Monday, 5:06pm: I hurried out of the office to meet a friend for dinner, dropped my notebook in the tower lobby, and scrambled to pick up papers.
5:08pm, iMessage: “Sry just leaving work now, I think it’s like a 7 minute walk.”
5:09pm: “No rush.”
* * *
I should have rushed. After catching up about our work days over deli sandwiches, we arrived slightly late to the McColl Center, which was hosting a moderated conversation by the Carolinas HealthCare System’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The “open dialogues” are part of their First Responder Series, which aims to explore issues surrounding current events and the emotional health of a community. Monday’s event was called “Diversity Matters: The Charleston Nine and the Confederate Flag.” (Tickets were free but required, and I heard about the event through an Arts and Science Council staff-wide email.)
James Taylor, Vice President and Chief Officer of Diversity at Carolinas Healthcare System, served as moderator. His first question was about our reaction when we first heard of the Charleston shooting.
Minister, early 60s: “I cried. I lived in Statesville in the 80’s when the KKK would walk down Main Street. I lived through it. Now we’re still living through it, just in a different way.”
TFA staff member, probably late 30s: “Disappointment, but not surprise. I wasn’t surprised when considering the current state of race relations and hatred in this country.”
Man sitting behind me named James: “It made him think, how DEEP does this hate go, considering Dylann’s young age? How deeply embedded is this culture of hate, for him to act out on it within such few years of life? It’s scary.”
Former North Carolina Senator Malcolm Graham was among one of several speakers. His sister Cynthia was one of the Charleston Nine.
Among many things, he pointed out that his sister was a hero and not a victim. Mainly, though, he emphasized how twisted it is that people had to die–nine people had to literally be martyrs–for a real, productive race conversation to finally begin in the U.S.
Malcolm Graham, Senator: “The flag would still be flying without this tragedy. Let me repeat that. The Confederate flag would still be flying without this tragedy.”
Coincidentally, Monday was also the opening day of jury selection for the trial that links Charlotte to the too-familiar narrative of a white cop killing an unarmed black man. CMPD officer Wes Kerrick faces the charge of voluntary manslaughter for the shooting of twenty-four year old Jonathan Ferrell in 2013. Ten bullets out of the twelve that were shot hit Ferrell.
There’s no reason not to celebrate the removal of the flag, Graham said. But we need to keep in mind that it is a minor step for race relations in this country. He pointed out the rampant subtle racism in public policy and media. His example: Charlotte Observer’s photo choices for their article on the trial proceedings. For Wes Kerrick, a photo of him with his high school sweetheart and their giggling baby. For Jonathan Ferrell, a selfie with his gold watch as the focal point.
Graham: “Subtle. So subtle, they don’t even realize they’re doing it.”
* * *
On an October evening of Family Weekend in my first semester at college, I drove my parents down the road that I walked every day to the local community center. My mother looked at the shaggy homes, saw a black man walking on the sidewalk, and cried. She made me promise her that I would walk with someone every day.
Mom: “For your safety. Promise.”
Not so subtle.
* * *
I’ve grown apart from a close friend from middle school, as most do, but the joys of social media allow us to keep up with each other’s lives. Ever since the Charleston murders, she posts periodic updates of the flag; on her car, on a newly painted canvas, on a status update that says “Hate comes from the heart, not from a flag,” or drawn on her wrist, like a potential tattoo. Why the newfound pride and embrace?
Woman sitting next to me: “It’s like they use the flag to let us know where they stand. It’s almost easier, in that way.”
Taylor asked us if the flag is a symbol of heritage or hate, and whether or not removing the flag in SC was a good choice.
Man behind me: “Removing the flag obviously won’t change the minds of everyone. But for those on the middle line, it might sway them to understand the full extent of why what they were taught is wrong. And that’s why it’s important.”
Minister: “Removing the flag as a symbol is naiveté. It represents a heritage OF hate, and that culture isn’t going to change by taking away their flag.”
* * *
Dylann Wolf: “You rape our women, you are taking over our country, and you have to go.”
* * *
Senator Graham emphasized that these discussions, like the First Responder Series, have to lead to new steps. After talking about things, we have to proceed with actually doing something about them, otherwise the conversation is virtually useless. I think about that a lot, especially concerning my experience this summer as an Education Scholar.
Why talk about it?, Taylor asked. (His answer was because the Charleston 9 could have been the Charlotte 9. It could still be the Charlotte 9, and we should never not talk about things just because things don’t seem directly pertinent to our lives.) James, the guy sitting behind me, pointed out that the people who come to these kind of events are never the people who would benefit the most. So what’s the point of even having them?
We talk, even joke, about Davidson’s zealous “talkback” culture. Students are passionate about social justice and are eager to take action in the form of organized discussion. But is there a point to organizing the event in the first place, if those who need to hear the information most are never going to attend? A common example on campus is Take Back the Night. Perpetrators of sexual violence, victim blamers, and everyone else who is otherwise ignorant about issues surrounding sexual assault are never going to show up.
My final blog post is supposed to be a reflection of my summer experience, in whatever form I want that to take. My reflection is the fact that I would usually rather unfriend someone on Facebook than ask them why they uploaded a photo of a Confederate flag tattoo. I would rather soothe my mom with a false promise than engage her in another unproductive conversation about race. And, often, I would rather disengage myself from class than call out a classmate for using a racial slur and tell him why it’s wrong.
That’s wrong of me– but the point is that it’s not unique. Will and Alejandra, two other Education Scholars and Political Science majors, expressed similar feelings when they told me about their PoliSci courses at Davidson. It’s often easier to sit in class and not say anything then to say something that is not going to be heard by your peers, or worse, heard with a defensive attitude and attacked in a space that’s not conducive for productive conversation.
I’ve been trying to sort through these ideas about Charleston, and subtlety, and the point of dialogue, because right now those are my major reflections from this summer. I completely agree with Senator Graham and his thoughts about talking vs. doing; but at the same time, I’d like to think that there are people, like those in the McColl Center on Monday night, who realize it’s more nuanced than “doing something” immediately tangible.
The overarching question of many of our weekly Scholar conversations: “so what do we DO about it?”
What’s the point of talking about everything that’s wrong with the education sector if there’s nothing that we can do to make a tangible difference? When I reflect on my summer experience, I appreciate what people have been saying arguably more than what they’ve been doing. We’ve met every other Friday for enrichment sessions with professionals, to pick their brains and learn more about their opinions on education. We’ve met once a week in the evening to talk about our readings and have an open, safe space for conversation. And we live together in community where conversation and dialogue, even if it’s an argument, is always eager to begin.
After Taylor asked us why we should talk about things, the man who had been sitting to the left of me said,
“These types of dialogues EDUCATE us to go and helpfully impart change.”
Call it cheesy– I certainly am–but his comment helps me frame my summer experience. For some Scholars, maybe a particular conversation with a colleague or enrichment speaker sparked a passion in us that will fuel our future impact in education. For others, maybe it’s the accumulation of experiences and memories that will help shape our path, even if it’s not directly in the education sector.
Call it cheesier, (I DEFINITELY am), but I like to compare the impact of dialogue and education to a dandelion. At the end, you make a wish and blow– and you might see where a lot of those seeds land, and you might walk by that area in the future and see new dandelions, but you probably have no real way of measuring where every single seed ended up, or how each seed got to where it is now, or how those seeds intersected with seeds from other dandelions nearby.
So, until we discover that infinite parallel worlds exist and that we can use them to measure the impact of individual conversations and experiences, I choose to believe that it’s impossible to do so. Dialogue is an immeasurable facet of education and the future, and I think that it’s sometimes okay not to know what “to do” about things. The first step, and arguably the hard part, as Senator Graham highlighted when he said that the flag conversation couldn’t have happened without people dying, is getting people to care in the first place–and that has to happen through conversation. I’m eager now more than ever to rush towards these kinds of opportunities, such as the dialogue at the McColl Center and the Education Scholars program. No such thing as “no rush.” 🙂
p.s. rush like a dandelion seed toward the wind? OKAY I’M DONE WITH THE BAD SIMILE I’M SORRY