Race, politics, and religion. As a young corporate worker in the 90’s, I learned early on to steer clear from those subjects at work—very little could be gained, while risks were high. Because many people have strong opinions on these topics, it was easy for casual discussions to escalate into full blown arguments. Many avoided conversations involving anyone of the protected classes altogether. It took a great deal of commitment and determination to view everyone as ageless, raceless, genderless, agnostics with no political leanings, but people became good at it.
That was the case in the workplace of the 90’s and most of the 2000’s—right up until when Barack Obama decided to run for president. As his candidacy gained momentum and the possibility that the country could elect its first Black president became a more likely scenario, it became extremely difficult to avoid the topic of race anywhere in America. Everyone had an opinion and many felt compelled to share it.
Most Black people were supporters of Obama, and many proudly admitted that the foundation of their support was the fact that he was Black—and how historic his victory would be for the country. And though many white people supported Obama, his most vocal detractors used terms like socialist, communist, or foreigner when attacking him. Although, in private, some would admit to just not being entirely comfortable with the idea of a Black person calling the White House home. It was unavoidable that these discussions began to trickle into the workplace.
Less than a decade later, the climate has changed. Today, companies are expected to invest resources on diversity programs and employee forums to encourage dialogue around racism and equity issues, among other best practices. You might ask how did the thinking shift so dramatically and so quickly? My answer—politics and the power of social media. During this time, more Americans identified social media as their main source of news and information, and politicians and their support networks began to utilize it as a tool.
Fake and rented accounts, unsubstantiated ‘news’ reports, and Big Tech algorithms all contributed to a viral spread of misinformation. There have been many studies that show how negative articles and postings are much more widely forwarded and reposted than positive pieces. This results in volumes of negative articles and postings, most unfounded or inaccurate, flooding America’s feeds and inboxes. There are often so many instances of unsubstantiated reports being published by independent sources that they seem to corroborate with each other.
Previously marginalized extremists suddenly had a platform and a reach that never existed before. Their messages were fueled by social media misinformation intended to politically mobilize people with historically low voting rates. Though politicians have historically used America’s views on race to their benefit, the evolution of politics on social media brought it to a whole other level. The wheels were turned by the political machines, but things went further than most intended.
The steady stream of scenes and images of hate filling the television screen, newspapers, and social media feeds demonstrated just how racially charged the country had become. The solution, in my opinion, is for us to openly discuss our differences, so we can better understand each other. Because only then can we achieve the degree of empathy that this nation needs to get through these unprecedented times and come away better than ever.
When I first came up with the idea of Back to Dixie, I planned to publish it under the pen name, Nigel Light. I don’t recall exactly how I came up with that name, but with me just embarking in the corporate world, in the culture that existed at the time, I didn’t feel that I could write freely under my real name. I felt at the time that I would have subconsciously self-censored my writing to make it HR-safe in the event it was discovered by workfolk. Writing the book through that filter would have been very limiting. Instead, I decided that I would write under a pen name so I could maintain my artistic freedom.
I can’t say for sure why it took me so long to finally write the book. Work responsibilities and family commitments certainly played a role, but deep down there was also concern that readers would find the events creating the Back to Dixie world unrealistic and not feasible. Unfortunately, with everything we have witnessed in recent years, that is no longer a concern.
Someone recently read the book’s synopsis and reached out to tell me that he was tired of stories that emphasize our differences, and wants instead to read more stories where no one sees race, gender, sexual orientation, disability—where everyone is treated equally. I explained to him that I shared that dream, but it will only be a dream until we all can see, discuss, and respect our differences. I believe Back to Dixie is my contribution to that discussion.