in school meetings and suddenly notice how many people of color are in the PTA now, whispering that they are going to have to find a new private school soon.
Or our leadership, which uses diversity jargon, tossing around words like equity and access, with zero intention of creating any real space for diverse candidates to feel safe or brave.
Those are our red flags. It is in these moments, tiny though they may seem, that history is made and new directions can be born.
What can those who are unaffected do? You can try to “name and notice,” a well-known strategy that encourages personal inventory of daily interactions across difference. You can try standing with people of color and correcting our false narratives that ignore the plight of so many in our community. But you can’t be too fragile to change.
These behind-the-scenes interactions, when a person questions his or her privilege and is willing to examine how we could really change our history for a better, more equitable Charlotte, are when our city moves beyond fearing for its safety and starts reaching confidently for change.
If you prioritize your comfort over my reality, then the outcomes of our next 250 years will be shaped by our complicit silence in the face of injustice, instead of the potential we have as a city.