The reaction to the recent disturbing, horrifying treatment of Megan Williams at the hands of six lunatics in a Big Creek, WV, trailer have been relatively predictable. On the one hand, an outpouring of outrage over the brutal act and compassion for the victim. On the other, a reluctance to reflect on what this says about the existence of racism and a lack of diversity in West Virginia.
On WCHS-AM Charleston 580 radio's afternoon call-in show on Wednesday, an African-American man called in to share his frustration. He described himself as a well-educated professional who often runs into intolerance and racism in our state. The hosts had little patience for his attempt to connect the dots between other acts of intolerance in WV with the current Logan County situation. "Right now, it's about Megan and helping her, not politicizing the situation. We can talk about that other stuff later."
From the dominant culture's (ie, white) perspective, this is an understandable response. The story has been among the most viewed on CNN.com, MSNBC.com and other national news sites. It's the worst public validation imaginable of every ugly stereotype that exists about West Virginia. It's not fair, we think to ourselves. There are good people in Big Creek, in Logan County, in West Virginia...this doesn't represent us! Our traditional response to ugly incidents like this is to resist, to deflect, to protect ourselves from more salt in the open wounds of our self-image. Does national news from West Virginia always have to be about a disaster?
However, from a minority citizen's perspective, the lack of willingness to even consider whether this is a symptom of a larger problem, or a pattern of intolerance against non-white citizens, can be maddening. The lack of any public statements from our state or federal politicians about the situation can seem like cruel indifference. In the least-diverse state in the nation, lack of action and lack of a more public statement of tolerance and inclusiveness can resonate very loudly.
During the process of developing the Create WV initiative, it's been noted that there are few - if any - statewide, sustained, highly visible initiatives on diversity and tolerance that exist. We're trying hard to fix broadband, education and healthcare. But diversity? Not so much.
Past efforts (e.g., Governor Underwood's "One West Virginia" initiative, the Human Rights Commission's previous "Not in Our Town, Not in Our State" campaign) don't seem to have been big enough or sustained long enough to really re-brand West Virginia as a bastion of tolerance...and we certainly haven't enticed minorities to move here or even stop them from migrating out of here. (Side note: Could someone please allocate some budget to develop a modern, full-featured web site for the Human Rights Commission?)
In other cities and states, incidents like the one in Big Creek happen. Perhaps even more frequently than in West Virginia. The challenge is that we can't point to something positive that the vast majority of West Virginians are proactively doing to eradicate prejudice, racism and intolerance. We don't have a notable counter-point to an incident like Big Creek. In fact, we often have the opposite: silence, with hopes that it will all go away and people will remember the #3-ranked Mountaineers instead.
For this reason, a small but growing group of people in West Virginia are beginning to ask the question: what can we do? How can we proactively educate people? How can we embrace and empower people of all types within our state? How can we invite immigrants to our state and embrace them as a source of growth and opportunity like Iowa? How can we build on the legacy of African-American leaders who hail from our state (e.g., Leon Sullivan, Tony Brown, Henry Louis Gates, T.D. Jakes, etc.)? How do we become "Open for Everyone?" What can we point to in the future that is a more powerful image of inclusion and tolerance if, God forbid, something like this happens again?
This is a huge need for West Virginia. This tragedy can lead to something very positive if we embrace the challenge and don't stick our head in the sand, waiting for it to all go away. We would really like to hear your thoughts on this one.