Three years ago I married someone who so happened to grow up in rural Georgia. Prior to this, my knowledge of the South was limited.
Sure, I went to the South on occasion and I knew people in the South: Mainly Southern feminists and racial and queer justice advocates living in urban areas. The majority of my knowledge about the South was confined to knowing exactly how to drive to its abortion clinics, the dossiers of the terrorists with track records targeting them, and who the brave people are willing to engage in clinic defense.
Beyond that, I was not particularly interested in engaging. I was both a product of my environment and, by virtue of my laziness and relative tunnel vision, an active participant in creating that environment for others.
It is fashionable in some circles I run in to make an outrage porn show out of legislative oppression in the South. Largely the purpose is to capture attention and raise money for national organizations. As a matter of activity, those types of national organizations primarily hold self-congratulatory events for Northerners in the North and Californians in California.
A good number of progressive people make their jokes about how Southern secession would benefit the country, which basically means they are just as guilty of dehumanizing and throwing people away as those segments of Southerners who actively do wish to restrict the rights and dignity of people on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation (these people very much exist and hold at least a modicum of power in all regions of the country, by the way).
Before my spouse, to say nothing of before we moved from Capitol Hill to Virginia, my life experiences didn’t point me toward deeply probing or questioning these practices.
In hindsight, I can say barely engaging with Southern people and understanding Southern culture deeply limited my potential as an organizer, as a feminist, and as a human being.
Some of my prejudices were just trivial. After one nightmarish experience with grits at a YMCA camp in Wisconsin decades ago, I had closed myself off to the possibility of cheesy grits — a major clown move.
You could forgive me for my ignorance of the South and say it was because I just didn’t have time to learn, but that’s far too generous for someone who has always cared deeply about politics. Of course I had limited time, but even though I’ve always kept a full plate, I still managed to spend a good portion of my hitherto adult life reading books, watching The Twilight Zone, and agonizing over busloads of Mr. Wrong. I had time; I didn’t use it.
The plain truth is that it’s easy to spend your life interacting with people who think like you and talk like you, or at least think and talk a lot like you. Further, people like me who spend time working for diversity and equality and justice don’t necessarily have it all figured out in our progressive circles.
It would be arrogant and totally untruthful to say I understand the South today. I don’t. However, I have learned many things in the past few years. The best are related to cuisine because cobbler and cheesy everything, but I’ve also been pleased to experience and begin to understand the strength and persistence of progressive activity and values in the South — even in the one-room, all-white church out in the country I’ve been as surprised as anyone to attend (scratch that, my mother is probably still shocked enough to burn a hole in the Minnesota snow).
What I have learned most of all is that I have so much more to learn, and that this learning will only benefit my work toward equality and justice. The more time I spend in the South the more I am genuinely curious to know what the Confederate flag means to the people who fly it. (This is not to say I think it’s acceptable; I don’t support the continued use of symbols, language, mascots, team names, and the like that signify discrimination, hatred, or oppression, even if the people using them claim it has nothing to do with that.)
I have strong opinions, yes, but even more that that, I have a strong desire for equality. Progress toward equality isn’t going to come about through conversations with people who generally see the world as I do; it’s going to come through courageous conversations with people who don’t. In order to truly be conversations, that means listening as well as talking.
A white, progressive friend remarking upon the Black Lives Matter movement noticed a tendency of her white, progressive friends to defriend people on Facebook who were saying racist shit. We all have our lines to draw and are the best judge of what those lines need to be in order to take care of ourselves (I defriended an abortion opponent from my high school who made a nasty comment about me during my pregnancy, and have never looked back). Still, there are some conversations that don’t violate what we need but are merely uncomfortable.
This is a profound point that applies to conversations about discrimination and the desire for social change. If we really want to be change agents, we need to engage with people we know who have different views — even views we strongly disagree with.
Which brings me back to my new Southern family and this deeply personal opportunity I’ve been given to learn more about the South. I’m learning, and frankly sometimes the simple act of listening is scary and hard as hell. And yet I continue.