When I was in graduate school at Iowa State in the late 1980s I hit a period, during my second year, where a little homesickness set in. So I did something to remind myself of the place and people I was missing: I bought a Confederate flag and affixed it to my desk in the office, which I shared with 10-15 other MA students.
Some of my colleagues were, I think, appalled, and it was suggested that this was a symbol of slavery and racism. No, I said. I’m not a racist – it’s simply a reminder of home. I don’t think I used the word “heritage,” but from the outside what I was saying probably sounded exactly like what defenders of the flag are saying today.
As irony would have it, at the time I was dating a black woman. Continue reading Confederate PTSD: Curing the South
For our founding fathers, “people” was a euphemism” that meant “rich white men.” Sadly, the same is true for many of our current leaders.
It’s been a momentous couple of weeks. Obamacare won a key victory, and as a result it’s going to be much harder for Republican politicians to roll it back in the future. There is a great deal wrong with the Affordable Care Act, to be sure, but at least it represents the acknowledgment that the general health of the nation’s citizens is a legitimate government concern.
The Confederate flag – specifically, the famous Stars & Bars battle jack – and the deeply ingrained racism it represents took a major ass-whipping. No, striking a symbol of treason and prejudice won’t make racism go away – any more than electing a black president did – but it’s a meaningful symbolic victory in a long cultural war. If that flag flies on the grounds of the statehouse, it’s an express acknowledgement to everyone that it’s okay to celebrate a “heritage” built on slavery. Continue reading It’s time we stopped worshipping our “founding fathers”
I’ve been thinking about the Paula Deen mess lately. As any number of previous posts here will suggest, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for her or her kind. At the same time, I grew up in the racist South like she did, and I see the situation in more nuanced terms than do her critics these past few days. While none of my insights let her off the hook, I do think there’s some value in them for those of us keen on fostering a more enlightened society.
Just how malicious Deen’s racism may or may not be I can’t say. Don’t know her. There are reports floating around that suggest she’s not as kind-hearted as her apologies would ask us to believe, and that may well be the case. Or she may simply be just another ignorant, albeit good-hearted cracker.
The thing that I’m pondering, though, begins with the question that apparently touched off this whole firestorm:
Have you ever used the N-word?
I’m trying to imagine how I’d answer that question if I were being deposed under similar circumstances. Have I used “the N-word”? Well, what do you mean? Have I spoken it aloud or written it down? Or do you mean have I used it against someone? And what time frame are we talking about? Most importantly, does it matter to you? If my mouth has, at any point in my life, uttered those two syllables, am I damned for eternity regardless of context or intent?
Yes, I have used the N-word. Wait – I fucking hate that euphemism. Yes, I have used the word “nigger.” Nasty word, no doubt about it, and I have used it in any number of cases in order to illustrate and emphasize just how ugly the emotions it denotes really are.
- I have used it in quoting others. (Also here.)
- I have described the way certain political elements code and dogwhistle around the issue of race, signaling the hate without without actually using the forbidden word.
- I examined Mel Gibson and the whole Whoopi Goldberg/Ted Danson controversy.
- I translated some nasty code into English and used the word in a way that left no doubt as to the meanness of the speaker’s intent.
- I described one of the more disturbing encounters of my youth, where the racist language of a police officer opened my eyes to the ugly realities of law enforcement. And again, I used the word the way the speaker did, because euphemizing it would have lessened the impact, which really needed to be conveyed.
- I quoted one of my heroes, Muhammad Ali, and made sure the reader was clear on the language that was used to describe him where I grew up. I can’t make you grasp the virulence of the hate if I sugarcoat it.
- Finally, I owned up to the ignorant racism of my youth in one of the most painful things I have ever put to paper.
I have also used the term when mocking racists, imitating their stupidity in their own coarse, hateful language. Again, authenticity helps make the case.
So, back to my deposition. Have I used that word? Yes. Does that make me a racist? You hit the links above and decide for yourself. And if, after reading all that, you conclude that using the word in those ways makes me a racist, then you’re a fucking moron.
Words have power. They convey intent. They embody, reinforce and project ancient social codes, assumptions, ideologies, values, biases. Words have histories and subtleties and they frequently say more than the speaker even realizes. Vocabulary is a negotiated space, where speaker meets audience, each with their own filters in place, and meaning is transacted through all kinds of noise that one, or the other, or both might be completely unaware of. Words are understood and they’re frequently misunderstood.
Language is perhaps the greatest technology ever devised, a tool that soars humanity to its greatest heights. It also enables a level of cruelty and destruction that our less evolved animal friends can’t begin to dream of.
The epithet in question is so packed with negative energy that we have decided it can’t be said aloud. Which is noble in intent, because it’s a word that hurts people. However, the downside is that when we impart such grave taboo status upon it, we give it more power and exponentially amp up its potential for harm. I, quite simply, don’t believe in making hurtful language worse than it already is. I refuse to mystify it. Like every other dark impulse in the collective human soul, I believe it’s best dealt with when we drag it out in the light. Thus illuminated, we can destroy its power over us and render it powerless.
And honestly – does saying “the N-word” instead of, you know, saying the N-word, does that somehow make racism better? Is the thing itself therefore less prevalent or less evil? Or does the shadow grow larger every time we shrink from it, every time we speak like silly children afraid to say the name of a bogeyman out loud?
Yes, I said it – every time I hear somebody say “the N-word” they seem a bit sillier to me than they did the second before. It trivializes a serious issue, it emboldens the bad guys, and it patronizes African-Americans, because clearly they aren’t intelligent enough or strong enough or mature enough to confront the insult head-on.
So yes, I have used “nigger.” And while I’m ashamed of it, when I was a kid in the racist, rural South I used it in its worst form. I have also plead guilty to the charge and devoted a great deal of energy to the challenge of making sure that one day, hopefully, other children won’t grow up ignorant the way I did.
If I’m Paula Deen, and if I answer this way, do I still have a show on the Food Network?
Not all racism is the same. None of it is good and it all needs to be eradicated, but in point of fact the basic ignorant racist (“let’s dress them up like lawn jockeys”) isn’t as bad as the violent white supremacist lynch-em-all variety (and there are way more of this crowd out there than I’d like). It’s all related, of course – all forms of prejudice are rooted in ignorance and the “good-hearted” variety provides social cover for the more virulent strains.
Again, I’m not naïve and I’m damned sure not offering an apologia for Paula Deen and/or her ilk. I’m just observing that there are nuances to be considered, especially when discussing those who grew up in a racist culture before the Civil Rights movement began making some initial headway in the general direction of social justice.
Let me tell you a story. I grew up in the very white Northeast corner of Davidson County, North Carolina. In my first grade class of about 25 there was precisely one minority, a black girl named Juatina. As fate would have it, she sat right behind me. Each morning we’d have a ten-minute break period where we’d all get chocolate milk and break out a little snack that our parents (in my case, grandparents) had packed for us. I always brought Fig Newtons, which I love to this day.
Except it wasn’t quite all of us. One morning I happened to look around and noticed that Juatina didn’t have anything. No milk, no cookies, nothing. I’d never really talked to her because she was, you know, one of them, but something in me instinctively felt bad for her. Here was this poor girl in the cheapest dress you could buy and she had to sit there every day and watch all the white kids with their snacks and chocolate milk.
So I gave her a couple of my cookies.
When I got home, I told Grandmother and Granddaddy about Juatina, and they apparently felt as badly for her as I did. So from that point on they packed twice as many Fig Newtons so I could share, and they also sent extra money along with me each week so the girl could have milk each day.
This – and you knew this was coming – made me a “nigger lover.” Which I didn’t like. But I guess it bothered me less than one of my classmates not having something for break.
This story tells you something important about the innate compassion of my grandparents. The other thing you need to know is how racist they were, especially Granddaddy. Every time he’d see a black in a TV show, he’d start ranting about how “they got to be everywhere now.” He switched to the Republican Party as part of the fallout from the Civil Rights Act. He voted for George Wallace. In the same way that “dog” was the word for the furry, four-legged animals he used to hunt with, “nigger” was the word for people of African descent. And I don’t even want to think about what would have happened had a black family tried to move into our neighborhood or join our church.
He managed black employees and got along wonderfully with them. They liked him and, as odd as it has to sound after that last paragraph, he genuinely liked them. He related to them at a personal level in a way that was wholly at odds with his social and political views on them as a collective. In doing so, I suspect he was like a lot of white folks of his generation. And, for that matter, of Paula Deen’s generation.
As I noted above, we’re hearing reports that Paula was perhaps less innocent in her intent than her apology suggested, and at the minimum, her “dress them up in white coats” fantasy reflects a mindset that our society, in 2013, simply cannot tolerate. We get it – you grew up ignorant. But that doesn’t excuse staying that way. And she’s going to pay a huge price for that racism. With luck these events will motivate her to learn and grow. Hopefully it will also send a clear message to other closet Scarlett O’Haras out there that these behaviors and beliefs aren’t acceptable. The marketplace of ideas, working as intended, etc.
That said, at the human level the issue isn’t 100%, if you’ll forgive me for putting it this way, black and white. It’s tempting and satisfying to demonize the crackers, and they probably deserve no better. But our goal is to rid the society of ignorance and prejudice, and the better we’re able to understand how the odd “compassionate racist” dynamic of my grandparents, the better we’re going to be able to address the problem in ways that are truly productive.
One final note. I’ve been to Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, and it was really disappointing. If you like artery-clogging Southern-fried goodness, I can probably find you 10 or 15 places in my own hometown that are better.
My little sister sent me this the other day and I’ve been having flashbacks ever since. There’s only one false note: no Southern woman in history ever said “is my hair too big?”
Ever since FOX called Ohio for Obama last Tuesday night (touching off a near-hysterical conniption from Karl Rove), talk of secession has been rampant. Groups in all 50 states have started petitions aimed at leaving the Union, with Texas (predictably) reaching the minimum threshold of signatures first.
We’ve written about secession here at S&R a good bit, with Frank Balsinger’s piece the other day (“Want to secede? Are you really sure about that?“) being the most recent. I think the general sentiment among the staff is that the people carping the loudest about leaving really haven’t thought things all the way through: the states where we find the most anti-Union sentiment tend to be the states that receive more in Federal outlays than they contribute in tax revenues (“taker” states), and they’re also home to some of the most irrationally rabid anti-taxation sentiment in the nation. It’s easy to envision how a new country built around these dynamics might find itself in dire economic straits rather quickly. Some of us have also admitted that we think we’d be okay with a partition, and I went so far as to write a three-part series hypothetically considering some of the logistical challenges surrounding the proposed divorce.
Normally, it would be easy enough to dismiss petitioning as the work of fringe cranks, because in nearly all cases that’s precisely what’s going on. Now, though, there’s a new factor to ponder. In short, the secessionists have caught the fancy of the media. Google “secession.” It’s a little mind-boggling, to be honest. And if the last decade has taught us anything, it should be that no idea, no ideology, no delusion is so extreme that the mainstream press cannot haul it ranting and lathering into the Overton Window. Obama is a Kenyan, after all. And a Muslim. And despite being objectively to the right of Richard Nixon, a socialist. Climate disruption is a liberal plot. Now, as Dave Johnson explains, we have the tried-and-true Shock Doctrine approach being employed to create a fiscal cliff “crisis” that is pure manufactroversy. The terror is being aided and abetted by a corporate media that either a) doesn’t understand how it’s being played, b) is actively complicit in the disinformation campaign, or c) doesn’t care one way or another, so long as it’s good for ratings.
When ridiculous ideas are presented to normal people, those people tend to laugh, shake their heads and ease away, careful not to make any sudden moves. But the repetition of ridiculous ideas over an extended period of time, especially by large media agencies with a measure of presumed credibility (and the “experts” they invite on to discuss “serious” issues), though, exerts a corrosive effect on rationality. I wonder if, given enough time and cash, you could create a “public debate” over whether gravity is a fact or merely a “theory.”
The sheer volume of noise we’re hearing right now about secession perhaps makes you wonder: is it possible that the cranks and their corporate enablers could turn this into a real concern?
The coherent answer (for the moment, at least) is no. The media thrives on decibel level, and a few overstimulated wack jobs can make a great deal of noise. But actual secession isn’t about how loud the screaming is, it’s about how many voting adults are screaming. I have no problem believing that a statewide referendum on whether or not to secede could garner 27% of the vote; as noted recently, any analysis of the US population is safe enough assuming that percentage of the population is certifiably insane. Deep in Takerstatestan, you might nudge that number up above 30%. 50%, though, is hard to imagine, even in places like Texas or South Carolina.
A woman I know, a Texan with more than her share of well-placed friends and acquaintances, once laughed at the idea that Texas would ever secede. There’ll be plenty of bluster amongst certain testosterone-soaked segments of the population, but the ladies who run the moneyed homes will put a quick and certain stop to it as soon as it threatens cotillion season. (If this strikes you as a tad sexist, bear in mind that I’m just paraphrasing the words of a thoroughly progressive woman.)
It’s also worth noting that the howling secessionist contingent so far contains no real established leaders (that I’m aware of). Prominent GOP governors are having none of it (including Rick Perry, who not all that long ago certainly seemed willing to entertain the idea). Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who’s been acting remarkably lucid of late, called the whole thing “silly.”
Even Justice Anotnin Scalia, who’s as wide-right as they come, says it’s a non-starter:
“I cannot imagine that such a question could ever reach the Supreme Court,” Scalia wrote. “To begin with, the answer is clear. If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.”
In other words, if you want to secede, it looks like your options are limited to either moving to another country or taking the somewhat more permanent route opted for by Key West resident Henry Hamilton, may he rest in peace. History tells us that all great empires fracture in the end, and I’d be surprised to see the US still in one piece in, say, 50 years. But for now, as badly as the Deep South and I would love to be rid of each other, it looks like we’re stuck in the same boat.
None of this should keep you from enjoying the political media theater, though.
Last week, a highly unscientific Scholars & Rogues poll asked our readers this question: What percent of the popular vote do you believe Barack Obama would win in the upcoming election if he were white? The results are in, and I’d like to spend a few moments examining what they reveal.
First, the numbers:
|Less than 50%||15.15%|
|More than 80%||1.52%|
Here’s what those answers mean.
60%: This we’ll call the aware, informed and reasoned answer. Our friend Wufnik, in the comment thread, offers some analysis suggesting that the race factor is worth maybe four points. It’s certainly an intelligent estimate, although for reasons I briefly note in reply, I fear it underestimates.
70%: This is the the aware, informed and reasoned, but even more cynical answer. Full disclosure: this is how I voted. I don’t think everybody in the South (and various other South-like regions of the country) are racists, but I grew up there and I know the culture intimately. Over time these people have learned what to say in public. But they vote in private, don’t they?
80%: The more cynical than is probably healthy answer. Listen, 30% of the population would vote for Voldemort before they would a Democrat, regardless of race. (Although, granted, a big part of the reason this is true traces back to Johnson and the Civil Rights Act. Objection noted.)
More than 80%: The seek help answer. Lord, folks, it probably wasn’t that bad even during the Jim Crow era.
Now, to the other end of the spectrum.
Roughly 50%: The there is no racism in America answer. If Barack Obama were white, his poll numbers would be precisely what they are now, apparently. This answer asserts that there are no Americans who hold his race against him. This option pulled better than 10% of the response. Which, now that I think on it, might mean the polls has more scientific validity than I previously imagined.
Less than 50%: The positively barking being a minority is a huge plus in American politics answer. Not only does race not hinder your ability to attain higher office, it helps to be black. Which explains why we have had so many black presidents and nominees from both major parties. And why in the entirety of modern US history there have been four black senators (none of them from the South, it might be observed, and unless I’m missing someone, none currently). And why there has only been one black Supreme Court justice. (Well, two if you count Thomas.) This option rang up better than 15% of the final tally. It’s possible that some of those who voted this way were trolling. It’s certain that the rest shouldn’t be allowed outdoors off-leash.
In the end, this poll perhaps suggests that S&R’s readership is less skewed to the left than we usually assume. As Wufnik notes in the comments on the previous post, analyses of American politics begin with the assumption that 27% of the voters are certifiably insane. The percentage of respondents voting the two incoherent conservative choices here comes to nearly 26% – well within any margin of error you might like to apply – and if you add the exceedingly paranoid 1.52% from the other end, we’re at precisely 27.28%, with a significant majority of the irrationalism on the right end of the spectrum.
Sounds about right.
If you’ve been paying attention you know that our boy Jim Booth recently published a novel. And that it’s really good. And that it presents us with the opportunity to consider fame and substance at war over the soul of an artist.
He has now authored a guest essay on “Southern Rock Stardom, Postmodernism, and the Persistence of Memory” over at Melinda McGuire’s outstanding Southern lit-focused site, concluding, appropriately enough that:
Here in the South, rock stars respect memory as all good Southerners do and, after all their wanderings, come back home where memory matters, Thomas Wolfe and postmodernism be damned.
Hear, hear. Give it a read.
I grew up in the South. I have lived roughly 33 of my 51 years below the Mason-Dixon and past the occasional trip for business or to visit friends and relatives I shan’t be going back. The reasons are numerous, but the one I’m concerned with today involves that most sinister of myths. I’m referring, of course, to Southern hospitality. To the idea that Southerners are so damned nice. Polite. Friendly. Cordial. Welcoming.
This is great as marketing and ideology. The reality of things is somewhat more…complex. Continue reading High noon in the garden of polite and evil: the ugly truth about “Southern hospitality” (by a guy who grew up there)
We’ve written a lot here at S&R about the “donor state/taker state” phenomenon, especially in the context of talk about secession. Of course, you know what they say about the pictures-to-words exchange rate, I’m sure, so instead of boring you with a thousand more words, have a picture.
Credit: Thanks, UpWorthy.