(I’m late on my flag post in terms of relevance…but I needed some time to think about it before posting publicly.)
“That’s a white bar over there, Erin. Ain’t no black folks allowed up in there,” my father-in-law said quietly from the front seat of the car. It was night time, and we were on the backroads, en route from visiting my sister-in-law’s house in Grovetown, GA. I can’t remember what I said in reply, but I could certainly see how the owners were broadcasting their racial preferences for their establishment—on each window of the worn-looking wooden building hung a huge, confederate flag.
My father-in-law likes to talk, and often gets us laughing about some outrageous opinion he has on one topic or another, but he rarely says anything about race—so this comment in the car was unique for him. This isn’t the only time I have heard members of my husband’s family make a comment about the confederate flag. Aside from those few random African-Americans at the protest sites that the street reporters found (I suppose to try and create “a balanced story” during the flag coverage?), most either sort of ignore the flag out of habit, or feel negatively toward it. If you choose to display the battle flag on your person or property (and yes, I do agree that is your 1st amendment right!) because of the pride in your Southern heritage, you need to realize that you automatically make any African-American you encounter be at “best” be more guarded, more cautious, and more skeptical of you, and at “worst”, be afraid of you and presume you to be a racist–a person who wishes that the injustices of the 1960s were still our Southern reality. Speaking of reality, perception IS reality. Know this, and make your choices accordingly.
The confederate battle flag that once flew over the statehouse memorial is now appropriately in a “relic room” in a museum. Honestly, I still can’t believe it happened as fast as it did. I do believe it would still be flying today if one of the victims were not a colleague of those in power in our state. I believe it would still be flying if the victims, instead of being primarily highly-educated black leaders of the Charleston and SC community, were poor and uneducated, or if it had come out that one or more had a criminal record. I believe it would still be flying if the shootings, instead of happening in a historic and respected black church, had happened at a park or a bus stop or a house, or a business in the “bad” (i.e. black) part of Charleston. I could be wrong, but that is what I believe. We are so good at making people “the other” instead of seeing someone just like ourselves. But this situation left most of us feeling empathy–given that most of us white, black, and brown folks here in the South also sit in church on Wednesdays and Sundays, and expect to be safe.
It is not the fault of the flag itself that those people were murdered, that is true. But it is our collective fault that white people, particularly those in powerful positions in this state, have not paid enough attention to the hurt that that particular flag at the statehouse, and the flag overall as a symbol, has caused to approximately 1/3 of our state’s residents. Shame on us. Yesterday, I saw two guys MY AGE on my way to work walking up the local highway, carrying 20-foot wide confederate flags over their shoulders, loaded down with huge backpacks and water canteens–obviously ready to spend the day walking down the road broadcasting their protest to the world. Last weekend, a guy just a little older than me brought his two children to the zoo wearing a huge, battle flag t-shirt. Both of these are examples of very intentional choices. (Though ironically, zoo guy had the fortune/misfortune of walking through the exhibits at the same time as me–hand in hand with my beautiful African-American niece, my brother and sister-in-law, their other two kids, and my husband and biracial child, in addition to another biracial family with a white mom and black dad. My sister-in-law gave him the biggest smile she could whenever she saw him, whereas I gave him the biggest glare. My sister-in-law is better person than me.)
As many other (primarily) African-Americans have pointed out, John Metta writes his blog post “I, racist” (highly worth taking the time to read, I might add!) that it should not take someone “bloodied and broken” for the Good Samaritan (which he likens to White people as a group) to notice that help is needed. In SC last month, it took nine such someones, not just to create enough noise to #takeitdown, but to elevate this conversation we are having about race to the state/regional spotlight where the majority of people actually care, instead of mostly ignoring it. All (or most) of us agree that these nine #blacklivesmatter, but do we believe that all #blacklivesmatter, and that #blackvoicesmatter too? (Hint to people not on Twitter: these are Twitter hashtags. You can do a Google search on a twitter hashtag. It is interesting–try it!)
(Quick side note: I would also like to say that I find the Chattanooga, TN, deaths also extremely tragic, likely motivated by racial/religious hatred, and possibly avoidable if the trained military personnel in recruiting stations were allowed to carry their weapons. We should talk about that, think about that, and perhaps change some policies! End side note.)
Given that in 2000 I was not a resident of SC and also a highschooler who spent the majority of her time in a tiny practice room with a French horn and the ghosts of Beethoven/Brahms/Mahler, I missed the debate, controversy and boycotts that led to the flag coming off the capitol dome and moving to the statehouse grounds. This small victory was led by the NAACP, and reading the newspaper articles and editorials from that time period (thank you, library databases!), it was clear that they as a group were demonized then even more than they are now. But they were saying all of the same things then that are being said now. The difference is, sadly, that nine African-Americans, shot dead in a church that has led the way in the struggle for civil rights for over two hundred years, caught the attention of white people this time, in ways that the words, experiences, and feelings of a group half-a-million strong did not 15 years ago.
So we should feel good that the flag is down, and that conversation is happening. But we, especially white people, should look in the mirror and decide how we can keep the momentum going for real change and reconciliation. And the way forward won’t be black and white–it will be grey, and we will all have to try to pay better attention to each other’s words, deeds, and actions. We will screw up, and say and do both right things and wrong things. But that is better than saying and doing no things.
With you in those grey places,