Smile Politely

Sweet Corn Festival brings major disappointment

At a time when our community has been so significantly impacted by the death of a young African-American man at the hands of the Champaign Police, we continue to be mourning and healing. I teach courses on race, gender and cross-cultural understanding at the University of Illinois, and I was shocked to have recruited friends, family and colleagues to serve in a ticket booth at a festival environment that openly tolerates racist and white supremacist symbols. Sadly, I must say that the Sweetcorn Fest was a grave disappointment this year.

It was surreal to show up for my volunteer shift, as I have done for several years now, to find a Confederate flag — a symbol of racial hostility and fear for many African-Americans, of which I myself am — hanging up in a vendor booth at the festival. I was forced to take my seat in the ticket booth at Broadway and Main streets in Urbana, just a few feet from this symbol, which made me uncomfortable and concerned. I did this because I chose to honor my commitment to the Urbana Business Association (UBA) rather than walk away and leave my friends in a bind without the help I knew was needed. I have deep respect for those who have recruited me to volunteer each year and I always enjoyed myself.

However, I do not understand how this year the UBA could produce a family-friendly event and allow such hostile symbols toward African-Americans, Jewish people, gay/lesbian and transgender community, immigrants, non-Christians, non-Whites, feminists and others who continue to be targeted by organizations that embrace this flag/symbol to be sold by a vendor.

Would they also allow a flag with a swastika to be so prominently displayed, and then hide behind the notion that a vendor has a right to display and sell any wares they want? No, I assert, they would not. Freedom of expression, including the freedom of speech, has limits and comes with responsibilities. The exercise of “freedom of speech” rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “for respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals” (Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976).

In the United States, freedom of expression does not protect hate speech, for instance. I believe, as do many others, that It is not helpful to pretend or deny what the confederate flag symbolizes to many people, and how it’s associated with the neonazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and Aryan organizations. Sure, it may not have the global stigmatization of the swastika (once known solely as a symbol of good luck), but it’s cut from the same racist cloth. It is not simply a relic of the U.S. Civil War of the past, it is actively engaged with and embraced as a banner of hate groups in the United States today.

I recognize that the UBA team is without an executive director and that a group of tireless, wonderful volunteers made this year’s festival happen. I also believe there is still a board of directors, and I believe that there must be someone or many who feel a collective sense of responsibility for the success of the Sweetcorn Fest. I feel that responsibility as a volunteer and a member of this community, which is why I am writing to you to raise awareness.

I certainly hope that as they hire someone, they will have the sensitivity to recognize the ways in which safe events can occur that do not offend the sensibilities of many members of our community with such a blatant disregard. I hope that we all will support them in this process and send solid candidates their way as a proactive response to this disappointment.

My hope is that racist symbols will not continue to be in the backdrop of our community festivities, and that I will not have to explain these contradictions to my child. At one moment I am teaching him to stay safe and away from spaces where these flags fly because they signal racial hatred toward us, and at the next I am taking him to Sweetcorn Festival where they are for sale? I do not believe it is sufficient to tell him people have the right to sell symbols of hate. I want a better community than that for him, for all our children, and ourselves.

Change can be realized through listening, but it becomes real through policies and intentionality to foster respect and equality. I hope that my concerns, which I have also sent in an email to, will be heard and regarded as an opportunity and a teachable moment. I will certainly take this year’s experience into consideration the next time I am called upon to volunteer, participate in, or endorse any community event where confederate flags and other racist memorabilia are casually allowed to be sold by vendors. Many times these traveling salespeople come through and wreak havoc, but we are complicit if we silently allow it or shrug it off as inconsequential.

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