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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

About that banner Common Market took down this week...

Posted By on Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 2:58 PM

This week, the jury selection begins for Jordan Davis, a black teen in my hometown, in Florida, who was shot by a white man in an argument that started when the white man demanded that Davis turn his music down.

This week, there is national outrage at two beloved, iconic brands for having the audacity to acknowledge in their most high-profile advertising of the year, that cultures other than white exist in America.

This week, Richard Sherman wore a shiny new Superbowl ring, in addition to having a degree from Stanford, the second highest GPA of his graduating class and a successful charity providing school supplies to underprivileged children. Despite all these things, he is referred to as a "thug" for his dreadlocks and unapologetic pride in his accomplishments.

This week is the first Monday of a month dedicated to black history, which exists because during the other 11 months of the year, only European white history is covered in our children's' school textbooks.

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This week, racism is alive and well in this country and in our communities. It always has been. The generation before mine easily recalls segregation. Minstrel shows, which depicted black people as uneducated, lazy and buffonish were widely accepted and performed in community theaters and schools as recently as the 1960s.
Wounds are still fresh. Wounds are still being created.

Which is why, when someone sees a banner featuring a talking "samich" who is saying, "Hot toe mighty! Dis sho am good," in a dialect traditionally used for black people in minstrel shows, it may cause that person to feel uncomfortable, even angry.

Especially if that banner is hanging up outside Common Market in Plaza-Midwood, a progressive, eclectic establishment heavily frequented by people of all races in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Charlotte. Especially if the same establishment came under fire in August 2011 for having a white man appear in black face as Snoop Dogg for a beer promotion.

Debate about the banner heated up on social media this week.

Black and white commenters stated they found it either questionable or offensive, while some white commenters said they didn't find it offensive, so black people shouldn't either. They said things like "I read it as Cajun, nothing more," "I wasn't offended because I don't think in terms of race" and "If it offends you, you must have that as the picture of black people inside your head."

These statements are all true, and they are all indicative of the privilege of being white. When you're white, you don't have to think in terms of race. There are very few things in American society for which your race is a negative, disqualifier or liability. You can see a sign like that and think "Cajun. Nothing more" because your people's history doesn't contain instances of being publicly shamed and ridiculed by dialect identical to what you're reading. It doesn't raise the same flags for you. The flags which call back to the experience of being told you're less than.

There is a picture inside some people's heads of black people talking that way, but also of white people depicting black people talking that way as a means to disgrace them. As my friend Anastasia said when I discussed this with her, "We wouldn't automatically think it applies to us if entertainment culture didn't historically portray us in such a light."

There's no question tremendous progress has been made since my parents' generation in the area of race relations. Walk into this Common Market location at any given moment and evidence of this progress is right before your eyes. But just because this progress has been made, just because you and your friends don't find racism acceptable, doesn't mean it now ceases to be and those affected by it need no longer have their defenses up.

If we truly want to move towards healing and a post-racial society, perhaps a better approach than denying the presence of racism would be to acknowledge situations like this can be painful or frustrating, even if you don't fully understand why yourself. Being more thoughtful of other cultures and their experiences before green-lighting things like this banner in our community would certainly lessen these instances, and when unintentional misjudgments occur, simply apologizing is the right move. Which is exactly what Blake Barnes, owner of this Common Market location did when I called him for comment on this editorial.

"I honestly, sincerely apologize if I offended anyone," he said. He explained the banner, which advertises soup and paninis, was created borrowing phrases from his own grandmother who was from rural Louisiana.

"Every time she would make some soup, she'd taste it and say 'dis sho am good!'" he recalled fondly. He removed the banner this week and threw it in the trash. Though it's been in use for eight years to advertise soup in winter months, now that he is aware it may offend, he says he has no intention of ever using it again.

Simple awareness goes a long way. Another thing that goes a long way? A heartfelt conversation. Once Barnes told me the banner's origins, it felt harmless, even a bit endearing. Once it was communicated to Barnes people may find it offensive, he removed it. Respectful communication is key. Barnes certainly welcomes it.

"I'm a local, individual store owner and I'm here everyday. If something here upsets you, please stop by and have a conversation with me about it. I will listen."

If more people take that approach, perhaps someday racism really will be dead.

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