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In recent weeks, I watched as my native West Virginia has made national headlines for its seemingly efficient rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. As I always do, I scoured these articles for references to Black West Virginians. Nary a mention.
Yes, Black West Virginians are a small population—less than 4 percent of the state's residents, according to 2019 Census Bureau statistics. But I've learned that where there's a health disparity or social problem in West Virginia, we are likely to be caught prominently in its crosshairs.
The absence of Black people in the discussion of West Virginia's response to the pandemic—or pretty much any discussion in the state and Appalachia—creates a paradox of visibility, especially in the world of white-run progressive organizations.
We alternate between being unseen and hypervisible. Take the February 26 comments by state Delegate John Kelly (R-Wood County) about a COVID-19 cluster that ravaged a Black church in Everettville; he said those reports were "fairy tales" and about "imaginary communities."
When I was for a time the only Black lobbyist working the West Virginia statehouse, I saw Black people trotted out when nonprofits needed a Black body or a Black woman's story. Then, we were vulnerable, downtrodden, in dire need of help only white people could give, or in trouble. Or, in my case, trouble personified.
This recent crop of national news stories from West Virginia brought back a memory I haven't been able to shake. That recollection shows the vast distance between a Black woman's subjective experience of white, middle-class "anti-racist" events and the smooth façade nonprofits show the world.
See also: Recovery while Black in Appalachia
Consuming the Black body
In 2009, I went to Charleston, West Virginia's premier women's empowerment fundraiser on a donated ticket. My free admission reminded a less-fortunate me that I could not afford my place among hundreds of middle- to-upper-caste white women attending the "Girls' Night Out" YWCA event.
The event borrowed Breakfast at Tiffany's classic Audrey Hepburn style: black-and-white dress code, elegant decorations, and pearls (of course). But something was off as soon as I walked in. (Later, I would remember how in that movie, actor Mickey Rooney—a white man from the United States—portrays a Japanese man, Mr. Yunioshi, by taping his eyelids, speaking in a sibilant accent, and wearing fake "buck" teeth. He is the only non-white character in the film.)
I wandered inside a zebra-patterned tent to find dozens of chuckling white women searching a Black man's prone shirtless body for California rolls.
White women were laughing and grabbing for bites of sushi off a human body.
That imagery doesn't fade. Instead, it continues to enrage me. It stands as both a metaphor and real evidence of oppression and silence.
Serving sushi from a body is a Japanese practice called nyotaimori. I heard event organizers say it was an ancient art form. Google told me nyotaimori is rarely practiced in Japan outside random seedy clubs. And, when it does happen, a woman's body is usually the "platter."
I watched, horrified, as tipsy and cackling women left the zebra tent with their sushi and crossed the front lawn to the live auction in the back of Sunrise Mansion, the 30-room estate that hosted the event. It was built in 1905 by West Virginia's ninth governor, William A. MacCorkle, son of a Confederate officer. MacCorkle brought home stones as travel souvenirs and had many cut to fit into the home's facade. Among them, there was a slave market stone—collected in St. Louis—positioned at the entrance to the house.
See also: Blocked at Five Points
This is how racism operates in my charming hometown: in plain sight, without question, part of the environment. Many West Virginians think "West Virginia didn't believe in slavery" because it seceded from Virginia during the Civil War. This narrative is even taught in most West Virginia classrooms and erases slavery's presence in West Virginia, though many of Charleston's own streets bear the names of slave-owning families. Charleston, nestled between mountains and the Kanawha River, developed a salt industry powered by enslaved labor. In 1850, thousands of slaves were employed in the salt works.
But I didn't expect these women to stop and ponder the origins of those street names, or why, in the shadow of slavery, an auction felt wrong. I didn't expect them to consider why no one blinked at grabbing bites off a Black body, nor why The Charleston Gazette newspaper should have thought twice before printing a photo of that Black man's body being used as a plate.
Suffering for sale
As the sun set on the live auction stage, a Black woman, a domestic-violence survivor, stepped on a platform to address an audience of drunk white women.
Few of the "girls" were listening. They were enjoying their conversations and cocktails. I was struggling to hear through the noise and my emotions. Her story was all too close to home for me. She was the mother of my then-husband's children. She did not directly name him as her abuser, but I assumed she was reflecting on her life with him. I needed to hear every word she said. Her story spoke to me—literally.
I wondered if others could see themselves in her story, too. As a Black woman, raised in low-income housing, abused by her "baby daddy," supported by the YWCA and her faith, she had found success in life.
I questioned what I had just witnessed. Did the Charleston YWCA sell a stereotypical image of Black men and women to a wealthy, wasted white-girl crowd?
In West Virginia and beyond, the YWCA and many nonprofits like it are led by white women. They have boards of affluent, mostly white women (and the occasional, approved professional Black woman), white committee leaders, and volunteers. When critics call out racism, these organizations often turn to a Black person on staff, a lone Board member, or perhaps a Black person they call a friend.
See also: Behind the scenes in Black Appalachia
Accusers are often vilified as waging personal vendettas or "simply wanting to destroy" organizations that offer so much good to the community. I know this personally. In 2009, when I left the event, I wrote an op-ed detailing my experience and was told by several trusted advisors that the Y was just too powerful to critique. Publishing it would harm me, they said. I was burning bridges.
Back then, I accepted the illusion of being seen in private meetings with "concerned" nonprofit leaders. I shared my concerns about the YWCA and many other white-led nonprofits asking organizations to find internal accountability. I didn't want to damage the Y because then who would do the good work that it did, even if it so often fell short of its mission of "eliminating racism, empowering women"?
Today, I have years of experience, witness, and know better. In 2016, Carrie Bowe, the YWCA's volunteer social media coordinator, was fired for reciting racist slogans in a national video. The YWCA quickly severed ties with her. Many meetings later, many private conversations later, I dare to speak publicly and to be seen on my terms.
Recently, I shared my concerns with a white implicit bias trainer and YWCA supporter. The reply: "That was before my time." As if history doesn't matter or these organizations look much different or work much differently than how they did in 2009. Therein lies the problem: The white-liberal code of silence that refuses to recognize the past, "bad cops" among themselves, or that the system itself is bad.
But those white liberals don't have time for reflection. They're busy eating sushi.