Hilton Head Island Shows Racism in South Carolina is Not Black and White

In September, Governor Nikki Haley spoke before the National Press Club about racism in South Carolina. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she witnessed racism firsthand growing up in South Carolina. So, there is little doubt that she is genuinely committed to tackling racism in our state. The problem is that she argued that South Carolina is not "a racially intolerant place." And, that argument is flawed. It is a fact of life that racism remains a serious everyday problem for many South Carolinians. This includes Asian Americans across the state. So, we must be honest with ourselves. We still have a very long way to go before we can claim that South Carolina is a racially tolerant place. Hilton Head Island serves as an interesting case in point.

Local Demographics

Before we address racism on Hilton Head Island, it is important to consider the local demographics. Hilton Head Island is a fairly stereotypical example of race in South Carolina. A major tourist destination, the island has only 39,000 permanent residents. The vast majority of these permanent residents are of one race. Specifically, they are white. In Beaufort County as a whole, 98.8% of adults are also of one race. And, 75.4% are also white. In our local community, people of two or more races are truly in the minority. In fact, they are only 1.2% of the population. This is far below the national average of 2.5%. And, there are very few Asian Americans. They make-up only 1.2% of the population. Again, this is below under the national average of 5.4% of the population.

Anti-Asian Racism

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the top Google hits on "racism" and "Hilton Head Island" is about Anti-Asian racism though. It is entitled "Racism in 2015." It is a review about the Hilton Head Island Beach & Tennis Resort on Tripadvisor.com. In that review, Jeo S. complains,

Immediately upon arrival, my family and I were exposed to racial profiling and remarks from the staff. If you are of any ethnicity that is a minority in this country, be careful with this place. Worst of all, the management ignored my complaints. I've had accommodations all over the world including third world underdeveloped nations, and this place was by far the most disgusting service I've ever had. Come on, people. It's 2015. Asian jokes while you drive your Hyundais, Hondas and Toyotas? Really?

In response, the general manager of Hilton Head Island Beach & Tennis Resort acknowledges the "remarks made by a member of our maintenance team." He then explains, "[t]he comments although meant in jest were totally inappropriate in any conversation." While this "in jest" comment seems to make light of the issue, he does go on to say that, "[t]he management team once aware of the incident did take immediate and appropriate actions."

Personal Reflections

Whatever the merits of the Tripadvisor.com case, it is clear that having such a review at the top of Google search results does not reflect positively on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, or the United States. But, what reflects even worse is that racism is a daily fact of life for some permanent residents of Hilton Head Island. I can say this from experience. We are a young family. My wife is Asian-American. Our children are multi-racial. And, our family faces racism on a regular basis in our local community.

For example, our children attend a local private school. It happens to be the local Christian school. We chose it because we felt that it had the best academics on the island. And, that has certainly proven to be the case. However, the school also has a serious problem with racism. Within weeks of joining the school, we were shocked to learn that the other children were singing "Choo-Choo Charlie" on the playground and in the cafeteria. This is a well-known racist song about Asians that involves blatant references to working on the railroad, being lactose intolerant, and other racist stereotypes. Some versions also involve extremely racist gestures. When we complained to the school, we learned that some of the teachers did not "understand" that the song was racist. After we spoke with them, we then learned that the school decided not to explain to all of the children that the song was racist. Instead, they told them that they shouldn't sing it because it was violent. And, they refused to address the issue with the parents.

Of course, that is but one example. A few weeks later, we were out eating at a local restaurant. During the meal, one of the other customers started to chat with us about the kids. At some point during the conversation, she got out of her seat and came over to our table. Before we knew it, she walked over to the kids and started pinching their cheeks. Then, she explained why. In her words, she just loved touching Asian skin. And, she thought the children looked like "beautiful little China dolls." At least she didn't ask where we adopted them from. She left that for someone else to ask when my mother took the children shopping. Or what country I brought my wife to America from. She left that for our neighbor. Unfortunately, I could cite another ten examples from the last six months across Hilton Head Island. But, I think the point has been made.

Local Consequences

One of the interesting things about Hilton Head Island is that many members of our Town Council have publicly stated that one of their priorities is to "keep and attract young families." In fact, the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 specifically states that one of its priorities is a "Community for All Generations." While there is no similar priority stated to promote diversity, the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030 does list one of its key principles as, "Providing a Serene, Safe and Healthy Living Environment for Residents and Guests."

Unfortunately, our experience suggests that Hilton Head Island does not currently provide a safe nor healthy living environment for many young families, especially those that are minorities or multi-racial. However, the Town Council has done little to address the issue of racism against Asian Americans and many other minorities on our island. Members appear far more concerned about the fact that "young families can't afford to live in our communities. There is no doubt that the cost of living is a problem for many young families on Hilton Head Island. But, racism is an even bigger issue for some young families on the island.

If we want to fully achieve the Hilton Head Island Vision 2030, the Hilton Head Island Town Council must do more to make sure that our community addresses the full range of problems facing young families. It cannot just be the problems facing young white families. Failing to make this a priority makes light of the problem of racism in our community. It is no different than trying to excuse racist comments against tourists by saying that they were just made in jest. Or telling children that shouldn't sing a racist song about Asians simply because it involves violence. It also undermines the governor's claim that South Carolina is a racially tolerant place.