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Growing up in rural Kentucky during the late ’70s and early ’80s — the time of national transition from Carter to Reagan — the Confederate flag was an ever-present icon in the background of my life. Belt buckles and bumper stickers, t-shirts and flags, all little reminders of the slogan, “The South will rise again!”
While I had studied the basic history of the Civil War and slavery, the flag didn’t ping my radar as racist. Instead, it was just another signifier for Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, a rebel flag reduced to a marker in the battle between MTV and Nashville.
That was my ignorance.
You’d expect that heading off to a good university would have corrected some of my notions about American history. But I ended up at Washington and Lee, the rural Virginia college where Gen. Robert E. Lee retired after the Civil War and took up the cause of molding Southern gentleman. Lee Chapel featured a marble statue of the general sleeping at camp during wartime, surrounded by Confederate flags, looming over students during any assembly. (The flags were removed in 2014 after furious protests from many alumni.)
This was where I first heard phrases like “The War of Northern Aggression” and assertions that the Civil War was not about slavery but instead about states’ rights and economics and whatever other excuses might be historically handy. We watched Gone with the Wind in Politics 101 — the class moved to an auditorium to handle the overflow and everyone cheered when Scarlett shot the Union soldier in the face.
Though I considered myself not-racist, I never pushed back, because these were my friends and fraternity brothers. It didn’t seem important enough to question.
Again, that was my ignorance.
Once I found myself out of the closet and abandoned by those same friends, even targeted by their hatred, those same things began to seem very important to question. I suddenly had more empathy for black students who had complained about one year’s Fancy Dress Ball theme being “The Dark Continent” and another being the antebellum South.
That was my privilege.
It took my losing access to all the white heterosexual male perks of life to better understand how it feels to be on the outside in America. Sadly, even that experience isn’t enough for some, as I’ve seen far too many white LGBT people put on the same blinders when it comes to race. Sad as it is, in 2015 we have as far to go as pretty much every other white person in this country.
As certain white folks congratulate themselves on taking the brave steps to remove a racist flag from a state capitol’s grounds, the rest of us white folks shouldn’t forget that it took nine African-Americans being shot in cold blood in their church in order to get it done. And we still have a significant white culture that views the Confederate flag as “heritage” and the Civil War as a noble effort unrelated to slavery, despite the well-documented words and statements of the Confederate leaders that they were going to war to preserve slavery.
We live in this weird world where white people believe it’s worse to be called a racist than to be a racist; where the sight of a black woman using food stamps in a checkout line sparks outrage while the white woman doing the same one lane over goes unremarked; where whites want to say “n*****” because black people do, but call President Obama a racist divider for using the word while talking about actual racism.
As white people we can pretend all we want that we’re color-blind, that we live in a country that’s conquered racism, that our political system treats everyone fairly regardless of the color of their skin. That would be willful ignorance. And ignorance fosters hate, poisons our culture, and sometimes kills.
It’s time for us to stop pretending.
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