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I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and I’m a theater kid. My freshman year in high school, I started getting involved in drama class. In my theater company, I got to play many roles typically played by white actors — Radames in Aida. Joseph, from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In the company, I felt valued for my talent, not stereotyped by my skin color. But for every non-stereotypical role I was offered in the theater, there were a dozen stereotypes knocking at my door in real life.
Growing up a black teen in the south, dealing with racism was a regular part of life. Like the time an older white lady told me I was the second funniest black person she knew. Uh, thanks. Or the day a white kid at my school called me over to his lunch table and asked if I sold weed. No, I said. Why would you think that? Well, because you’re black, he said. He didn’t even say it in a “I hate black people” kind of way.” I don’t think it occurred to him that he was being offensive. And that’s the style of racism I most often encountered in Charleston. The “I don’t know any better” type of racism.
And as we know, that ignorance — can be deadly.
To be clear, most Charlestonians are not Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white man who shot and killed 9 innocent black men and women as part of his racist manifesto. Most people don’t overtly preach white supremacy. They don’t even know when they’re coming off rude or racist. But they also don’t seem to be very interested in educating themselves either.
Since the shooting, there’s been a lot of media scrutiny of Charleston and the South in general — the confederate flag, the insensitive comments of politicians. Many people who live here don’t like the way the city has been portrayed. They want to focus on the positive. They say “Charleston strong,” but I don’t want to be Charleston Strong. There are racial issues we need to deal with first.
Charleston has an audience now. In our moment in the national spotlight, we need to step into our new role. Not by retreating back to the way things were, but by recognizing our flaws and taking real steps toward equality.