Color me human

Shortly after Dr. Heon Cheol Lee and his family moved to Weaverville, he received an anonymous phone call that he still can’t blot from his mind.

Four years later, Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at UNCA, recalled the incident with utter clarity for audience members attending a recent Asheville forum on race relations.

“Unless you report to the Department of Immigration, you will be deported immediately,” a teenage-sounding male voice told Lee.

The professor was stunned. “Right at that moment, I couldn’t respond,” he recalled.

After a moment, Lee regained his composure enough to demand, “Who’s this?”


“I was utterly humiliated,” Lee told a group of about 75 people gathered at the Hill Street Baptist Church for the first of four educational forums sponsored by the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council.

A common thread united the four panelists’ viewpoints: The majority white culture often just doesn’t get it. They don’t appreciate (or take time to understand) cultures and races other than their own. Despite the daunting challenges, however, the forum concluded on a note of hope that change is possible.

Faulty stereotypes

Lee (who joked about his Yankee/Korean accent) also described some common misconceptions about Asian-Americans — including the “one-Asian image,” in which people with widely varying cultures, religions and geographic origins are lumped together under one label.

“It’s really erroneous to think of ‘one Asian,'” noted Lee.

Other stereotypes include the “ignorant Asian,” the “foreign Asian” (even third-generation Americans are sometimes put in this category), the “unassimilated Asian” and the “modern minority” image. This last stereotype — which holds that the first generation works hard to make money and the second generation works hard to become educated, Lee said — ignores the plight of those in the Asian community who are poor.

The Rev. O.T. Tomes, pastor of the New Mount Olive Baptist Church (and a former Asheville City Council member) offered his views on black/white relations.

“From an African-American perspective, I sincerely believe that race relations in this country have deteriorated tremendously,” Tomes said. “It’s worse than it was 30 years ago.”

The majority culture believes that if it spends a few dollars here and there, the black community ought to be satisfied, asserted Tomes.

And from a religious perspective, he added, “I firmly believe that until the Western church corrects a lie it has perpetuated for over 400 years, there will never be racial reconciliation in this country.”

Tomes said later that he was referring to the biblical passage in which Noah utters a curse directed at his grandson, Canaan (the father of the Canaanites, who were black), saying he should be a “servant of servants.” Religious leaders (especially among the Southern Baptists) have interpreted that to mean that God cursed blacks, Tomes said.

“A lot of people have used that to enslave black folks,” he said.

He also told the audience that young African-Americans are filled with anger, but they can’t pinpoint its cause.

“They cannot give you a solid reason,” Tomes avowed. “They’re just very angry.”

That anger translates into reduced participation in programs such as Building Bridges, which brings blacks and whites together to talk about racial issues, said Tomes (a longtime supporter of the program). The young people in his church say they’re not interested in participating, because whites aren’t going to change, added Tomes.

Political power

Panelist Edna Campos, who’s active in Latino affairs, also had an instance of bigotry to recount: She received a hate letter that said, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”

Campos said she was surprised by the letter, then wondered exactly where the letter writer thought she ought to go.

“I’m from Texas,” she told the group.

Campos noted that many people don’t realize that Latinos are not a homogeneous community. “It behooves [people] to really get to know us as individuals,” she said.

Campos also pointed out that Latinos, both locally and statewide, are starting to wake up to their collective political clout. She is vice chair of the N.C. Hispanic Democrats, which sent her to the Democratic National Convention last year as its first delegate. The group registered a huge number of voters last fall, she noted. In addition, the Latino community has come up with a statewide legislative agenda that focuses on such issues as fair housing and bilingual education.

“We’re just beginning to exercise our political power here in Western North Carolina,” Campos declared.

But racism remains a barrier, she admitted. The most common stereotypes are that Latinos are uneducated or are here illegally.

Panelist George Benge, executive editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times, offered yet another perspective.

“I’m an American Indian,” Benge told the group. “More specifically, I’m a Cherokee-American. I’m a native American in the same sense that everyone in this room is also born a native American.”

He, too, has faced his share of racial bias, reporting that he’s been referred to locally as “Tonto.”

“Tonto, on a scale of one to 10, isn’t all that bad,” Benge joked.

He also said that he believes there has been “some progress” in the past 10 years, thanks to people who have fought for Indian rights.

Take gambling, for example. Although it’s considered a “devil’s tool” by some religious leaders, Benge noted that casino gambling is another sort of tool for American Indians: a way out of poverty.

“Casinos have been one revenue source for American Indians,” noted Benge. “I think it’s great.”

He also said he takes particular delight in watching non-Indians pump $20 bills (with President Andrew Jackson’s picture on them) into casino coffers.

“It’s about time,” he observed, explaining that while Jackson may be “Old Hickory” to most of the folks in the room, Indians remember him as the man who authorized the Indian Removal Act. That act split the Cherokee nation and sent thousands of Indians down the Trail of Tears, where many of them died.

At the same time, however, the casino boom is creating a new misconception: that all Indians are rich, he explained.

Benge also touched on the use of Indians as sports mascots, thanking local activists such as Monroe Gilmour (who was in the audience) for his work on challenging this practice.

Nonetheless, said Benge, “Some of the worst ones still remain.” He pointed to Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians mascot, among others.

And unlike other ethnic groups whose numbers are increasing, the Indian population is a “tiny, tiny, endangered minority,” noted Benge. And that, he said, probably prevents it from achieving the critical mass that other groups may one day enjoy. Benge also pointed to the fact that American Indians’ traditions are constantly being eroded.

Color blindness?

After the panelists’ presentations came a lively discussion, sparked by audience member Dave Goree, who plans to run for mayor of Asheville on the Libertarian ticket. Goree, who is white, called himself “color blind” and proposed that since “we’re all Americans,” we should stop looking at ourselves as members of specific ethnic groups such as Asian-Americans or Latin-Americans.

“There’s no reason to continue these divisions,” he argued.

Campos responded by noting that if someone is “color blind,” they don’t get to enjoy all the colors of the (racial and ethnic) rainbow. And Tomes said he thought it interesting that the suggestion came from a white man, since blacks have historically been urged to assimilate.

“I don’t want to be in your culture,” proclaimed Tomes. “I can never be white.”

But Lee said that, personally and philosophically, he agrees Goree.

“I hate all kinds of division, all kinds of classification,” Lee declared.

But as long as highly valued resources –such as jobs, housing and health care — are still allocated based on color, then people of color must unite, he continued.

“There is no other choice,” said Lee. “United, we fight back.”

Mark Gordon, a vice president at Mission St. Joseph’s Health System, asked how Asheville could better manage its many divisions (including those between conservatives and liberals).

Local leaders, suggested Lee, must learn to understand the community’s strengths and reflect it by recruiting different ethnic and racial groups to local boards.

“To make Asheville really strong, we have to really understand the strength of diversity,” Lee advised.

Benge said that local politicians (such as members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and City Council) seem paralyzed because the community has become almost too diverse to govern.

Later in the session, Commissioner Patsy Keever, saying Benge’s comment had felt to her like a “bee sting,” asked him for specific suggestions. He answered that the commissioners allow themselves to be manipulated and disrupted by a handful of gadflies.

Keever replied that, at one time, she had felt that the community was coming together on issues.

“I don’t feel that now,” she said. “I think we’re being torn apart and labeled.”

Campos suggested that the community needs to be committed to acceptance, not just tolerance. And if there are fissures, there are also opportunities to form coalitions.

“The one word I’ve not heard is respect,” noted Willie Mae Brown, who serves on the board of the Community Relations Council. “Respect our differences.”

Jackie Hallum, director of health careers and diversity management for the Mountain Area Health Education Center, urged people to consider their own environments and look for opportunities to mix with people from different backgrounds.

“If everyone around you looks like you, you need to step out,” she advised.

And Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick, sitting in the audience, said it’s not so much what you say or do but how you make people feel that can lead to racial healing.

After the meeting, Willie Vincent (an African-American woman who taught business courses in the largely white Enka High School for 17 years) made a comment that seemed to transcend the many types of differences that divide us.

“I think that we have to stop talking so much about color and start talking about people,” Vincent said. “Look at the individual as an individual.”

Tracy Rose can be reached by phone (251-1333, ext. 116) or e-mail (


Provoking discussion

The Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, a local nonprofit agency, will sponsor three more educational forums designed to generate discussion about diversity issues in the community (all are free and open to the public):


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