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Wednesday, 05 April 2017 14:03

Folkmoot’s Cultural Conversations: Identifying identity

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Hundreds, if not thousands of “civic ambassador” programs begin each month in cities and counties across the nation, including in Haywood County, where the Chamber of Commerce’s eight-session Leadership Haywood program yearly produces a dozen or more “civic ambassadors” armed with firsthand knowledge of how all sectors of the community might work together in harmony.

Folkmoot’s Cultural Conversations program, on the other hand, produces “cultural ambassadors” armed with firsthand knowledge of how all sectors of the community might live together in harmony.

And although it may not appear so on the calm surface of “business as usual” in Western North Carolina, the deep tensions below the surface aren’t as muddied as they used to be. 


The unexamined life

As we sat around the table during our first session, in one big circle, Cultural Conversations facilitator Angela Dove laid out the ground rules for the upcoming sessions. 

Quite unlike Leadership Haywood — which utilizes speakers and on-site tours to transmit information from the source to the student — Cultural Conversations’ students are its sources. 

Our role as participants, Dove said, was to be polite, to keep an open mind and to speak only for ourselves. 

Her role, she explained, was to guide, to probe and to encourage fair participation by everyone. 

Further ground rules include uttering the word “ouch” if we’re offended by something someone said, and maintaining the confidentiality of what is said.

Accordingly, I can’t share with you the results of my partner interview during this initial session, but I can say I didn’t hear anyone say “ouch.” 

What struck me most about the interviews was that the questions we asked each other everyone should probably be asking themselves right now. 

How do you define yourself — is it by your career? Your family relationships? Your ethnic heritage? 

Ethnic traditions from Europe, Africa, South and North America were all represented in that big circle, and are passed down through familial relations no matter where that family may live. 

At some point, those traditions make us realize that there exist others of different provenance, which in turn leads to the realization that we are, in fact, all different to someone, somewhere. 

That being said, I suppose we’re all prone to being discriminated against in certain situations — but some more than others. 

I also suppose we’re all prone to discriminating against others in certain situations — but some more than others. 

So how is our society evolving? How do your beliefs about race, gender, sexuality and bathrooms compared to those of your parents? And of their parents? 

While some things may be different, some things certainly stay the same; how do you react when your parents — or grandparents, or friends, or colleagues — make casual or direct expressions of prejudice?

Difficult questions to ask of anyone, to be sure — but Socratic tradition holds that the unexamined life is not worth living, so examine we did. 

What we found were very fine distinctions between the terms of discrimination prejudice, racism and stereotyping. 

Think about it — they’re used interchangeably at times, but are in reality points on a spectrum of racial and ethnic intolerance in America. 

That intolerance isn’t foreign to Western North Carolina. While North Carolina is a fairly diverse state, it’s also fairly large and much of that diversity is concentrated down east. 

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the state as a whole is 69 percent white, however, Haywood County hovers around 96 percent. Jackson County is at 81 percent, and Swain 66 percent. 

Unique to this region is the enduring presence of the area’s original inhabitants — Native Americans, especially the Cherokee. They make up a whopping 27 percent of the population in Swain County, and 9 percent in Jackson County. 

African-Americans account for but a tiny fraction of minority populations in WNC counties, and are just a third or less of Hispanic populations. 

With such small minority populations, it may be surprising and counterintuitive to learn that within a hundred or so miles of where you likely now sit, there are at least 10 active hate groups. 


The hate debate

The Loyal White Knights of the KKK bills itself as the largest and most active klan in America. 

Headquartered in Vale, N.C., the controversial group has distributed handbills aimed at recruitment and plans a whites-only cross burning in Asheboro in May, but disputes the “hate group” label bestowed upon it in a recent report by the well-known Southern Poverty Law Center. 

“We do not hate any group of people!” their website reads. “However, we do hate some things that certain groups are doing to our race and our nation. We hate drugs, homosexuality, abortion and race-mixing, because these things go against God’s law and they are destroying all white nations.”

Similar groups operate in East Tennessee, North Georgia and Upstate South Carolina but lest ye think hate is exclusive to whites, the SPLC lists Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam — which has a chapter in Greenville — as a hate group as well. 

It’s hard to imagine Folkmoot’s “cultural ambassadors” directly combating groups like the Loyal White Knights of the KKK or the Nation of Islam, and indeed these groups still have the right to spread their message.

It’s also hard to imagine these cultural ambassadors — especially as social mores evolve — joining, supporting or even abiding the structural racism of organized hate groups like the anti-LGBTQ True Light Pentecostal Church in Spartanburg.

What’s not hard to imagine is that the SPLC identifies more than 900 hate groups in the United States and with 31, North Carolina ranks ninth. Ouch. 

This is part two of a series chronicling SMN Staff Writer Cory Vaillancourt’s participation in Folkmoot’s inaugural Cultural Conversations program. Check back next week for another installment. For more information about Folkmoot, visit

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