My hometown has become a hashtag. I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia in the 1970’s and 80’s. It was a quiet, Southern college town. My biracial family moved there in 1968; only a year earlier the marriage of my Chinese-American mother and New York Jew father would not have been legal in Virginia, but I didn’t know that at the time. The racial composition of Charlottesville was almost entirely Black and White, with my ambiguous Asian-ish looks periodically evoking the inquiry, “what are you?”
I remember my elementary school as highly integrated, situated near the university (and White faculty families) and in a primarily Black working class part of town. I recall playing with Black and White kids and having mixed race birthday parties, and I learned to swim in a public pool where most of the kids were Black. As I moved through middle school and high school, I stopped seeing most of the Black kids in my college prep courses. But a few were there, and one was my best friend. Throw in a few Italian and Irish Catholics and some WASPs, and my mother used to say my friends looked like the United Nations.
The disappearance of Black kids from my classes should have been a sign that racial equality eluded us, as should the placement of the new high school far from the primarily Black and poor White neighborhoods. I wasn’t aware of the underlying anger until our high school newspaper did a story marking 25 years of school integration, which sparked gatherings of discontented students and fears of race riots. This was unusual in the 1980’s – long after Dr. King and bus boycotts, and long before Trayvon Martin, before Ferguson, before Black Lives Matter.
From my racial vantage point, Charlottesville 30 years ago was a mixed-race town with an infrastructure of leadership and support in the Black churches, with policies and practices that maintained White privilege, with underlying racial tensions that White people did not discuss. Black and White children played together, but they went home to different worlds.
More recently, in racial terms, #Charlottesville is White supremacists, embattled factions debating confederate statues, KKK rallies, Black leaders encouraging non-violence, stalwart allies, and well-meaning White people. And today, #Charlottesville is state of emergency, terrorism, death. I haven’t lived in Charlottesville for 25 years, but I happened to be in town in 2010 when Barack Obama came to speak to a diverse and joyful crowd…on the same outdoor mall where a car mowed down peaceful protesters today.
My heart is breaking for my hometown. We weren’t perfect. But we certainly weren’t this.
There is much more to say about this situation, but for now, I will share these reflections and continue engaging in the complicated, confusing, and exhausting struggle for racial justice.