Monday, January 20, 2014

WHY? Open Letter to My Friends

I grew up in the south. The deep south. In a little town called Macon. It's right in the heart of central Georgia. We are located about an 1 or so south of Atlanta, and two hours either way to the beach or mountains. 

It's beautiful here. All of the antebellum homes, all of the pre civil war history...

We experience about 4 seasons. The leaves do turn in the fall, it gets cold in the winter, the flowers are phenomenal in the spring, and the summers are hot and sunny.

We have great southern hospitality. We smile, we welcome you, we try to show you all of the wondrous glories of our city - whether it be the delicious southern cooking, or the way the sun peeks through the cherry blossoms on a perfect Sunday morning in the spring.. it's quite charming, really.

So why did I want so badly to leave as a young adult?

Because we still have one issue that just makes me absolutely sick to my stomach. 

It's the one thing that makes certain parts of my community look like a third world country.. and the divide is creating havoc and causing our community to come up with one PR campaign after another to tell you how great we really are.

The thing is - the city is great. It's beautiful. The food is great. The music is great. There is plenty to do.

What I don't like.... what makes me ill... is the great racial divide. 

Now, if you are reading this and you live in your protective bubble, I'd like you to take a moment and hear what I am saying... 

I cannot tell you how many times people have come to me and asked why I work at the black museum. For the record, it is not the "black museum," but a fantastic institution that houses incredible works of art, contains tons of local history about notable local heroes, and celebrates the important contributions of African Americans to our southern culture (everything from music, to food.) 

I cannot tell you how many times I have invited people to something at the museum and was told, "That's just not my thing." What's not your thing? Art? Why did I see you at "so and so's" gallery opening the Friday before? Music? Food? What isn't your thing? Just say it.

I also get sick to my stomach, when people think it is okay to whisper racial slurs when surrounded by other white people. Just because my eyes are blue and my skin is fair does not mean I agree with you. Also, don't tell me that I am a traitor to my own race because I will defend other cultures and ethnicities. 

Yes, people - it still happens. (For the record, I don't laugh at racist jokes.)

Also, why do you think it is okay to ask me if I feel safe when I attend our festival? Because there are thousands of African Americans there? What is so scary about listening to music, eating good food, and buying really cool things from the vendors? Because I'm white? Huh? Explain this to me. Do you think that a cultural festival attracts thugs? Because it doesn't. 

While we're at it - stop saying "I'm not racist, because one of my best friends are black." That's insulting. 

Do you guys remember the hate mail I received just four weeks after I started working? If not - read this - it will blow your mind: HERE IS THE ORIGINAL 

For the rest of you, here is the letter I received: 

That was the first letter I received after one of my television interviews. Was this person white? was this person black? Who knows... 

The point is... why should this still be happening? Who takes responsibility for what is happening in our community? Yes, we address the issues - but what are we doing about it?

Why do we have public schools with mostly black kids, and most of the white kids attending private schools? 

Why are some people "okay black people" and others are not?

Why is it okay to say these things? Why is it acceptable to look past these things. 

Look, this post is not meant for visitors, because the truth be told - it's a great city. But we can be better. We need to take our hands and reach out and grab someone's else hand from another zip code. What I really mean is - If you live in North Macon or Downtown or InTown - try getting to know some people in East Macon, South, Macon and sections of West Macon. I actually grew up in Southwest Macon (and went to the high school by the same name,) and I have kept in touch with many of the people I knew. Majority never attended college. Many grew up in the projects. Most are just hard working people trying to make a living (both black and white.) 

What they have expressed to me is this - they don't feel like they are welcomed into the other bubbles. They also feel like it is condescending when someone from the other side crosses the border and tries to say they understand where they are coming from. Because unless you have been poor, no... no you won't. 

But it's not about understanding where someone is coming from, but being aware of why that person makes the decisions they make in order to survive. Don't judge a whole group of people on their survival techniques. Because, while you are out dropping money to look a certain way, and kissing up to people you would not typically be friends with in order to be accepted into certain circles, realize the  "other people" are doing  what they have to do to survive.. and yet.. they will be judged. 

It's MLK Day, and people are posting MLK quotes and videos of the "I have a dream speech." But just like a PR campaign, your "hope" for a better tomorrow is not action. Get out there and do something about it. 

It starts with you - You must stop your friend from using racial slurs around you. Remember when people smoked everywhere, and finally it became super uncool to smoke around people or inside? Enough people said.. enough is enough. Start there. 

Don't be afraid of going to other parts of town. I assure you, no one is paying attention to you. Patron the shops in south Macon just as much as you would the ones in north Macon.

Attend a few cultural events that are not what your social circle would consider "socially acceptable" or something you need to be seen at. You will open yourself up to a whole new world and it is a glorious, fun and colorful world.

I have to go to a ton of things that support African Americans and businesses because it's my job. What I have gained is more than I can ever express in a blog post. I have made lasting friendships, I have learned about a deep painful past - talked to people who fought in World War II then came back and we treated like animals. I've met people who were terrorized during the 50s, 60s and early 70s. I have dined with some of the most remarkable, educated, African Americans in town. I have learned little nuances about why this or why that... things you only learn about another culture when they feel they can trust you and open up to you.

I guess this January morning, I'm just frustrated at the pomp and circumstance this day gets, yet the issues continue. It takes more than a march. It takes more than a few volunteer hours. It's how you live your life.

When I die, at least I will die knowing I honestly tried to bridge the cultural gap. It's not easy, God knows it's not.. but I have a clear conscience about the decisions I make, the jokes I allow to be said around me, and the type of people I let into my life.

It may not be popular around these parts to shine a light on what is negative - but silence to me, is doing the town I love so much a huge injustice. It's starts with us. It will end when we start making some changes. 

“Until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned…
Everything is war. Me say war.
 That until there’re no longer 1st class and 2nd class citizens of any nation…
Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes, me say war. That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race me say war!”

― Bob Marley


Empty Nester said...

I hear ya. I live in Charleston, SC. If you think racism doesn't exist here, think again. I cannot believe that letter. What an unhappy, angry person he/she is.

Savvy WorkingGal said...

Racism still exists everywhere. Some places are just better at hiding it. Milwaukee (where I am from is still one of the most segregated cities in our country. And just last week I heard a very respected business man in the community use a racial slur. The man is a wealthy, educated person. My jaw fell to the floor. He does not employ any minorities that I am aware of. I just heard on the radio this morning one of the main reasons blacks lag in employment is they don't have the networks to tap into that non-minorities do. I find all of this so disheartening and I applaud you Nicole for continuing the fight.

iasi said...

Racism exists everywhere. Just travel to Europe and you will tell me!!!

As for the letter.. oh so funny! I laughed a lot, never seen such a bad handwriting. And the content... I think we have the winner of the most stupid letter ever sent

Anna from Italy

Ann Bennett said...

One good thing about MLK day, I have been writing two screenplays. One has a African American leads. I decided everything I wrote would be integrated by race and age.
In short, one spans the century from after the civil war to today. I realized that I would have to redo the entire screenplay to be relevant and fair. A simple story has become so complicated.


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