The Best City in the U.S. A World-Class Culinary Capital. Home to America’s Most Beautiful College Campus.
From the outside looking in, Charleston’s façade is stunning. But beyond aesthetics, and despite the vast amounts of time and money invested in impressing visitors and students, there’s a persistent culture problem that, if it continues to go unaddressed, will forever hold Charleston back from being truly world class.
Just days before a racial slur was posted by a Citadel cadet on Snapchat, a homophobic slur reached my own doorstep. The incident awoke me to the urgent need to speak out about the toxic masculine culture and white male privilege (you don’t have to be white or male to participate in that culture) that continues to make a comfortable home in this city and, more broadly, to consider what kind of community we’re building for city residents, not just students and visitors. Surely, how a city cares for its residents is one measure of what makes it great.
First and foremost, residents should feel safe, protected, and accepted. A part of safeguarding that security is confronting the use of slurs and the cultures that underlie them in our own communities. After all, while it is easy to be outraged by the commonplace use of slurs in Washington, if all politics are local, what are we willing to do about it in our own backyards?
In my own backyard, it started when my fiancé and I, a bi-racial gay couple, were welcomed home by a band of College of Charleston guys playing frisbee in the street. It was not an isolated incident. Since the summer, we’d swallowed our apprehension driving and walking past the same group playing frisbee and soccer in the street. That our cars would be damaged. That if we asked them to stop there’d be a scene. In the interest of avoiding conflict, we’d, countless times, ignored loud music, yelling, and the general disregard for one’s neighbor (and neighborhood) that we’ve come to associate with the College of Charleston, living in the off-campus-housing heavy part of downtown. But this day would be different.
With the sound of a crash near one of our cars, we rushed downstairs to see what happened and ask the group if they could take their game somewhere else — down the street, to their own backyard, to one of Charleston’s beautiful parks — before damaging our personal property or somebody else’s, to say nothing of holding up traffic on an increasingly busy street. After some back and forth, they agreed. And then it came, what every gay man fears most, and probably what undergirded the whole power dynamic between us and them that had prevented us from speaking up sooner. The Trump card, so to speak: “Faggots,” they called across the street, diminishing us and dismissing our right to feel at home on our own block in one foul swoop.
Like we’re told to do in the event of an emergency, or a threatening altercation (if you’ve ever been the target of hate speech, this qualifies), we called the police. Mainly we wanted to be sure the incident was recorded in the event things escalated. While we had the opportunity to meet and speak with our local police officer, who seemed genuinely concerned, there were no real consequences for the actions of the group. In fact, they were allowed to continue their game. After all, there isn’t a city ordinance against playing frisbee, or anything else, in the streets. Ultimately, our only solace came from knowing we’d finally stood up for ourselves.
Beyond causing a pit in my stomach every time I walk out of my own door, the incident made me realize the utter hypocrisy of the Charleston Strong mantra, if Charlestonians can’t come together to meaningfully condemn the slurs, symbols, and monuments that continue to signal, for many city residents, who still has dominion over these streets. Here the point is illustrated by an ignorant group of young, predominantly white men who are allowed to treat the streets like their personal living room and sling homophobic epithets — without consequence — at anyone who questions their behavior.
Each of us, particularly those of us who have been targeted because of our race, religion, ability, gender and/or sexual orientation, must confront these microaggressions and the system that tolerates them, even when it is uncomfortable to do so or nothing will change. Furthermore, our leaders, our local business owners and our educators, particularly those at the College of Charleston and the Citadel, must take responsibility for creating a space that is not only hospitable to students and visitors, but where city residents feel respected, comfortable, welcome and affirmed as contributing members of the Charleston community. This starts by shutting down hate speech, whenever and wherever you hear it.
Only then will Charleston’s beauty be fully realized, and only then will it be a truly world-class city.
Evan Gaillard Nowell is the Founder and CEO of The Nowell Group, a Charleston-based Public Relations Consultancy. He resides in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood.