southern guilt: a different perspective on racism

I grew up in, and am writing now from my very southern hometown. I imagine most Amherst students have forgotten or don’t think about the Civil War very much, but I have to say that, unfortunately, my beloved (and often charming) hometown is stuck in the past. I hate seeing people flying the dixie flag, it makes me question all of the positive and legitimate ties I do have to my southern past. I especially like to forget those ties (including my southern accent) when I’m at Amherst. It’s embarrassing to be the southerner among all the Yankees, and it’s a lot easier to chuck the entire southern heritage and pass as a northerner rather than carry the baggage of our racist heritage.

Still, the facts remain. My high school’s mascot: the Confederate Rebel. Our class ring: covered in the dixie flag. My school was opened in 1954 as an all-white public high school in an effort to defy Brown v. Board, and it still proudly bears that legacy in its name. Don’t think it’s just a “tradition” that we carry on “to remember where we came from.” It’s not. My high school is still stuck close to where it was in ’54. On Halloween the popular black kids dress up as “stereotypical white kids,” and the popular white kids dress up as “stereotypical black kids,” as if the racial situation wasn’t already tense enough.

Here’s where it gets embarrassing. I vividly remember learning about the Civil War in my eleventh grade history class and groaning when I was assigned the “union side” as the other half of my class cheered to be awarded the “confederate side.” Our class was entirely white–we were a part of the “elite” (relative to the rest of the high school population) Leadership Center. One kid of color was accepted into our program–he was half Indian. When he was accepted to Brown, and the majority of the Leadership Center settled for state schools, we looked at him begrudgingly: “he got in because he put ‘mixed race’ on his app.”

But when the large black population in our school wasn’t doing well, then we didn’t see it as a race issue. Even though the symptoms of hundreds of years of racism were in front of our faces, we never really made the connection. We felt like it was just their fault they didn’t push themselves as individuals–independent of their race.

I hate admitting this now. It’s an embarrassing and true part of my past. Does it count as owning up for it if it’s an anonymous(ish) post? Probably not. Can it undo any of the damage? no. of course not. But I have to do something with the guilt. Right?

And despite the guilt, or what worsens my guilt, or I DONT EVEN KNOW ANYMORE…(insert exasperation and sweat, it’s humid even indoors)…what I mean is…I still love this place. In fact I still adore it. I brag about it. I love my hometown. I was fantasizing the other day about how I would bring my friends into my hometown when they visit. I mean LITERALLY the way I would drive them from the highway to my house. The most efficient route, NEVER. I planned it, detouring to include the most historic and prestigious neighborhoods.

I drove down Monument Avenue (aptly named for its famous monuments) and drove circles admiringly around General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two famous and revered Civil War heroes. Then came Arthur Ashe’s statue. He’s a famous African American tennis player and civil rights leader, all I thought as I drove quickly past, “didn’t he die of AIDS?” THIS WAS A FEW DAYS AGO!!! WHY DO I REVERE THE FREAKING CONFEDERATE GENERALS WHEN THEY FOUGHT FOR SLAVERY, A HORRIBLE DESTRUCTIVE DEVASTATING AND INHUMANE INSTITUTION, AND WHY IS IT I COULDN’T EVEN THINK OF ANYTHING ARTHUR ASHE DID OTHER THAN THE ONE THING I WAS TAUGHT: BLACK MAN WHO DIED OF AIDS. I AM 21 EDUCATE YOURSELF THINK FOR YOURSELF (can you feel my self-loathing?)

All I can say, is that I’m at least conscious of it. Also, I don’t accept black jokes–I get mad at anyone I hear telling them. I yell at my (openly and proudly) racist father every time he says something outrageous. When my sister reprimanded me for talking to black people in a bar (yes this did happen) I talked right back to her. I’m trying to make my actions reflect what I know is right–but I’m constantly afraid that there’s some evil racist monster inside me that will break loose any second. I’m ashamed of my heritage but I can’t help but love my hometown.

I’m trying to come to terms with my demons. My history’s demons. My home’s demons. My family’s demons. MY demons. But I often feel like instead of hoping to right the countless wrongs of racism, I can only, shamefully, anonymously acknowledge my uncomfortable part in the mess :(