What's Really behind the Confederate Flag Protests?

On this year’s 4th of July holiday, many white Americans are feeling their identity encroached upon and their opinions ignored. Especially in the south, many whites feel that the recent focus on removing the confederate flag from public spaces is an attack on our heritage, our past, and our very identities. Here is the totality of what white southern identity looks like, as some would have us think:

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Let me be clear: I am a white southerner. And until I was about twenty years old, I hung a confederate flag in my bedroom, and the front license plate on my first two cars showcased a rebel flag next to the American flag which read “American by birth, southern by the grace of god.” I was brought up in a culture that drew a distinction between racism and southern heritage, and according to a recent CNN Poll, most Americans still make this distinction. Many of us were raised to believe that our appreciation for the flag wasn’t rooted in a deep-seated history of hatred or racism, but rather, symbolically depicted pride of southern heritage—plain and simple.  During my youth, I lacked the know-how needed to critically reflect on my appreciation for (or socialized attraction to) the flag and did not possess the necessary tools and language needed to unpack the racialized histories and heritages that imbue it with racism more generally and white supremacy in particular. I had no way of articulating how my appreciation of the flag was not connected to racism, but I also simply didn’t realize that the flag was (and is) so hurtful to so many. The same CNN Poll cited above shows that 75% of blacks perceive the flag as racist.

Many who are now protesting in support of the flag seem convinced that their concerns are not racist. If, as many scholars of identity have theorized and argued well, racism = power + privilege, then many white southerners (and anyone else, anywhere else, vociferously arguing for/on behalf of the flag under the rationale of heritage, southern pride, and the like), who claim to not see race in the flag, hence not “being racist” in protecting it, may be the scariest kinds of people that racism can produce. In their appeals to “heritage not hate,” their real and imagined losses of power vis-à-vis identity (symbolic or otherwise) are exercised in and through their privilege to maintain (and distance themselves from) such false distinctions. In this way, and according to this logic, many of them aren’t acting in a racist manner by celebrating the confederate flag. Rather, they are exercising their protest against the possibility of losing something much more valuable to them: power. 

Their concerns about their concerns not being read, seen, and depicted as racist, in the end, have many of them acting like something even more dangerous than racist: the full embodiment of racism through the privilege of their power to shield their concerns, actions, and protests against claims of moral bankruptcy. Instead, they become the victims. Privilege allows such terms to be rhetorically baptized in the blood of power, to remain innocuous and regarded as anything but historically contingent.  

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This kind of white privilege comes in the form of indifference or outright hostility to people who are deeply offended and hurt by the confederate flag. And for most of us whites, this is how our white identity has always been expressed, through the privilege of denying the concerns of others here exemplified in a bifurcation of racism from heritage, as if heritage is some pristine thing, divorced from time and place. If you want a concrete example of “white privilege,” an idea lampooned by many in the same ideological camps now supporting the flag, here it is: the ability to deny that our lives or actions or heritage are intrinsically connected to (and have consequences for) other people. Heritage is not to be statically preserved in the immovable mausoleums we make from history, it is to be reflected on, revised, and learned from.

Reared and socialized to distinguish the term “racist” as something one explicitly is, consciously proclaims, and vigilantly acts upon has allowed most of us, white Americans, to give ourselves, and be given the benefit of the doubt that most of us aren't actually racist in any old school kind of way. And perhaps most of our parents and grandparents didn't directly participate in chattel slavery, church burnings, or lynchings – but, they/we certainly benefited and continue to benefit from the safety and protection afforded by our whiteness so much so that they didn’t, and many of us still don’t even today, have to consciously examine what kept them and continues to keep us safe and shielded from this sort of death-dealing harm day in and day out.

But our demand to keep finding (or hold on to) our identity in a past that cannot be separated from race and racism (among many other social ills) relies on this current power of privilege left by that past to not interrogate it for how it was and still is, in its ugliest ways, still very much present in its concealing and revealing sleight-of-hands. No amount of rhetorical gymnastics, historical decontextualization, or divorcing symbols from the weight of power, ideology, and history can obscure that white power (no pun intended) and privilege did not die with emancipation or the Civil Rights Movement(s). Those protesting so earnestly to maintain “heritage” by reaching back into history for securing and maintaining their identity amidst the all-too-public knowledge of the tragic and perpetual violence and harm it enacts has many white Americans still relying on the worst aspects of that past, not the best. In these protests, the binary of “heritage not hate” breaks down. Not only does this logic of “heritage not hate” collapse in on itself, but likewise, reveals itself, without effort, to be what it is (both a fallacy and fiction) as protests to preserve southern heritage proliferate at the same time that southern history continues to be made in the form of black churches burning to the ground and massacres occurring inside of them. The ability to protest for the maintenance of one side of history while violent acts to burn and eradicate the other are unacknowledged and met with the deaf noise of white silence telegraphs the monstrous reality that beyond the dissipation of the confederate flag, we white Americans must deal with the very thing that for so long gives symbols, like the confederate flag, their white power and domination: ourselves.

“Heritage not hate” is rooted in a white lie. Yet, one so powerful that even Governor Haley in her announcement to remove the confederate flag from the capitol in Charleston, SC had to pay lip service to and rhetorically balance this bifurcated illusion. Plain and simple, many of the current anxieties surrounding the flag are rooted in a fear of surrender. Not only the historic surrender to the north, but also a deeper surrender to recognizing that, more generally, many of us white Americans have not been taught and do not know how to understand and cultivate our identity without distinguishing ourselves from blacks, and through other forms of Othering. Such a scenario shakes many whites to the core causing some of us to commit atrocities, and many others of us to defend the very same symbol championed by killers.

The protest, debate, and demand to fly high the confederate battle flag prevents many of us from flagging and marking our identity and calling it by name (whiteness) choosing instead to remain silent under the guise of symbols and ideology – to do the speaking and flagging of identity without having to utter a word. 

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Perhaps we white people can begin to do the work that so many of us and our heritage have treated only as symbolic: name, identify, confront, and interrogate whiteness and begin to imagine what a white identity that doesn't rely on these tactics would look like.