When #CharlestonStrong Isn't
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Emanuel 9 massacre in downtown Charleston. This post is adapted from a June 25, 2018 essay I wrote in response to the dangers of not talking about race and culture in the classroom. More importantly, it is about "safe" activism. Flash-fried, drive-by, blow some air and wait for it to cool down type activism. Which is not really activism. Or support. Or progress. But it is what many of us white people have told ourselves is enough.
Viola Davis and Steph Curry worked as executive producers on the documentary Emanuel, which includes interviews with survivors and their family members, and examines the history of race relations in Charleston. In honor of the five year anniversary of the massacre, U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is hosting a virtual discussion at 6 PM tonight.
Charleston is often touted as one of the friendliest cities in the South or, on numerous occasions, the “best city in the world”. Mind you, this is the same Charleston where, within the last five years, nine African-Americans were massacred while in church and an unarmed Black man named Walter Scott was shot several times in the back by a white police officer, whose case was initially declared a mistrial and finally ended when he submitted a plea deal, resulting in the dropping of his murder charges.
The #CharlestonStrong hashtag that went viral following the Mother Emanuel massacre is a prime example of a feel-good response from the white Charleston populace and sends the message that these incidents “sit at the margins of society, whereas racial democracy exists at the center." Many Charlestonians gathered on the Ravenel Bridge to hold hands in a gesture of unison. Bumper stickers declaring “Charleston Strong” were plastered on the cars.
These moves were made with that old familiar friend of ours, "good intentions." However, we know that in cases like the Dubuque, Iowa advertisements geared toward attracting people of color and the University of Wisconsin photoshop debacle, intentions do not matter if the related actions continue to perpetuate systems of inequalities in this country.
These terrible events and the ignorant (but trendy) responses that followed in Charleston make me think of the real dangers of curricular silences regarding race, ethnicity and culture. The #CharlestonStrong message was a way for whites to convince ourselves that we "did a thing” so we can remain in our comfortable state of ignorance regarding the systemic racism that infiltrates our town, state and nation.
Linked to the educational system, this response is reminiscent of the “food, fabric and festival” approach. We can “feel good” about celebrating others, but by staying in the shallow end, and refusing to examine how these systems of inequality exist and function in our society, we continue to harm our children.
These kind of “parsley on the plate” approaches continue to cast minorities as “Other,” while assuming whiteness as the unproblematized “norm.”
When minorities come up through the school system and see themselves as “Other,” they learn that it is rote for their needs, desires and cultures to be subordinate to the white norm. Internalizing this message can result in stereotype threat, dropping out of school or higher ed institutions, and the belief in minorities that “everything wonderful, everything good, everything worth knowing had emerged from the foreheads of those who were white” (Wise, 2002, p. 230) -- this being the least amount of harm done.
For whites, failure to examine our own collaboration with white supremacy means that we will continue to engage in behaviors and promote policies, leaders and attitudes that are not only harmful for people of color, but for ourselves.
So here we are, living in a country where detention centers holding migrant children are compared to “summer camps” by one of the largest branches of the mainstream media. Can you imagine if these children were white/Canadian? Where do we go from here?
Teacher education programs must include this kind of training in their curriculum so that teachers are prepared to take on such a complex and ongoing process. While the rhetoric coming from Washington, D.C. would surely condemn such practices, teachers must not use this as an excuse to fail to examine racism as a “system of inequality predicated on race [that is] maintained by policies, practices, procedures and presumptions which have the effect of perpetuating these inequalities, regardless of intent” (Wise, 2011).
Slavery is the original sin of America, and the systems of inequality that exist today are its spawn. We have tried to #CharlestonStrong and #AllLivesMatter and #IDon'tSeeColor our way out of this legacy, and yet the cycle continues. There is no white person who has not benefited from white supremacy -- our privilege to not speak up or take action is one such benefit.
Racism is not insolvable. It is taught. It is learned. And so it can be untaught and unlearned. That kind of emotional and intellectual labor takes real strength, the kind of strength that doesn't flex or advertise itself to feel authentic. The kind of strength that #CharlestonStrong reaches for half-heartedly, without its feet ever leaving the ground. The kind of strength that, like any, comes from breaking down and tearing your muscles in order to make them stronger. What will you break down today? What will you build from the ruins?
Wise, T. (2002). White Like Me: Race and Identity through Majority Eyes. B. Singley (Ed.). When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront their Personal Histories (pp. 225-240). Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.