I come from a long line of southern racists. My predecessors come not from the American south, but from the African south — specifically, South Africa. An uncle of mine ran for office under the auspices of an Afrikaner white supremacist political party. (He lost.) One grandfather insisted that American blacks were essentially a different species than African blacks. My father believes the canard that Barack Obama’s presidency is illegitimate because the president was born not in Hawaii (as his birth certificate indicates) but in Kenya.
So, to any white people who feel embarrassed or ashamed about the racists in your past or present: I hear you. I’m not proud of mine either.
But I also refuse to deny the truth.
To look at the Confederate flag and say that it’s about “heritage, not hate” is to be in denial. To look at the Apartheid-era South African flag on terrorist Dylann Roof’s jacket, and wonder about this 21-year-old’s motivations is to be in denial. Before opening fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Roof said he was there “to shoot black people.” He murdered nine people in the name of white supremacy. The Confederate flag that flies over South Carolina’s capitol is in fact the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia, and was adopted by South Carolina — and other southern states — not in the 1860s, but in the 1960s. The flag was and is white supremacists’ protest against the civil rights movement.
I understand why the descendants of Confederates or of other warriors for white supremacy want to feel good about their relatives. And they can feel good about their relatives — but just not about the racist part. I have fond memories of my grandfather visiting me in the U.S. when I was three or four years old. He played games with me, and used to walk with me to the drugstore where he’d buy us each a candy bar. He loved me, and I loved him. Those are good memories.
The racist memories are not. When I was eight years old, I visited South Africa for the first time. There, I learned that each pair of grandparents employed an adult black man whom they identified as their “boy.” In the case of my father’s parents, this “boy” also lived on their property. I remember them addressing their “boy” in Zulu — a beautiful language — and him doing odd jobs around the house, such as gardening or mowing, and so on. When I was an eight-year-old visitor to Apartheid-era South Africa, I was too young to understand the truth of what I was seeing. Now, I am too old to miss the truth of what I saw.
Just as South Africa had its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, America must face the hard truths about itself. Defenders of the Confederate flag need to admit that they’re defending slavery. Those who deny that the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a hate crime need to admit that they’re aiding and abetting white supremacy. All white Americans need to acknowledge that you don’t have to actively support white supremacy in order to be a beneficiary of white supremacy. All white Americans are beneficiaries of white supremacy.
Lest that last sentence may baffle any readers of this essay, let me elaborate, using myself as an example. Had my parents been black South Africans, I would not have been born in the U.S. The whiteness of my mother and father granted them access to better education and employment, which, in turn, allowed them to emigrate to the U.S. Their education ensured that I would have access to better education here. When my mother got a job teaching at a private school, my sister and I were able to attend at no additional cost. South African Apartheid has opened many doors for me here in the U.S.
I’m also a direct beneficiary of American racism. For a start, I have never been the target of racism. I’ve never been asked why I speak so “white.” I’ve never been asked to speak for all white people. While shopping, I’ve never been tailed by a store detective. When stopped by the police, I’ve never feared for my life. My job application has never been passed over because my name looked ethnic. I could write a much longer list, but my point is that these unearned privileges accrue over time. And, for non-white people, the penalties and their attendant psychic stresses also accrue over time. In other words, white supremacy not only grants me advantages; it actively penalizes non-whites. Every day.
I realize that it’s uncomfortable, even painful, to come to terms with one’s own racist history. But it has to be done. Justice begins with truth. And white people need to begin with the truth about ourselves and our families. As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time (1963), white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (8).
So, yes, the Confederate flag needs to be removed from public grounds and consigned to museums and history textbooks. But taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina and elsewhere is also not enough. Removing the flag would be symbolically important and a great first step, but the American south has no monopoly on racism. The state in which I live, Kansas, has twice elected a professional racist as its Secretary of State: Kris Kobach helped draft Arizona’s “show us your papers” immigration law, and in Kansas he has fought the imaginary problem of voter fraud by making it harder for people of color to vote. Earlier this year, Kobach also alleged that President Obama is likely to stop prosecuting black criminals. Americans everywhere need to acknowledge the ways in which they (intentionally or not) support institutional racism, whether it be via a taxpayer-funded prison-industrial complex that incarcerates blacks at a far higher rate than whites, via voting for racist politicians, or via failing to recognize their own family’s complicity in racist oppression.
Once people — especially white people — stop denying their complicity, we can take responsibility. White supremacy isn’t just Dylann Roof’s problem, or just a Southern problem. It’s a national problem. We are all responsible for fighting it. However, as the primary beneficiaries of structural racism, white people have the strongest moral obligation to work towards dismantling it.
- To help survivors of the 2015 Charleston Massacre
- In general
Essays on the 2015 Charleston Massacre
- Britt Bennett, “White Terrorism Is as Old as America,” New York Times, 19 June 2015
- Robin Bernstein, “Racial Innocence Suffuses a White Confessed Killer,” Racial Innocence, 21 June 2015
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Take Down the Confederate Flag — Now,” The Atlantic, 18 June 2015
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “When This Cruel War Was Over,” The Atlantic, 22 June 2015
- Julius Lester, “Reflections on the Murders in Charleston, South Carolina,” Facebook post, 19 June 2015
- Jeb Lund, “The Charleston Shooter: Racist, Violent, and, Yes — Political,” Rolling Stone, 19 June 2015
- Nell Irvin Painter, “What Is Whiteness?”, New York Times, 20 June 2015
- Stacey Patton, “Black America should stop forgiving white racists,” Washington Post, 22 June 2015
- Alison Piepmeier, “My fellow white people, now is the time to truly examine white privilege,” Charleston City Paper, 22 June 2015
- Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” New York Times Magazine, 22 June 2015
- Rebecca Traister, “Our Racist History Isn’t Back to Haunt Us. It Never Left Us,” New Republic, 18 June 2015
- Charleston Syllabus (African American Intellectual History Society): An outstanding collection of resources.
- Daniel Costa-Roberts, “8 things you didn’t know about the Confederate flag,” PBS NewsHour, 21 June 2015.
Related posts (on this blog)
- Ferguson: Response & Resources (24 Aug. 2014)
- The Archive of Childhood, Part 2: The Golliwog (13 Jan. 2015)
- #BlackLivesMatter: A Twitter Essay (3 Dec 2014)
- Regarding the Pain of Racism (4 April 2015)
- On Reading the Expurgated Huck Finn; or, Why We Should Teach Offensive Novels (17 Oct. 2014)
- Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (22 June 2014)
- ‘The Boundaries of Imagination'; or the All-White World of Children’s Books, 2014 (17 Mar. 2014)
- Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Offensiveness (5 Jan. 2011)
- Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Offensiveness? (19 Sept. 2010)