Cape Fear: Sharks in the Ocean and the Pew


I’m writing from Highway 24 in Northeastern North Carolina, heading from a couple family and friend visits to the coast for a few days at the beach. We left Oshkosh about a week ago and the trip started with texts from my wife’s mom, who was worrying about the multiple shark attacks that had occurred in the general area to which we’re now heading. Little did I know that we would soon be experiencing fear related to a much more lethal predator in a very direct way before we even made it to the Atlantic.

We’d come to the Raleigh-Durham area from Charleston, South Carolina, where I attended an academic conference held at the College of Charleston, in the heart of this old city. My presentation, on research I’ve been doing about Hmong people and the Fox River, was on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 17, a day that will be remembered by no one for my talk but by many for the horror that took place nearby later that evening.

After I walked the roughly 1.5 miles back to our hotel to hit the pool with my wife and two daughters for a bit, we all caught a hotel shuttle to return to the conference for an outdoor dinner party with local food and microbrews, live music, and a festive atmosphere, despite the unseasonal heat. It was great to catch up with some old friends from grad school at UW-Madison and to walk around the very old and picturesque campus as we awaited our return shuttle a little after 8pm, about the same time an unfamiliar face entered the Emanuel A.M.E. Church a couple blocks away.

"Mother Emanuel" in Charleston, SC

“Mother Emanuel” in Charleston, SC

We were now officially on vacation and let the kids stay up later than normal, all enjoying a cold drink on the patio of the hotel when we heard the sirens wail at about 9pm. The kids asked about them, of course, and we said maybe there was a fire. After we got back to our room, I responded to an email from a fellow conference goer about trying to meet up in the morning to discuss our research, since she’d studied Hmong people’s travel habits in Minnesota. I then put my laptop away for the night.

I learned the reason for those sirens the next morning when I went back for a confirmation about our meeting, which I found in a message from 9:48pm the previous night that contained the following statement: “I hope you are safe? Active shooter in the area with possibly 8 fatalities!!!”

This was without a doubt the most bizarre and disturbing email I’ve ever received. I quickly figured out what she was referring to: nine people murdered in a historical black church downtown, near the College of Charleston, by a white kid with a bowl cut who was at the bible study for an hour before methodically massacring these people because of their brown skin. And this hateful murderer had not yet been caught.

I looked over at my beautiful brown-skinned children and shuddered.

I figured the last day of the conference would be canceled, but it didn’t seem to be, which I thought was strange (and in hindsight I think it should have been, at least until the shooter was found, and particularly to protect the black people in attendance).

I had intended to go a friend’s presentation at 8:30 but now wasn’t sure what to do. After thinking it through I decided to go anyway, but first woke my wife to tell her what had happened. She was stunned, but said if I was going to go, I couldn’t walk, so I finagled another shuttle ride. The nice young driver expressed his surprise that this had happened in such a nice area, to which I responded that he shouldn’t be surprised, as American mass shootings generally don’t follow the stereotypes related to gun violence and tend to be perpetrated by white males in “nice” areas and that I’m a sociologist so we should probably just leave those worms in the can and agree on the notion that they better catch that #*%#^*# soon.

It was quiet around the campus but the 8:30 talk was underway, with my friend expressing during her presentation that it was really weird to be discussing the demographics of the decline in deer hunters, trends in gun sales and the like in the wake of this tragedy. People at the conference were understandably on edge, as the cowardly shooter had succeeded in terrorizing an entire region.

After having my planned meeting and chatting with a few others for a while, I considering joining one of them at a vigil to be held at a nearby church but decided that my place at that moment was back at the hotel, where my family would be hunkered down in our room until the suspect was apprehended.

I decided to walk back through the charming historic neighborhoods in the direction away from Calhoun Street, site of Mother Emanuel. I only got a couple blocks when I overheard a passerby telling the postman, “They caught him, 200 miles from here in North Carolina.” I breathed a big sigh of relief and quickly flipped open my phone to call my wife with the news. It didn’t remove the dark cloud hanging over the city and our minds, but at least the kids could finally go to pool on what was outwardly another sunny, hot day.

There are a number of angles that I could take in attempting to make sense out of or draw lessons from this horrific event, about our nation’s psychotic relationship with guns and its policies in this regard, how the aftermath exemplifies white privilege, why the Confederate flag should indeed be removed from the South Carolina statehouse (while completing this I learned that Governor Haley had just called for its removal at long last) and has no place on pickup trucks in Oshkosh, Wisconsin or really anywhere for that matter, or how absurd it is for barbaric things like this to happen in the land of the free in what should be an era of peace and prosperity. But others have already addressed such topics better than I could, including the Emanuel AME congregant who noted after tragedy, “Doing something like this to people because of the color of their skin? This is supposed to be 2015.”

What I have to offer here is some first-hand insight into the pain inflicted by the scourge of racism. My hope is that sharing it may help white readers heighten their sociological imagination (understanding of the individual’s place in society and how society shapes the individual’s life chances depending upon their circumstances, helping people imagine what it’s like to be another person in the other person’s shoes), develop greater empathy for people of color, and take positive action in this regard.

Back to the sharks for a moment. I feel compelled to write this while it is fresh, but the effort has been interrupted by this vacation we’re on (hello, first-world problems), so I now type sitting on a deck overlooking Bogue Sound, having made it back to the sea. Though fear was present at least in the back of our minds, multiple trips into the Atlantic have been accomplished free from shark attack to this point. We’ve had the ability to protect our beautiful brown-skinned girls completely by simply confining their swimming to the pool, or doing as we did and mitigate it by going to the beach at low-risk places and times. We could also protect them in Charleston by keeping them confined to the hotel room, but no matter how hard we try, we can’t shelter them from the terrible effects of racism.

It obviously cannot remotely compare to the pain felt by the victims of the attack and their families, but the event nonetheless produced fear and heartache for us as well. While I was at the conference the morning after the shooting, my wife was back in that hotel room, trying to explain what happened to our 8-year old (our younger girl is thankfully too young to understand what was going on). After she had heard the basics, our daughter asked, “But why would he do that? Is there something wrong with us?”

Think about how devastating that thought must be.

It is also likely widespread, as black children throughout the U.S. grow up being bombarded with messages suggesting that there is indeed something wrong with them, that they are valued less simply because of how they look.

My wife assured our daughter that no, there is nothing wrong with her, but something wrong with the shooter, whose heart is filled with hate. While true, these sentiments can’t possibly counteract those ubiquitous messages, and for the second time in as many months our wonderful girl expressed that she wished she were not black. She’s only 8.

Because she is only 8, she quickly moved on to fun in the pool, but she’ll likely have to deal with these issues the rest of her life.

The first time she expressed this wish was perhaps even sadder, as it stemmed from the everyday realities of growing up in the black category in the United States, and despite our attempts to instill pride in who she is inside and out.

We won’t truly be the land of the free as long as entire groups of people live in fear of something negative happening to them—from being left out of the group, to being the subject of racist jokes, to being discriminated against in the workplace or bank, to being the victim of extreme violence—simply because of the color of their skin.

What can we in Oshkosh possibly do in response to this tragedy, much less the bigger, thornier issue of race in America? Well, I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do have a few thoughts, starting with trying to change how we live day to day.

I think diversity, multiculturalism, and inclusion should be pursued not due to white guilt, political correctness, or because some policy or person said we should, but because they not only lead to greater equity and justice, but also simply make our organizations, businesses, cities, and nation more interesting, vibrant, and prosperous. As I’ve written elsewhere, people who want to build more welcoming and integrated communities in areas like the still-very-white Fox Valley need to go out of their way to get to know and build relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, to be able to understand their lives, advocate for their interests and the common good, and simply become friends.

We need to live intentionally integrated lives.

Kids need to interact–and see their parents interacting–regularly with all kinds of people, so differences are seen as normal and even celebrated. This starts with socialization at home, but schools and lifelong education are also key. Children need to be able to interact as much as possible with diverse people, while also learning the truth about inequality and injustice. And many of us need additional education in this regard, since much of what we were taught in school and how we understand the places where we live is incomplete or flat out wrong, as forcefully argued by sociologist James Loewen in his books Lies My Teacher Told Me and Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (which features numerous examples from the Fox Valley, including Oshkosh).

Action must accompany greater understanding of other types of people and how things work in society. Real change will not happen because people feel bad, mean well, sign petitions, or simply pray (and I write this as a religious person). People need to see others’ problems as their problems, too, and then be willing to take meaningful action to try to solve them.

While there are some encouraging signs, I don’t think a critical mass of people in Oshkosh have reached this stage. There is little evidence that our leaders and major institutions see these issues as priorities. While I am happy to see more diversity in leadership positions at UWO, look around city hall, the police department, the county’s administrative buildings, our local schools and major employers, and you’ll see virtually none. There are likely some efforts underway to increase diversity in such places, and I know it isn’t easy, but they don’t appear to be bearing much fruit so far.

I don’t claim to follow the action in city hall religiously, but feel as though I have a solid sense of what is happening. From what I can tell, we can’t say, “less talk, more action,” because there doesn’t even seem to be much talk in this regard. While Appleton has had a full-time diversity and inclusion coordinator since the 1990s, it seems that something along these lines is still not even being seriously discussed in Oshkosh. And our city council missed a golden opportunity to show that it is a priority to include a diverse range of people and voices on the city’s governing body when it appointed a local citizen to fill an empty seat last spring. There were two well-qualified black candidates—a UWO graduate student pursuing a Master’s in public administration and a relatively new local civic leader—in the mix, and appointing one of them would have been a powerful symbol of progress in Oshkosh.

One of those candidates, Tracey Robertson, has been taking meaningful action. She recently held an open house for the new offices of Fit Oshkosh, the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that she runs. Fit Oshkosh is dedicated to increasing the racial literacy—“the capacity to address the issues and implications of race in conversations and social interactions”—of residents of this area and exists to help answer tough questions about these complex issues and offer opportunities for people like you and me to get involved in constructive efforts to address them.

I wish I could have taken part in Charleston’s 10,000-person solidarity march held today, or done something tangible to offer my support, but my time there was brief. I’ll still be out here on the East Coast, but there is a great opportunity for people in the Fox Valley to come together on Wednesday. The Office of Equity and Affirmative Action, in conjunction with Academic Support for Inclusive Excellence at UWO, will be hosting a candlelight vigil in honor of the nine victims of the Charleston shooting on Wednesday June 24, 2015 at 5:30pm at the Albee Patio on the UWO campus. All area people are encouraged to attend, and Ms. Robertson will be offering comments. I hope the vigil helps with healing and provides a spark of hope for positive change in Oshkosh and beyond.


UPDATE: The author further discusses these issues in a podcast from the Sandbox Cooperative. 

Photo credit: Spencer Means, 2013, Wikimedia Commons


About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He lives with his wife and two daughters on the historic, walkable, and interesting east side of Oshkosh, near the shores of Lake Winnebago.


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      Dr. Van Auken,
      My heart aches for your little girl. I remember reading of young black children trying to scrub the black off their precious bodies. This injustice outrages me and I’ll never get over it. I’ve been told I’m too sensitive and I know I can be at times. I tend to cry more easily than others’ too. But what this country has done to our black citizens’ is devastating to our humanity. It lessens us, it cheapens us. Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope your family is well and happy.

      • Paul

        Thanks, Julie. I don’t think you should ever feel bad for feeling too much. We had a good rest of our vacation and are doing well.

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    In 1971-72, as a news anchor at Milwaukee’s WEMP Radio, I was offered a similar position at a Columbia, South Carolina radio station. A second year Journalism major at UW-Milwaukee, with an academic scholarship under my belt, I was tempted to accept the position and continue my education at or near Columbia. My News Director at WEMP, Bob Betts, was more than pleased with my work there the past eighteen months or so. Still, he cautioned me regarding that move, feeling that market might be somewhat advanced for my experience. Give yourself a little more time, he said. You’ll be ready.
    I had great respect for Bob , personally and professionally and took his advice. In retrospect now, I believe his “advice” contained a veiled warning. The year 1972 was among tumultuous years for people of color, North and South; especially the latter. Posthumously, I thank Bob Betts..
    John Gardner

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