The Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times Wednesday June 12, 2002
All-white debutante club surprising, sad in 2002
by Monroe Gilmour
What did you think when you opened Sunday's Asheville Citizen-Times (June 2, 2002) to the Living Section and saw yearbook photos of 25 young white women smiling back at you under the headline "Rhododendron Royal Brigade of Guards holds 70th annual coronation ball?"
Were you surprised that this anachronistic, all-white institution exists or did you just glance at it, dismiss it as ``just socialite stuff,'' and move on?
Many organizations are, after all, ``all white'' or ``all black'' or ``all whatever.'' There is, for example, a historically all-black sorority that sponsors a debutante fund-raiser in Asheville, but it is quite different. It has an application process that explains in detail how to participate and the costs of doing so; anyone, white or black, can participate and it is organized around young women raising money for local charities-in fact, the ``queen'' is the one who raises the most money for charity.
The Rhododendron Royal Brigade of Guards, to the contrary, is not open about its operations or the cost of participating; it has no publicly available application process; and it appears to be simply an expression of self- defined social status. Whatever you think about debutante-type activities in general, there is apparently no opportunity for young women from lower income families or those of races other than white to participate in the Brigade. Yet the `coronation ball' is publicized by the Brigade as if its activities are a positive contribution to the Asheville community. The all-white make-up of the debutantes is not the result of participants' choice, as with many other organizations, but, it would seem, one of an ongoing fixed-in-stone tradition.
Why should we care? Twelve years ago, I shared that indifference. Then it dawned on me that it's the "little things" around us that cumulatively define and set the tone for our community. For us to be indifferent to such exclusionary institutions, especially when they are paraded as somehow praise-worthy in the Sunday paper, is similar to our earlier indifference to equally public ``colored water fountains.'' Our indifference allows racism and its support structures to continue. In this sense, our indifference is destructive to the overall tone of Asheville and Western North Carolina. Asheville has had this discussion before. In 1991, when faced with these questions, the ``Brigade'' added a non-discriminatory clause to its bylaws and, in 1993, agreed not to publicize its activities until its non-discriminatory intentions were apparent in the composition of the debutantes. In the intervening nine years, the Brigade has apparently done nothing to open up the process, make applications available, or develop an outreach program.
In fact, starting in 2000, the Brigade inexplicably broke their 1993 commitment to no further publicity by having photos of the debutantes and a short news release published in the Sunday paper after their coronation ball.
The irony of the Brigade is that over the years the parents of the debutantes have been leaders in business, the medical field and other community spheres. What message are they sending to their daughters and to the community? What example are they setting when in their work life they belong to organizations that create opportunity, equality and harmony, while in this paraded-in-the-Sunday-paper activity they send an old South message that glorifying class and discrimination is perfectly OK? Asking this question is not about political correctness, it is about accountability, about common courtesy, and about the quality of our community leadership.
On one hand, maybe it is useful to have the all-white Brigade pictured in the paper because it gives us a better sense of who in the community gets it about racial discrimination and who doesn't. On the other hand, it is disheartening to see people to whom we should be looking for leadership pointing our community toward the past rather than the future.
(Gilmour is coordinator of Western North Carolina Citizen for an End to Institutional Bigotry (WNCCEIB), and may be reached at 828-669-6677, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via the WNCCEIB's web site: www.main.nc.us/wncceib/. )