Living in the South doesn’t mean you’re apart of the problem, it’s how you act…or don’t act.
I love living in the southern United States. I love the ecosystem that surrounds me, the history that I have grown up learning about and even taking part in. Yet as a Southerner, and a southerner that is so involved with the history of my region and with social activism efforts, I’ve had to realize a few things about where I live and the culture I live in.
We are racist, we’ve been racist, and despite not owning slaves in the last few generations, we still romanticize slavery and take part in the same narratives that have normalized racism for centuries.
“But I’m not a slave owner! I respect black people! I believe in civil rights!” – Cool. Good for you, but you still do all of what I mentioned earlier through even the smallest bits of humor that have stayed strong in southern regions.
We need to stop fooling ourselves; the south hasn’t changed all that much. Yes, queer people can get married now. Yes, some southerners have become aware of their racism and actively work to fight the internalization that they face. But we are not the progressive, hospitable place that some below the Mason-Dixon like to think we’ve become.
We’ve internalized racism, but we also allow it to thrive as we normalize it through humor and romanticize slavery through historical accounts that we’ve allowed to continue.
How do we do this? Well, here are some examples.
“That athlete/star/person in the news has our last name, we must have owned his family at some point!”
Sounds ridiculous, right? Yet in households, like mine and many others I know who have grown up in this region, this comment is not a rare occurrence, especially with older individuals.
Almost exclusively being used to describe black individuals doing well in sports, this comment is a way in which white southerners maintain some sort of ownership over the success of black individuals. While Southerners scream “I don’t own slaves,” comments like this show that they have no hesitation trying to take some sort of ownership over the success of would-be slaves, and of taking a level of pride in the idea that one of their past patriarchs may have owned the family of a successful black person (but only if that success meet their criteria).
This pride, boiled down, is simply a way of placing themselves continually above the black individuals around them, not even allowing an achievement to take place without asserting some past authority over the individual in question.
“Not all slaves wanted to be free, some owners took better care of them than they were able to do for themselves!”
While some slave owners did take somewhat good care of their slaves, I can guarantee you life wasn’t what it was like in the Big House. Even the slaves handled by “compassionate” slave owners suffered – in the fields, at the hands of their drivers, and by the fact that they were SLAVES. Let’s not forget that part. Some slaves were able to earn some measly coins, and some were able to buy their freedom by being rented out to other owners.
If life on the farm was better than life on their own, that’s because the climate of the time made living as a free black person hell, with some states allowing even freed slaves to be captured and sold (regardless of if they had their papers showing their freedom). Education for black people was prohibited, and while some people educated them, that was no promise for a better life or freedom.
The fact of the matter is, these people were SLAVES. And no matter how well your pepaw may have treated them does not exempt him from the fact that he owned slaves; he owned another human being and made them do his bidding.
So, how do we stop it?
The simple answer is, confront it. Confront it within yourself, confront it within others. Acknowledge that you have probably made comments like that at some point, or have family that has made comments like that. Work within yourself and your community to actively challenge the ways that you know Southerners maintain their racism and look at slavery through rose colored (and socially
In a piece for the Charleston City Paper, Aaron Wood states:
The period after Dylann Roof murdered nine churchgoers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME was difficult for me, for us all. When I talked about it I trailed off in utter disbelief, and I cried for their families more often than I’ve let on. Watching the bouquets pile up, watching this city come together, was an experience I will never forget. It was symbolic of a broader unity, of a turning of the tide. I take those images, that experience, and recognize that there is something utterly profound about this place, about our region; we are a stubborn, opinionated clan who tend to buck in the face of adversity, and protect our own with a fighting spirit. We are connected by a bond that is utterly inexplicable to those not a part of it, to those outside looking in, and it’s time we take responsibility for each other. It’s time we hold each other accountable for those “nonchalant lynching jokes”. It’s time we speak up to those people in our friend and family circles who say something out of turn, but we are too scared to confront. It’s time to take responsibility even when we feel like we shouldn’t have to, and recognize that, as Southerners, we are in this together.
By forgetting that we ARE apart of the problem, we become the problem. All of us. From the most progressive fighter of civil liberties to the grandmother down the street – if we do not recognize the most subtle ways we allow racism and slavery-era white superiority to exist, we remain the problem.