There are photos of me in high school. In these photos I am wearing a cheerleading uniform with a Confederate flag jacket. On my body. Not ironically. I haven’t included them in this post because the internet is not controllable and don’t want them out in the wild to be potentially misused.
I cringe when I see these photos. I was young and of course very naive, growing up in the rural deep South. The rebel flag was a fixture of our culture. It was our team emblem, our mascot being The Rebels. If anyone ever talked about it at all, we were told the flag was an “emblem of Southern Heritage,” or “part of our culture and way of life.” We never thought about it beyond that, because we lived happy, privileged white lives in small town USA.
Although I grew up around a lot of black people, I never actually had any black friends. Not really. I can tell you with sincerity that there is not one black person in the small towns I grew up in who would even remember my name. Because the races didn’t really mix. There was a vaguely benevolent attitude, but I never saw any deep or reciprocal relationships modeled. No one seemed to question this or have any curiosity about it. I was bookish and self-absorbed, so I didn’t question it either, although I’ll allow that I may have missed a lot that was right in front of me. I never heard any other opinion about what that flag might represent; I had no people of color whom I was close to, who might have been able to show me a different perspective.
When I learned about the Civil War, the understanding I came away with, from a mixture of sources both direct and by osmosis, was that it was a shame we’d lost. And that was that. I just didn't consider it further because it was peripheral to me in my little selfish world. We farmed our cotton and beans, played our football, went to church, ate our fried catfish, and that was that. (I mean, we weren’t actually that simple, but it isn’t an inaccurate portrayal.) Idyllic in so many ways.
It wasn’t until I grew up and went away to school and then moved very far away that any of this started to dawn on me. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the high school I’d gone to had been begun as a result of school desegregation in the late 60’s. An alternative was formed so that the students of white families wouldn’t have to attend classes alongside black students. I grew up in a realized dream of White Supremacy and segregation. I reaped every benefit of white privilege in the era and place in which I was raised. And I never even knew it.
I can say this: I was complicit and I know it now. I was complicit before I understood the concept of complicity. I went around wearing, on my very back, and even temporarily tattooing on my cheek every game day, an emblem of enslavement and power-hunger. I was an ok (beloved by God) person unwittingly perpetuating a bad, oppressive system. I was a selfish person who had absorbed an obliquely racist narrative, which over time had simply become a backdrop for regular life… and I didn’t question it until much later.
Why didn’t I question it? Why didn’t I examine myself and the system? I don’t know for sure, but I have a few inklings:
1) Because it was inconvenient to ask. It wouldn’t have put me or my family or friends in a good light. No one wants to see themselves in a not-good light.
2) Because no one (that I saw) in authority or leadership was asking those questions. No woke grownups were leading the way on it at the time (maybe they are now). Patriarchy and white supremacy were the ways of the world there and then, and nobody gainsaid them, at least that I ever heard of.
3) Because of homogeneity. Everyone seemed to think the same way and newcomers were few and far between. There wasn’t exactly a diversity of opinions, unless you wanted to really split hairs about something.
4) And, this is important now, because it wasn’t ALL BAD. I think there’s this block we have about talking about hard racial problems that is in part due to the fact that none of these people involved are ALL BAD. Inside the bad systems, or entwined among them, are stories and kindnesses and generosity and good, worthy things, just like anywhere else. So we feel that if we talk about the bad stuff it somehow negates the good stuff. It’s lies: I can talk about and appreciate aspects of my childhood that were good, and still acknowledge a bad system that was part of its backdrop. Both are appropriate.
It's when the systems become the background for a way of life that people stop paying attention. Patriarchy and white supremacy have become programs running in the background of our collective white consciousness. Nothing dramatic was happening. No one was going out and overtly hurting anyone. There weren't race riots, and if there were KKK meetings, my people weren't invited to them. We stop paying attention to The Way Things Are. Until a brother or sister comes to us and says: this is unfair. This hurts us. Which is what black people and other people of color have been saying to us white folks for DECADES; except the problem is so many of us don’t have relationships in which to have those conversations. Or until a bunch of Nazi’s kill a person in Virginia, echoing lynchings and hate crimes past.*
We are in a pretty important moment right now, in which we have the opportunity as white people (if you are white) to use our voices and our messages and our money and our privilege to give those very things away. We are having a Rich Young Ruler moment: his question is a good one for us now -- “What must we do to be saved from this situation?” Jesus gave him an answer which was for him the worst, hardest possible answer: get rid of your comfort and security. Let go of your power. Stop lying about your story. Start telling the truth. Face your darkness.
Some of us will go away with our heads hanging. But some of us will drop our nets and follow.
There were piles of obstacles and emotional work between myself then, and the truth that seems obvious to me now. I’m ashamed, but I also have deep grace for that young girl that was me. She never knew how colorless her world was, or how crippled and one-dimensional.
I’m sharing this because I believe there is life in the telling of the real story; there’s redemption. I once was a blind and unwitting racist, and now I see a bigger story, a brighter spectrum (Hopefully I’m less of a racist, too). I’m sharing this because I know how easy it is not to know. Not to see. To remain absorbed in my own world, and to feel defensive and put upon whenever I’m jarred out of it. To not want to hear that who I am and the way I’m living when I think I’m just minding my own business hurts other people. I know how easy it is to only ever be friends with people just like me. I know how hard it is to go to a place where I’m the different one, where I don’t get the jokes or speak the language and I’m the one who looks weird to everybody else. I know these things by the mercy of God.
I remember my first Jewish friend. I remember my first gay friend. I remember my first feminist friend. I remember my first black friend. And I know from knowing them how far I still have to go. I’m not even woke yet.** I hardly know a thing about it. I have so far chewed a few small morsels of mercy and there is no stopping now.
White supremacy and patriarchy are like an ancient rickety old house; it's boards and foundation are rotting and its roof collapsed. If enough people stand outside and push, it can fall. Let's push, so we can make room for better ways. Let’s help those inside the house to come outside before it falls on them. We can still keep the good stuff we had, the stuff that worked and helped.
I’m sorry I wore that flag. I wish I wouldn’t have done it. I'm sorry for all the ways I've been complicit in white supremacy. Hell, I have even been complicit in perpetuating patriarchy. But, by God, I’m owning the story now. I’ll take it down with me and resurrect something glorious from it.
God, we know that part of the reason we hoard things like money, power, and privilege
Is because we think there isn’t enough to go around.
We know that part of the reason we don’t love others
Is because we don’t understand your love for us.
We know that part of the reason we don’t own our darkness,
Is because we are afraid of losing everything.
Open our eyes to the lies we have believed,
The broken systems we unknowingly take part in.
Open our eyes to sins of our culture,
The oppressions happening among us.
Open our eyes to our sisters and brothers
Of other races,
Of other faiths,
Of other nationalities.
For all the ways we’ve been complicit in oppressive systems
We are sorry.
For all the ways we’ve ignored our neighbors
We are sorry.
For all the ways we’ve disregarded the pain of entire communities,
We are sorry.
For all the ways we’ve glorified stories and symbols of evil,
We are sorry.
For all the ways we’ve let systemic oppression become a backdrop for daily life,
We are sorry.
Let us learn deeply
Of the abundance of your riches
Let us learn deeply
Of the boundlessness of your love;
So that we may live out a way,
And embody a future,
Full of justice, community, open-heartedness
And self-sacrificing love,
That reaches toward every human being,
Every beloved soul you’ve created.
The story of white supremacy and patriarchy in the world***, the story of darkness and evil
Is not the enduring story.
It’s the story of the love of God that captures every heart,
That will be told in the end.
*Many, many people of color have been unjustly killed in recent years by hate groups. In no way should the death of one person in Virginia overshadow that fact. We mourn every loss.
**Seriously, I have so, so far to go. In no way do I claim that I know yet how to be a good ally and advocate for oppressed people.
***These are not the only two oppressive hierarchical systems we could name, just the two I’ve dealt with in today’s story. And they have different histories and different origins; each has its nuances, and its particular victims, although they do often overlap.