Young Asheville and Race


Young Asheville and Race

Young Asheville and Race

I have always loved stories. Stories told through pictures, stories told on the silver screen and even stories told around the dinner table. When I moved to Asheville, I quickly learned how much diversity our city attracts, and where there is diversity, there are individuals with stories to tell.

Young Asheville and Race is the first in a series that tackles issues young adults are facing in Asheville and gives a voice to those with a story to tell. Through this series you will meet young Asheville residents who come from all walks of life and who, through their formative years as young adults, are facing universal issues and providing their own insight.

I hope you will read along and take in a new perspective. I sure know I did.

The following interviews have only been edited for grammar and language flow. All opinions and words are those of the participant, not Asheville Grit or Lauryn Higgins.


Justin Gragg

Age: 25

Occupation: Intramural Coordinator for the Office of Student Development at Mars Hill University and Founder of Carolina Endurance, LLC

Justin originally came to Asheville on a Cross-Country and Track & Field scholarship in 2009 to attend Mars Hill College (now University). After graduating in 2012, he decided to stay in the area to pursue his Masters of Business Administration degree through Western Carolina University's program at Biltmore Park. He graduated from WCU in December and has been finishing his graduate assistantship position at Mars Hill and working on his new business.

My personal experience regarding race in Asheville has been positive.  I have been given complete freedom to express my world view, beliefs and study the religion of my choice. Since being in Asheville I have never had any racial remarks or comments directed towards me directly. This may be for the simple fact that I have been associated with educational institutions that have not tolerated such behavior. However, I did have to face the reality of racism in high school just off the mountain in the foothills. I recall several events where if a white girl was seen walking to class or holding hands with a black boy this was an issue among many of my peers. I believe that this is rooted in the upbringing of these individuals that had a problem with interracial couples.

It is sad looking back and thinking about parents that cheered for you at every football game or track meet, and yet would be the same individuals that would never want you dating their daughter. I truly believe that I was blessed to be multi-raced with an African American father and Caucasian mother that exposed me to differences in culture and race at a young age. I remember being fascinated with peers from different countries and backgrounds. This type of fascination has continued to carry out in my life today with my girlfriend being from Cozumel, Mexico.

Asheville has a very open and free spirit environment and is an area that embraces different cultures and backgrounds. This is not the reason that I came to Asheville but this will be the reason I stay.


Amber Abunassar

Age: 23

Occupation: Student at UNC Asheville and journalist for UNCA’s Communication and Marketing department. She is also a communications intern for the non-profit Riecken Community Libraries, which provides educational opportunities in Central America.

Amber originally came to Asheville to attend college. She has always loved the area and knew Western North Carolina would be a great place to attend school.

Growing up in a bi-cultural household, I never gave it any thought as a child or preteen that I was Palestinian. My mother is Caucasian and she fell in love and married my father who is Palestinian. I grew up in the middle of nowhere South Carolina, where there were no mosques around. However my parents still wanted me to believe in something religious, so I attended Sunday school. I will never forget the time I decided to wear a necklace my maternal grandmother had given me, which said, “Allah.” When I began to show it off in Sunday school class saying, “Look y’all, this means God,” my peers thought it was cool, but my teacher began freaking out and asked me to put it away. I did not understand why until I became a teenager.

My family and I moved to WNC when I was 13 to Columbus, NC, where I was the only student in my school of Middle Eastern descent. When I started middle school in NC, I was asked all the time, “Where are you from?” my response was always, “South Carolina.” Their response was always, “No….where are you FROM?” In all seriousness, if I were to write a book, I am certain this would be the title. I don’t mind when people ask, it is simply curiosity; but I would rather have someone ask than have a misconception of who I am. I even had teachers pull me to the side during class and ask where I was from.

Eventually the answer to “Where are you from?” began to spread through my small country school. At first I was glad and proud that everyone knew my background until I started to be bullied about it. I would have students constantly sending spiteful notes at me calling me a terrorist. Not only in notes but verbally in the classroom, quietly enough where the teacher could not hear. I dreaded riding the bus home from school, because I knew I was going to be harassed. On many days I came home in tears. On some days I felt like giving up the Palestinian side of me and assimilating into the Southern culture because I was so sick of the harassment. At the same time, I knew that I did not want my Middle Eastern side to die. The bullying was reported but nothing ever stopped.

For years I had felt something missing. I felt as though there was a missing puzzle piece in how I saw myself. It was not until my father suggested for me to attend Arabic school that I felt that empty puzzle piece filled. During my high school years, I would attend Arabic classes at a Mosque every Saturday morning. It was the first time for me where it was mandatory to wear a hijab. I was nervous at first because I had never been this immersed into the Middle Eastern culture; I had never been in a place where I was solely surrounded by Arabic speaking people.  At the same time I was very excited to finally explore my other side even more. After attending the school a couple of times, I had never felt more at home and accepted. . I did not feel like I was being interrogated about “where I was from” and I definitely did not have to worry about being bullied. It was great feeling like I belonged. The mosque was a place where I could be myself. It was great finally meeting other people who had a similar heritage and culture as me.

Since moving to Asheville, there have been times where I have felt extremely uncomfortable but very rarely has that happened. I do not feel uncomfortable wearing my hijab, unless I am in Wal-Mart. I remember wearing my hijab with a fellow hijabi (someone who wears a hijab every day) on her birthday. We went to downtown Asheville, and we received a few weird looks. A man even asked us, “What the hell is that?” And we were then told to go back to where we came from.

Before you share hatred to a group of people, try speaking to them first. We don’t bite. Try learning about our culture, or even visit a mosque. I can assure you that Muslims are some of the most peaceful and loving people you will ever meet. Stop and look beyond the stereotype that the media portrays; and that goes for any group of people. During this period of hatred and harsh judgment, all I can hope for is that you will be compassionate.

I have lived in Asheville since 2012 and I can honestly say I have certainly felt it is a perfect fit for me. I feel safer growing as a person and finding my multicultural identity. Even though Asheville may not be the most diverse racially, people are still respectful and appreciate other cultures. People here are genuinely interested in other lifestyles and other perspectives. It makes me happy to know people are sincerely interested in my background, I want people to ask, it is a great way to learn. Even though my life has been an identity search my entire life, I can certainly say Asheville has helped me find myself in so many aspects. I am Amber and there is no one else like me.




Patricia Mathes

Age: 22

Occupation: Student at Mars Hill University majoring in Sports Management and minoring in Psychology.

Patricia came to the Asheville area to attend Mars Hill University because of the academic scholarship that was provided to her.


Coming to Mars Hill was a challenge for me. I was born and raised in Raleigh, NC so living in the mountains for the past four years has been very different compared to the fast moving city of Raleigh. Mars Hill is four and a half hours away from home so there were times where I would get homesick. The community of Mars Hill is very "old-school". There were two types of people in the community of Mars Hill: people who like you being there and people who don't, and are not afraid to show it. My freshman year of Mars Hill, (2012) was the first time I ever had to hear or encounter any issue that was race related. I overheard rumors of coaches telling African American football players not to go to certain exits on highways because they may not be welcomed and they didn't want anything to happen to them.

Being an African American trying to cross the street on Mars Hill's campus is at times frightening. People do not hit their brakes or even slow down. Once I was already crossing the street and I could hear the driver speed up. If I would not have run across the street I would have gotten hit. This has happened to me numerous times, as well as, witnessing it happen to other African American students. You may say this is weird, but I never have had an issue when I cross the street with a Caucasian student.

Just two weeks ago I went into the restaurant Wagon Wheel, located in Mars Hill, with four other African American males after a meeting on campus. I have eaten at Wagon Wheel many of times with no issue. [However, this time] there was an older Caucasian man and woman trying to pay for their food, but my friends and I were at the counter ordering our food so they had to wait behind us. I ordered my food first and sat down. As I sat down, I looked back up to see the woman shaking her head, smacking her teeth, and rolling her eyes. She starred at my male friends in complete disgust as if she saw something so horrific. Then, as they walked away, she made sure she looked them up and down individually with every step they took. It was the most uncomfortable feeling I've ever had.

Race as a whole is ignored around Mars Hill University. Not everyone is mean and hateful, but people sweep race under the rug. There is no sense of community amongst us. It's almost like everyone is just there and decides to stay segregated. There is no diversity with the faculty and staff, and African American students are targeted a lot just living in the resident’s halls. As Vice President of the Black Student Association we have had discussion panels and meetings to learn a few of the things students of all race go through. Most of the students complained about police targeting them for no apparent reason, for example pulling them over and being rude saying things like "That girl I just gave a ticket to can either get over or suck my dick and it will go away," or telling students "I will smoke all your weed and still make you go to jail". Like I stated not everyone is mean and hateful. Dr. Wells and Craig Goforth are two faculty members that support and encourage everyone at Mars Hill and the community.

Asheville is in a category of its own. People are so friendly and open to everyone. Asheville is like a breath of fresh air after a long week of classes at Mars Hill. A beautiful place with beautiful spirited people. My total experience in the mountains has been life changing, but it has helped me adapt and learn about different environments while learning about myself.

Pablo Best

Age: 20

Occupation: Student at UNC Asheville who gets into creative projects in his spare time.

Pablo came to Asheville because he loves the mountains and it is the perfect distance from his hometown of Charlotte.

I’m black and multi-ethnic. From my early days in Raleigh, the bulk of my life in Charlotte and my current life here in Asheville, I have always had a little bit of a disconnect identity-wise with any given group of people I might have been around. That being said, I have yet to encounter as racially homogenous a place as Asheville. I honestly can’t believe it didn’t bother me in the times I’d been here prior to attending UNCA!

My interests have always earned me a “white” reputation among others (typically [but not limited to] black people), so initially I managed to get along all right. Then I moved off-campus and was confronted with life as a poor black person in a place that is rapidly kicking people of that group out.

Rapid city growth is nothing new to me. Charlotte is growing through a similar type of urban growth, but it also entered that period of growth with a set of qualifications that would make the transition a little smoother for disadvantaged groups of people. I grew up poor, so where I am now is basically a continuation of the same old thing. But with the crushing sense of claustrophobia only a valley could provide.

The thing about it is, in Charlotte there are way too many people not doing well, much worse than I have ever been. The difference is there you have things like: semi-useful public transit, a variety of affordable food, public and private options for affordable housing, a sort-of welcoming environment for small businesses. Each of the aforementioned characteristics make the pressurized crunch of urban displacement a little more bearable, saving a great deal of black and brown people in the process.

When the social cushion of seeing your culture or peers around you is non-existent, Buncombe County being 87% white, every other category that promotes survival should be bolstered. Unfortunately, both areas are lacking, and I don’t see how many brown people could enjoy themselves in this place for any more than maybe a year.

Auslyn Davis

Age: 23

Occupation: Medical Scribe

Auslyn originally came to Asheville to attend UNC Asheville and has been here since.

When I first arrived to Asheville, I fell in love with the natural aesthetic and surrounding scenery more than the people initially. It took a good year for me to truly understand and accept the local’s sense of being as individuals, as I immediately categorized everyone here as hippies and hipsters, but that was very ignorant of me. Once I became a student at UNCA, with such a small and intimate campus, it was easier for me to let my guard down and share conversations and laughter with people who helped me perceive the college community in a different light. The people I met at school were magnetic.

But of course my excitement hit a hiatus. Venturing from the walls that divided the womb of academia from reality, rest a city with a very dissimilar appearance than portrayed via Google search engine would have. I'm a French, Caribbean mixed individual trying to make it in a predominantly white city. Just typing that made my eyes roll. Walking about in downtown Asheville, I have been given the occasional scowl. Now shopping in Asheville, if I don't dress like I'm going to a fancy cocktail party, I know I will be followed in a few stores like the Mast General Store especially. I abhor that store with a passion as they always seem to be racially profiling me because of my beautiful brown skin.

With so many negative experiences, I have chosen to, in order to maintain my sanity, turn a blind eye to those who choose to discriminate, pass judgment, and profile me and others for things we can't escape or help.

Katelynn Watkins

Age: 22

Occupation: Part-time marketing assistant, freelance writer and editor

Katelynn originally came to Asheville after one year at UNC Chapel Hill, when she decided to transfer to UNC Asheville to complete her BA in Communications. She is now living and working here, as she plans for whatever comes next.  


In spite of the major headway this nation, and this world in general, has made in overcoming prejudice and bias over race, religion, gender,--the list goes on--it would be terribly naïve to assume that we’ve reached any point near perfection. As far as geographical references go, Asheville is certainly blessed in being a generally open-minded and accepting community. I can’t say that I personally have run into many memorable instances of racism directed towards myself while in the area, but I also can’t deny that it is a persisting issue for many across the country.

While I agree that talking through the problem can be therapeutic, I’m almost of the opinion that now, we as a society have come around the bend and may in fact carry on too many emotionally charged debates that actually perpetuate residual anger and resentment, rather than allowing frequent breaths to naturally cool tempers and clear minds. With that in consideration, I think the conversations we do have could result in more progress, rather than a rehashing of already acknowledged grievances, and a better understanding of all parties.


Our next post in the series will be Young Asheville and Politics. If you would like to offer your story, please let us know in the comments section below.