A student in Elkins received massive social media attention this week from a photo asking another student to be his date to a homecoming dance. While he may have imagined the sign he made to be charming or kitschy, its wording was simply unkind. The sign read, “If I Was Black I’d Be Pickin’ Cotton But I’m White So I’m Pickin’ You For HOCO!”
The dehumanizing “joke” behind the invitation is that black = slave. (It’s unclear why someone would choose a slavery metaphor to ask a person on a date when they might as easily pen a romantic analogy about, say, picking flowers.) Frankly, it’s impossible to claim ignorance about the sign’s insensitivity when a student in Ohio received viral backlash after using essentially the same wording for a “promposal” in May.
Appalachians as a whole, and West Virginians in particular, have a long history of being marginalized in the United States. That’s not OK. But let’s use that experience for empathy. Let’s refuse to continue to marginalize minorities in West Virginia.
Perhaps because of our state’s smaller, spread-out population, we often think of instances of discrimination against people of minority races, religions, nationalities or queer status as isolated incidents. In truth, the heart of the problem goes beyond one school or one city. When we think of West Virginia as one large community, it’s easier to see the connections. All mountaineers need to stand with our neighbors to deal with prejudice head on.
If we don’t make this effort, what we’re saying is that it’s OK to exclude people for arbitrary reasons. We’d be saying that being a mountaineer is all color and no culture. We’d be saying that you can hike, dig ramps, participate in local festivals, but if you have a darker skin tone, you’ll never be accepted as part of our Mountain State culture.
Do I think this is what a couple of teenagers intended? No, I don’t. But confronting this behavior is our collective responsibility. When isolated incidents become a pattern, the pattern becomes part of the culture.
We can challenge this by being proactively inclusive, including to people of color. That means we must act now, before more incidents of injustice distort our worldview. We can’t wait for someone to be callous and then cry out, “This doesn’t represent us!” Because if we don’t act, then it does.
What can we do as individual West Virginians? The most important things we can do today are to listen, to reach out and to actively include people of color. Let’s actively create a culture welcoming to all mountaineers.
When considering how best to honor West Virginia black history, I sometimes hear the opinion, “Well, we had a school for black students,” as if the only black history in West Virginia was the history of segregation and surviving it. It’s sensible to recognize the leadership of these teachers and principals, who contributed not only to education but also to preserving the black community. But we should dig deeper into our state history, too. West Virginians of color have made a difference in a variety of fields, not only in their counties but in U.S. and world history.
When I was an Elkins City Council member, I attempted to change a controversial street name to Katherine Johnson Avenue. The street would have recognized Katherine Johnson of “Hidden Figures” fame, a West Virginia woman of color and awardee of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is the mathematician who helped NASA launch John Glenn into orbit.
As another example of Affrilachian excellence, Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins is a black man born and educated in Elkins. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic (and, likewise, fellow founder Calvin Simon, who hails from Beckley).
Our population today is not a monolith, and neither is our past. Celebrating stories that are both diverse and local will discourage the marginalization of minority West Virginians now and in future generations. West Virginia can only grow when we include all mountaineers as part of our culture.