06/25/2015 11:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dear South Carolina: We Are Responsible for Each Other

Dear South Carolina,

Between the ages of four and 20, you were my home. Wherever I go, I will always consider you my home. You're where I was raised, where I learned to ride a bike, where I established decades-long friendships. Where, in elementary school, I sang "we are good Sandlappers" alongside my third-grade classmates. I've swum in your lakes, hiked along your rolling hills, and stained my hands with your red clay. It's been six years since I left, and I still miss you dearly.

But I don't miss everything.


For years I've struggled to reconcile the differences between the beautiful and the ugly things you've shown me. To understand how a culture known for hospitality can attempt, over and over, to justify unjustifiable prejudices.

There was a time, growing up, when I thought I understood the scope of racism in the South. I thought that by excluding myself from hate-filled conversations or by refusing to wear the Confederate flag on my clothing, I was living outside the reach of its grasp. I was not. Your culture is not sporadically punctuated with racism. The two are intricately intertwined, sometimes in obvious but also in inconspicuous ways.

Your people may share the same roads, offices and school hallways, but an undercurrent of segregation lives on within your borders. I know this because I've seen it. I know this because I'm white and I've heard what people say behind closed doors.

I'd very much like to say that I fought boldly against the intolerance I witnessed, but hindsight says I was more participant than activist. I should have challenged every person who uttered a racist joke or racial slur, every person who displayed hostility toward those with skin different from their own, every person who implied hostility through attitude or tendency. It is embarrassing to admit that I once considered these things inevitable, unalterable conditions of Southern culture. They are neither.

I do not, in any way, identify with Dylann Roof or his twisted rationale, but I am familiar with the culture of prejudice in which he was raised, and am not surprised that within it, he was able to develop a hatred so deep. Who knows how many people idly -- politely, even -- remained silent while he explored and propagated prejudice and bigotry?

South Carolina. My dear South Carolina. I realize, abashedly, that I am not removed from your ugly parts. You and I, and all of your people, are responsible for each other. It is my responsibility to combat your culture of racism -- not to live quietly well-intentioned within it. It is my responsibility to challenge racist attitudes -- not to let them slide, one after the other, simply because this or that person is "old-fashioned" or "stuck in his ways" or "nice to me, at least." It is my responsibility to seek unbiased education about current and historical social issues, to share it, and to demand that others do the same -- not to simply roll my eyes when others cite propaganda as validations of narrow-mindedness.

I realize, abashedly, that my accepting racism as an inevitable, unalterable facet of Southern culture only helped sustain it. There is red on my hands, and it is not clay.

South Carolina, you are beautiful in many ways. Each clasped hand on the Ravenel Bridge and each voice shouting "take it down" is such an example. For these things and more, I love you deeply. But your ugliness is unacceptable, and the time to confront it -- honestly and abashedly -- is long overdue.