It’s Hate, Not Heritage

I moved to South Carolina, about 3 years ago, to attend grad school at Clemson University. I was born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon, in Toledo, Ohio. I was, by all relevant standards, a Yankee in Dixieland.

And, as a Yankee with no personal experience living in the South, I grew up with the impression that all the South had to offer was a love of guns, the Confederate flag, and nostalgic longing for the days of slavery and plantation money (and, to be fair, awesome weather).

After living in the South, I realized that’s not totally true. The Southeast is awash in surprisingly hip culture, and it forced this Yankee to change his tune.

Asheville is home to some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, with natural ingredients grown locally. Greenville is home to some amazing local musicians and artists, and hosts frequent art shows and festivals (including a take on Burning Man). Atlanta is home to some unrivaled nightlife, and the largest public aquarium in the western hemisphere (which makes a great date, just FYI). And one trip to New Orleans will make you want to buy up a patch of swamp and start hunting nutra.

Which is why I don’t understand the Southern notion that removing statues of Robert E. Lee, or renaming roads named after slavers, is an assault on Southern heritage. What about the parts of Southern culture and history that are not intimately tied to racism?

It blows my mind, that a region of our country that can take credit for the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, and Harper Lee (to name a tiny fraction), is adamant about holding onto the memory of residents who played a role in creating one of the darkest periods of US history.

Honestly, it has made me change my tune, again.

Not only are the heritage-not-hate-ers reinforcing everything I thought as a young Yankee, they are doing a huge disservice to the South.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Be Bigots

The other day, I had a friend ask me why the social issues that I am most vocal about are racism and sexism. It’s a valid question to ask a white man. These systems of power don’t directly oppress me — in fact, they work in my benefit.

I told him: It’s because I’m a white man.

You heard me.

When we stand in front of a woman, we know we should be careful about acting sexist. When we stand in front of a person of color, we know we should be careful about acting racist. But, when we stand in front of a white man, there is a chance that our casual sexism and racism may be appreciated, and even reciprocated.

That is to say, I am vocal about racism and sexism, because I am invited to participate in their perpetuation.

That invitation is really a privilege in itself — not because an invitation can be declined, while being oppressed cannot — and not because perpetuating systems of oppression is far preferable to experiencing them. But, rather, because as white people, and as men, we have the privilege of being invited directly into the belly of the beast — directly into conversations of white people about racism, and of men about sexism.

And we need to get better at participating in them.

A friend, who is of color, recently told me that he once had a white friend warn him, before visiting her home, that her grandmother “might say something racist.” Many of us, in dominant groups, have been in this person’s shoes. Many of us have someone in our lives, whose bigotry we apologize for.

In these situations, we may have a moment of embarrassment as we apologize on behalf of our grandmother — or on behalf of white people as a whole, who, in general, just need to do better.

Then, we excuse ourselves, because we would never say what grandma says.

But, whose job is it to tell grandma that racism is not OK? Whose job is it to reject the casual objectification of women? Should we really be apologizing for others’ bigotry? Or, that we have allowed others to believe that we will tolerate it?

We whites have the privilege of being invited into exclusively white spaces, where conversations of casual racism are safe. We men have the privilege of being invited into exclusively masculine spaces, where conversations of casual sexism are safe.

We with power have the privilege of being invited into conversations of oppression, and we have the privilege of using conversation to dismantle it, piece by piece. We don’t have to protest. We don’t have to fight for whites, or men, to listen to us. We are invited to sit at the table of bigotry, and we can easily leave that table empty, by saying that those who sit there choose to sit alone.

We are invited into the locker room, and given a say about what talk is acceptable there. When we are silent about bigotry, we allow it to be welcome in our locker room, even if we did not bring it in ourselves. We determine bigotry’s safety in our segregated spaces — if it exists in our locker room, it is because we allowed it to be there.

As members of a dominant group, we have the power to decide whether bigotry has a safe home in our white-white, and male-male, spaces. And, we have the obligation to say that it does not.

We have the obligation of being most vocal about issues that are not our own — and we have the most power to change them — because we are invited to determine their existence.