I grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, the same state as Dylann Roof, a state where the Confederate flag flew over the state Capitol.
For 10 years, I lived in a majority African-American town, yet had few meaningful interactions with African-American families. I only had white friends, and yet still felt like an outsider as one of the few Asians living in our small town.
The recent, horrific massacre of 9 African-American members of the AME Church in Charleston has forced me to reflect on living in the South, and my journey of understanding race in America.
I was born in Taiwan, where most people were similar to our family, and arrived in a place where we were a complete anomaly. There weren’t many other Asian families around—a Japanese-American boy I consciously avoided and an Indian-American family, the Randhawas. Their daughter, Nimrata, went to my school, though I didn’t know her well. Nimrata—who now goes by her middle name Nikki and her married name Haley—went on to become the governor of South Carolina.
I was very aware of racial difference and recognized segregation at an early age. I went to Orangeburg Preparatory School, a K-12, mostly-white, private school, while the majority of the working class African-American population went to public schools. The encounters I had with African-Americans was limited to lines at the grocery store, people at the mall, and employees at my parents’ business. I wanted to play and be friends with Black children, but there were few opportunities. Race was never taught or explained to me, but I didn’t have any negative perceptions of African-Americans either.
I knew I was racially different from the other kids. When I first started school, I didn't speak English. My family immigrated to South Carolina in 1979 because there was an opportunity to invest in a factory. The late James Edwards, then the Republican Governor of South Carolina, visited Taiwan in hopes of recruiting investors to jumpstart factories in rural areas, and my family was one of them.
At the time, there were only a handful of Asian-American families in our town. We knew most of them by first name. Our school had one Black student. Our school team and mascot was “The Indians,” with the face of a Native American man in headdress, and I didn’t think anything of it.
Today, there are roughly 14,000 residents in Orangeburg: 75 percent of the population is African-American, 21 percent is white, and just 1.7 percent is Asian, a tiny town (though there are tinier ones) compared to Charleston, which has about 350,000 residents and a majority-white population. Only 1.1 percent of Orangeburg identified as more than one race, according to the 2010 census.
We assimilated to life in the South to some extent—my sister and I spoke with Southern drawls, I was a “Brownie” (the younger version of Girl Scouts), we shopped at Piggly Wiggly, said “Yes, Ma’am” and “Yes, Sir,” and ate at Hardee’s and Bojangles’. My parents voted Republican, drove a Buick, and my dad went hunting and bowling.
When people ask me what was it like to live in South Carolina, I mostly say that I had a good childhood there. I went to school with the more privileged, middle class, white children. The kids and families were nice. My classmates and I learned how to do-si-do, memorized a ditty about the state bird and such, and we never talked about the Confederate flag—from what I recall. My sister says she learned about the Confederate flag, slavery and the Civil War in school, but I was probably too young. I suffered from the occasional teasing (“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees…”). Worse than the awful schoolyard taunt was the fact that my classmates teased me about a Japanese-American boy in our class. I was appalled because I liked this blonde-haired boy, so I kept my distance from the Japanese-American boy as much as possible. Looking back, I wish we’d become friends.
Only later did I learn about the political aspects of life in the South—that Orangeburg was an important hub during the Civil Rights Movement—mostly known for the “Orangeburg Massacre,” where several Black students from South Carolina State were killed by police for protesting a segregated bowling alley. My mom told me about it, years after we’d moved out of the South.
When I was 10, my family moved to Rowland Heights in LA County after my family sold their business. My parents wanted to be closer to other Asian people, Asian food, and Asian grocery stores and also closer to Taiwan and China because my dad often traveled to Asia for work.
LA was a total culture shock. For the first time, I was around other children who looked like me. I made friends quickly with neighbors who were from Hong Kong. Having non-white friends for the first time was different, exciting and liberating. But I also saw the segregation between Asians and Latinos by the way students were tracked in school—most of the honors classes were filled with Asian students and some white students, even though the school was evenly split between Asians, Latinos and whites. My best friend in middle school was Latina, but by the time we entered high school, we were in totally different classes and we drifted apart.
Once we moved to California, my parents gradually shed the Southern culture and identity. My dad put away his hunting rifle, and my parents began voting Democrat. My sister and I lost our accents.
In high school and college (I went to Berkeley) when I learned about the Civil Rights Movement and Ethnic Studies, it really affected the way I viewed the world in terms of racial identity. I was never not proud to be Chinese or Asian, but for the first time, I felt like I had a right to have a racial identity and voice. In college, I started working on an APA student newsmagazine called hardboiled and became a writer and editor for it. After college, I started working with Hyphen, an Asian-American focused magazine.
I moved to Oakland in 2002 to become a teacher. I was immediately drawn to Oakland because of the small-town feel, and the fact that many African-Americans in Oakland are originally from the South. There was a familiarity in a way that was different than living in LA with its mostly new immigrants.
I have not been back to S.C. for 10 years; the last time I visited it was for a wedding in Charleston for one of my best, and first, childhood friends. I remember stopping at a gas station and heard a young white guy arguing with a Black man and calling him the n-word, shocked because in all the years living of living in a small Southern town, I never heard my friends or their parents use racial slurs.
When I heard about the shootings in Charleston, I was completely heartbroken. I knew it was beyond the white supremacist mentality of one individual. I had thought and hoped that race relations had progressed in the South. The murderer had interacted with a lot with what seemed to be his Black friends, yet he harbored such hatred against African-Americans in general.
While we know so far that Roof acted alone, we also know that there is a long history of violence in the United States, rooted in white supremacy, in slavery, and in racism. It is in an environment like this that allowed Roof to secretly harbor his white supremacist views and go through with his horrid actions.
I think of my childhood friends, many who I’ve lost contact with except for a few, and mostly through Facebook. I know in my heart that they are good people, that they are also hurt, saddened, and shaken by the shootings. Many South Carolinians, because of this tragedy, have already taken the first steps toward healing by promoting peace and love above hate. Haley’s call to take down the Confederate flag from the Capitol is one symbolically significant step.
I know there are those who believe that there should be unity above all else, that race is a taboo subject that divides people. But it is also important to speak up directly against hate groups and hate speech, and recognize that racism still exists today. We must talk about race, because it still matters.
Momo Chang is a writer based in Oakland, CA. Find her at www.momochang.com or on Twitter at @momochang_oak.