“I looked at him and I realized that this man…hated what he loved and therefore was a true Southerner.” ~ George Dawes Green, Founder of The Moth, from his story “The House Sherman Didn’t Burn” (aka Truetlen Hall)
When I first heard Green’s story, that one line – “[he] hated what he loved and therefore was a true Southerner” – was, as Kafka once said, “an axe for the frozen sea inside of me”, because I, too, am a true Southerner – I have a love/hate relationship with the Deep South where I’ve lived my entire life. I love Southern culture, hospitality, the landscape, and small-town neighborly kindness, but I hate what I’ve witnessed over the years in the way of rigid small-mindedness, and far-too-numerous instances of entrenched racism. In other words, what I feel as a white southerner is, as Chuck Reese, Editor of the Bitter Southerner so aptly puts it, “the strain between pride and shame, that eternal duality of the Southern thing.”
(Green’s story is entertaining as hell. You should definitely listen to it.)
I live in Atlanta now, which compared to my hometown in rural South Carolina, feels like a bastion of open-minded inclusiveness, though all it takes is an election to remind me that I really just live on a small liberal island surrounded by conservative sea. Still, I’ll take it.
In a lot of ways, it feels like the country as a whole is progressing and becoming more accepting. The fact that gay marriage is now legal in 35 states, including South Carolina, is heartening. The swiftness with which states have gone from “no zones” to recognizing marriage equality felt like dominoes falling, in the best possible way.
But then there’s race. Certainly, there’s been progress, but trying to gauge how much has been made since, well, pick your “whenever” because some days, especially recently, especially when you see things like this, it feels like what was said in Frank Rich’s recent interview with Chris Rock that racial progress is happening, “…in increments of change…so much tinier than we wanted to believe when the Civil Rights Act was passed 50 years ago, or when Obama was elected in 2008.”:
Frank Rich: We still have some white people taking the Sarah Palin line about blacks and immigrants alike. They want to “take back the country” — and we know from whom. I find it depressing. The increments of change seem to be so much tinier than we wanted to believe when the Civil Rights Act passed 50 years ago, or when Obama was elected in 2008.
Chris Rock: Yeah. The stuff you’re talking about is pockets though. There’s always going to be people that don’t know that the war’s over. I’m more optimistic than you, but maybe it’s because I live the way I do. I just have a great life, so it’s easier for me to say things are great. But not even me. My brothers drive trucks and stock shelves. They live in a much better world than my father did. My mother tells stories of growing up in Andrews, South Carolina, and the black people had to go to the vet to get their teeth pulled out. And you still had to go to the back door, because if the white people knew the vet had used his instruments on black people, they wouldn’t take their pets to the vet. This is not some person I read about. This is my mother.
(later in the interview…)
FR: What would you do in Ferguson that a standard reporter wouldn’t? CR: I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.
FR: Well, that would be much more revealing. CR: Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
FR: Right. It’s ridiculous. CR: So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
FR: It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality? CR: Owning their actions. (emphasis is mine.) Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.
With sentiments paralleling Chris Rock’s, in the immediate wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision and the ensuing unrest, my friend Jan Stephens (a really smart, funny, fellow Southerner and eloquent writer) posted this on her Facebook page:
“White people: The Ferguson grand jury’s decision does not absolve us from the responsibility of our own investigation — of looking at ourselves and our community to indict and assign culpability for why a group of people feels the pain and fear it feels. Reactions are proportionate to suffering, and when we dismiss the reaction as “spectacle” we also dismiss the suffering. Shame on us, because first acknowledging then untangling the rat king of pain is what will guide us to real harmony. We’ve turned our haughty heads and rolled our pious eyes once too often, whispering “us” and “them” as we’ve walked away. We’ve compared hardships we had no business comparing then made sweeping generalizations to justify our viewpoint. We’ve vilified backlash as uncivilized in the way only vulgar arrogance can—and as if we are the authority on good behavior. We’ve commandeered reason and motive within the bubble of privilege and the hooded perspective it’s afforded us. We’ve done this at great cost to an entire segment of our society. We’ve done this. This country is not united today. And that’s on us, not them.”
Then she linked to this (“The very essence of privilege is the insulated bubble, the luxury of denial”) and this. And as quickly as there was white support for the anger felt and expressed by the black community, there was also gross push-back from some whites in the form of almost total denial that this well-documented problem of white cops shooting unarmed black men is about a bunch of stuff but it sure isn’t about race.
When I read Jan’s post, I found myself agreeing every step of the way with her eloquent plea that we white Americans need to take a cold, hard look at ourselves and get honest about how our deepest reflexive thoughts may be contributing to the elephant sitting in the middle of the room. In what ways do our culturally inculcated biases contribute everyday to the problem? It is a question absolutely worth acknowledging and pondering.
Think you aren’t part of the problem? Read CNN’s recent article, The New Threat: ‘Racism without Racists’, which summarizes and links to several studies on racial bias supporting just how frequently people are shown to be “consistently, routinely and profoundly biased” without ever consciously recognizing that they are. It’s like Duke sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says, “The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.”
I view the resistance by some whites to consider that they might be part of the problem from this perspective: any true self-reflection (and by extension, reflection about one’s own racial/cultural prevailing thoughts, attitudes and resulting actions) requires maturity, vulnerability, and a willingness to consider that someone else’ differing point-of-view might just be valid. It is hard, painful work, so much so that a lot of people refuse to look. I think that if we were really willing to examine and acknowledge the collective pain that white people have caused black people over time, we could not deny the intense, sad reality of the sum total of the indignities we’ve perpetrated, and the dysfunction that has bloomed from it. I’m also pretty sure that it’s an essential component to bridging the racial divide.
It feels like we are at a crossroads in America. It will be interesting to see which direction we take as a country.
I leave you with this: a fantastic article posted recently on the Bitter Southerner called “Gone With the Wind & My Southern Education.” (full story with video clips here.) It’s a look at how much has changed, and hasn’t changed, in the 75 years since the release of the film version of Gone With the Wind. It’s enlightening.