I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. For most of my life, when I told people where I was from, I was usually met with the kind of recognition that comes from being stuck at the Charlotte airport on a layover. In the past month, however, the kind of recognition I get is a different kind entirely. It is a half-surprised, half-sympathetic reaction, the kind of reaction you get when you tell someone you just came back a funeral. And then I’m met with one question: What do you think about what’s happening there?
This, of course, is the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police and the subsequent protests, which the more politically oblivious might be inclined to call riots. The protests have quelled a few days after the shooting; however tensions are still high. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visited an African-American church in Charlotte Sunday and spoke about the work that needs to be done on racial tensions in this country. And when I get the question, I’m not sure how to answer. I won’t pretend that I can personally speak for the experiences of people of color in Charlotte. I cannot. I’m a white girl who grew up upper-middle class and privileged. But in watching the news surrounding Charlotte in the past couple weeks, I couldn’t help but think that I wasn’t surprised at any of it.
Charlotte is a weird place to be from. In a lot of ways, it is a liberal city. Charlotte is the city that passed the anti-discrimination ordinance that resulted in our state legislature pushing through the infamous HB 2. It’s the kind of liberalism, however, that glosses over things, namely race. Charlotte is a city that is segregated to an extreme extent. White people tend to live in suburban, upper-class neighborhoods filled with only white people. This is true for the way I grew up; my neighborhood didn’t have a single black family in it. And neighborhoods don’t just determine where people live — it also determines where you go to school. My white neighborhood fed into a high school that was considered for a long time one of the best high schools in the country. This was mainly due to the International Baccalaureate program (a kind of AP classes on steroids for those who are fortunate enough to not know what it is), which I was a member of. My classes were made up almost exclusively of white upper middle class students like myself. This isn’t to say that the school as a whole was white — it was actually very diverse, but the white students segregated themselves from the rest of the school. It was common, in fact, for the white students to refer to the cafeteria as “Africa”— because that was the only place they would see any groups of black students during the day.
Charlotte is often thought of to be a shining example of the “New South” — a city where race was no longer an issue. In my experience, that reputation only exists because white people are the ones who created it, and they have no idea what’s really going on. All of the clueless white people I went to high school with posted an image from Google of the Charlotte skyline on Instagram during the protests, with a caption along the lines of “praying for my city, the violence must stop.” I couldn’t help but view those photos with increasing anger and alarm because it revealed to me more than ever how the obliviousness of the place I grew up permeates everything.
White people think that Charlotte is fine, that race isn’t a problem because they never see anything else. They’re unable see past the broken glass of the so-called riots and figure out what it actually means — that people of color in our city are tired of being gentrified out of affordable housing and well-funded schools, being faced with constant discrimination from police and of always being ignored in the conversation about where Charlotte is going as a city.
So if I can say anything to the people I spent years in class with now, I would say to start listening. It’s time for voices other than those of white people to be able speak in our city. So I will start now by closing my mouth and letting someone else speak.