Most white folks who speak to me about Charleston, South Carolina tell me they’ve “heard so much about it!” “I’ve heard it’s really cosmopolitan, and the food is great, right?” they ask me. I’m not sure how to respond to that, in all honesty. I usually pause with hesitation, searching for a way to explain the racism that’s inextricable from its culture and atmosphere. Then I just laugh nervously and say “um…it’s an interesting place.” But what I really want to say is this: Charleston racism is similar to liberal racism–it’s built into the very structure of its institutions, and it’s steeped in respectability politics.
What’s respectability politics? I speak about the phrase in quite a few of my articles. In the context of this conversation, it’s the quiet nature of southern racism. It’s funneled through white southern expectations of civility–that is, chivalry, charm, and politeness. These expectations for civility are a tool that the white south ends up using to police and invalidate southerners of color. But, more than this, southern respectability politics permit white southerners to appropriate the POC (people of color) cultures. White southerners not only possess this financial power to enact appropriation, but also have the social power too. White culture rules the most (economically) highly valued areas of the city, and so this generally disempowers communities of color in accordance with the standard logics of white supremacy.
According to an article entitled “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining” in Eater, “the rise of the Charleston restaurant scene in the last 20 years has coincided with a gentrification that’s brought with it higher residential and commercial rents, and changed the demographics of the city from being over 60 percent [B]lack in the ‘80s to being only roughly 30 percent black” as of 2014. In Charleston, white appropriation of Gullah food and culture has profited white businesses and accelerated gentrification. It has quite directly benefited white folks and not only disadvantaged but oppressed and exploited Black Gullah people. Gullah and Geechee people are the descendents of West African slaves who, according to historian Joseph Opala in an article published by the Freeman Institute, “worked on the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia.”
Charleston isn’t necessarily intent on repairing the injustices that it claims are isolated to the past. Its downtown area celebrates its colonial and racist past quite openly. The city has it all: streets called King, Queen, and George, horse carriage tours, and cobblestone roads. And to top it all off, Charleston hosts an appropriated food culture. It does so after already making open efforts to displace Gullah people while still attempting to utilize Gullah culture for the benefit of generating a cosmopolitan Gullah culture from which white southerners garner the majority of the profit. The town of Mount Pleasant is undergoing massive development, and one of the consequences of this is the displacement of Gullah people who live there and the businesses they run. Gullah people have historically constructed sweetgrass baskets and other grass-made objects. They have previously sold them in Mount Pleasant, but are now increasingly unable.
This displacement and structural oppression of Gullah people in many parts of the city cannot be ignored while white-owned restaurants are profiting off of Gullah Geechee heritage that, according to Afroculinaria, was nourished by the “skills, knowledge and blood” of Gullah ancestors.