I have to admit that, until recently, I’ve been pretty slow to venture out socially in Charleston. Sure, I’ve gone out with friends I knew before moving here from Columbia last year — and some new friends, as well. Most of the people I met at these events were charming and wonderful, some have even become great friends. But, as one of those new friends pointed out at a gorgeous cocktail party one evening, almost everyone there was white, straight, and Christian, and the three of us who didn’t fit into all three of those categories at once had managed to find each other at every event we’d attended for the previous two weeks.
A few months later while at a party in Mt. Pleasant I noticed there were only black people in attendance. Never in my life have I lived in a place that practiced such self-selecting segregation. Even the state capitol has better diversity when it comes to schools, nonprofit boards, and events and galas. The way I see it, the blame for this doesn’t sit squarely on the shoulders of the peninsula’s white residents, but I know I’m not the only person who’s ever walked around Harleston Village or Ansonborough and asked, “Where are all the black people?”
Seriously, black people, where are you? It’s kind of hard to shake off the stereotype that we’re all underprivileged and under-served when those of us who are privileged enough to afford to live here don’t, and therefore can’t effectively serve those most affected by Charleston’s affordability issues because we aren’t in the room.
Maybe that was a little harsh. There are some black people sitting in non-profit board and committee meetings — usually one or two at a time, if any — but considering the topics at hand (100 percent black public housing, murky admissions processes at magnet schools that result in fewer and fewer students of color each year, etc.), if you have the means and the desire to change things, shouldn’t there be more of you at the table?
Then there’s the other side of this where white volunteers and philanthropists lament that they don’t know anyone of color who would be interested in joining them. Or that if some sort of scholarship or special consideration could happen it might diversify their project.
If a professional person — any professional person — in the Lowcountry or the Midlands doesn’t at least have three acquaintances who have a different racial background than themselves, they can only be sheltering themselves on purpose. If you fall into this category and don’t feel there’s anything you can do about it at this point, do the 2032 presidential election season a favor: Encourage your kids to strike up conversations with kids of different backgrounds at school, on sports teams, whatever. Even if those conversations are sporadic, enough of them will make a world of difference in how people interact with each other in the future.
When I first moved here, I remember hearing that some local organizations were considering offering scholarships or reduced ticket prices to encourage people of color to attend events. That’s just insulting. What on earth would make someone think that the only way a black person can attend a charity event is if he or she is receiving charity? And worse, why would someone think this would be an incentive to attend?
The knee-jerk answer to that is prejudice, and while there’s obviously some truth to that, this is the result of a sort of double-blind, two-way street kind of prejudice. I’ve met plenty of middle and upper-middle class black people in the wider Charleston area who won’t or don’t socialize with their white counterparts either. Many expect that white people would make it clear that they’re unwelcome in boardrooms and at charity events that aren’t hosted by their own. I don’t know what that has to do with buying or renting property downtown (affordability is an issue to tackle another week), but I can tell you this, the more often people show up to events, the easier it will be to show up where it matters and to work together while being honest about individual experiences and ideas. Nothing will change if those don’t eventually come together.
Charleston has been getting a lot of super-candy coated, gushing accolades from Travel & Leisure and other outlets lately, and it’s had a positive effect of pushing the region to reach for higher goals in economic development and innovation. There’s even work to designate Charleston as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, if we don’t step up to address the cultural identity and relationship issues on our own little peninsula, all of those sweet accolades are going to turn into one awful stomachache, and those goals won’t be realized to their greatest potential.
Here’s an important start. Admit — out loud — that Charleston has a diversity problem. Any resident who claims to love this place and who gains something from living here has an obligation to address it for the health of the region. Strike up a conversation with someone. Invite them to your neighborhood. Your cocktail party. Keep moving forward from there. Charleston’s diversity problem may be rooted in its history as the nation’s initial experiment in a slave-based economy, but in 2016, that isn’t and shouldn’t look like the case. We will never escape the disgust and terror of that past unless we take its lessons and put them into practice through a truly inclusive, altruistic, and innovative Holy City.