I didn’t want to write a column about the Emanuel AME Church shooting. I didn’t want to join the never-ending chorus of voices adding to the intense cacophony surrounding the massacre of nine good people. I didn’t want to pretend to have answers, because I don’t. Mostly, I didn’t want to be yet another white person entering into a discussion that we honestly have no business being in.
Even now, I understand that by writing this I am in fact joining that discussion. I’m falling victim to the same sort of narcissistic affliction that brings white people to endlessly talk about race in this country, often without even understanding the first thing about what it actually means to be a person of color in the United States.
Now, I’m not writing this to assuage my own guilt by pointing out that I’m not like other white people. Nor am I going to issue some high-minded call to my fellow European Americans to examine white privilege and our place in our society and to reach out to people of color and try to mend fences and look for hope, peace, and unity. As wonderful as all of these ideals are, they aren’t a solution. They’re well-meaning yet ultimately ineffective measures whereby nice, decent white people try to prove how “unified” they are with African Americans or how “not racist” they are or how much “love and support” they want to show for their community, even if all of those feelings are true. Unfortunately, that just isn’t enough. We can no longer pretend that we, as white people, merely have to acknowledge our white privilege. We have to shed it entirely.
America has a history of slavery. This is hard for many people to deal with. After all, we’ve been taught for decades that it’s behind us. Instead, many in the South rationalize this legacy by saying that “slavery wasn’t all bad” or “black people had slaves.” Saying the first is asinine in the highest order. Saying the second just proves that you believe that it’s OK to subjugate a group of people as long as some of them are involved in the subjugation. They’re both terrible arguments. And yes, I’ve heard them both.
For every denialist of the brutality and horrors of slavery, there is a denialist who says, “I’m glad that’s all in the past and we are equal now and can stand together.” Except, of course, for the fact that we don’t stand together. We are still worlds apart in this country.
The denialism over the Confederate flag (or one of the many Confederate flags, at any rate) is another example. To say that the flag was or was not about slavery, or about racism, misses the point — as do so many conversations about the racist imagery that is still littered across the Southern United States 150 years after the end of the Civil War. Many have pointed out, and rightly so, that the South in general and South Carolina in particular is awash in reminders of the brutal legacy of slavery and the Civil War, from street names in honor of Confederate generals to Charleston’s very own statue of John C. Calhoun in Marion Square.
However, the names of streets, bridges, and buildings, the presence of statues in our cities and towns, and an anachronistic battle flag on the Statehouse grounds, while certainly inflammatory and unnecessary, are ultimately only symbols. They are symbols in the same way that, say, the Washington Redskins’ name is a symbol. Changing the name of the Redskins to something less offensive won’t change the team itself.
By the same token, changing names or taking down statues and flags doesn’t fundamentally alter the power structure in our society. If anything, these acts create even more of a vacuum in which people can innocently proclaim, “See? We aren’t racist! We got rid of all the things that people were unhappy about! We can unite in peace and love.” It would be interesting to see how far that peace and love goes when the conversation moves to reparations. It would be interesting to see what peace and love could do in the face of White America owning up to the brutality of slavery — a three-and-a-half-centuries-long horror that affects people of African descent to this day.
White America simply cannot continue to talk about treating people as equals and refuse to see color as though that is the means to the end. Those ideals are certainly the desired end point, but they are only stops along the way. Should these reminders of the South’s white supremacist past be removed from public grounds? Yes, absolutely. And they should be replaced with stark, daily reminders of the ongoing legacy of racism in this country. Doing otherwise would continue to support the status-quo nonsense that we have now.
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