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Confronting stereotypes and avoiding grocery store anxiety after moving to Charleston

South by Southeast

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It was at the dinner table. The aunt I was staying with asked, "Isn't there a lot of racism there?"

An ominous 6-foot-1 presence amidst the parade of grandchildren, I was surviving through six months of post-grad unemployment by crashing with family. Accompanying the shame of sleeping in a room replete with ornate furniture from El Dorado, and waking up to a Virgin Mary figurine on my bedside table every morning, my life choices were now being questioned during the one meal a day I could afford (because it was free).

It also happened in a text from my cousin when I finally made it up I-95. "You're in the Deep South!" she texted, her exclamation point more processional than celebratory. I wasn't there to see it, but I can clearly make out the bulged eyes and rising heart rate she had to overcome in order to warn me about my new home.

My move to Charleston was met with a combination of skepticism and concern. People weren't just wondering whether I'd find a hobby, or whether I'd foster any meaningful friendships, they were worried about my safety. I took it in stride by citing the number of colleges in Charleston and by reminding my family that, "Most cities are okay now!"

I mostly did this because I had no choice, but also because I kept coming back to one question: What about Florida makes people feel safe?

Floridians have deluded themselves into thinking they're exempt from the ails that plague lower America. We can forget that Florida's governor, Rick Scott, has a penchant for corporations who profit off imprisoning people, and that his go-to solution to mass violence is prayers. We can also dissociate from the fact that Trump and predatory payday lenders both love Florida, and that it loves them both back. But can we really ignore the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman whose aquittal propelled Black Lives Matter into the zeitgeist? Or the obvious interpolation of the Confederate flag on our state flag? Not even South Carolina did that, and y'all started the whole thing.

Regional ethos is a powerful force in America, and the Floridian imaginary survives on one core belief, usually uttered after an astute visitor takes The Sunshine State to task: "This isn't, like, actually the South."

It's just as easy to get lost in Florida's sunny marketing as it is to miss your exit on the Turnpike, but visions of Mickey Mouse ears, fresh orange juice, and pink lawn flamingos fall to pieces upon contact with the blazing asphalt. Overzealous officers trolling the streets are pretty hard to avoid. Even if you tried, it's too fucking hot to see, so you just might run into one anyway. And just because people speak Spanish around you, it doesn't mean you still don't live among white supremacy. It only means you have enough people power to build a militia that stands a chance when the race wars break out, something that looks more imminent as black people learn that they can't even kneel without getting death threats.

The delusion that Floridians live in a unique, swampy bubble of their own gives way to an illusion of the rest of the South: a view that's more in tune with a cinematic rendition of a plantation than it is with today's concerns about outsider investment on King Street. That perception is common throughout the country, but it's funnier coming from the southernmost state. It's why people come to Charleston from around the country to get married on a literal plantation. Or to ride a goddamn horse in the middle of the street, something they'd never tolerate others doing on their own way to work. One of the first sights I was recommended upon finally settling in Charleston was Boone Hall — a visit consistent with people's idea of Charleston, yet utterly inconceivable to anyone who's actually made the drive that far into Mt. Pleasant. And of course, a Floridian told me to go there.

This kind of stuff happens whenever a place is seen through the eyes of a foreigner. In my four years living in Orlando, I went to Disney once, and that was only because my roommate's co-worker had free guest passes and I thought I could high-tail it out of my winter depression by putting on mouse ears for a hot sec.

Still, I fell prey to the delusion myself. I saw a brown guy at Harris Teeter the other day and wondered if we were both hypnotized into the sunken place at the same time, moved by fate to lock eyes in the condiment aisle. It took me a couple of seconds before I realized that this was a human being with his own free will, and that I was projecting my anxieties in the worst way imaginable.

I'm sure it would shock my fellow Floridians to learn that Charleston has a lot in common with Orlando. So far I've reported on a pretty diverse City Council, LGBT city tours, and the biggest gathering of activists I've ever covered, which is saying a lot for someone coming out of the self-righteous and self-congratulating world of student journalism. Truth is, I saw more Confederate flags and Trump bumper stickers in Florida than I've seen in Charleston so far. It makes sense. Florida is tacky as hell, with a comforting, charming kitsch that belies an undercurrent of inequality and disaffection. What's more Southern than that?


Manno - FILE
  • File
  • Manno

Adam Manno is a recent hire and future fire at CP. He lives in James Island with two dudes he barely knows and spends his free time using his brain as little as possible, which lately means watching back-to-back episodes of MTV's Floribama Shore.

When he's not daydreaming of global peace, ending world hunger, or fighting crime as a caped crusader, Baird Hoffmire is an illustrator, animator, graphic designer, and exhibiting artist.


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