Someone in my life (temporarily, thank heavens!) has really been jumping on my last nerve over and over and over again. I'm quite prepared to deal with someone who is trying to re-fight the Civil War if they are coming from the Confederate side. I honestly never expected to run into someone who seems to think that they have to fight the Civil War from the Yankee side. Yet, I have that in my life right now,and it's reminding me of something that has annoyed the hell out of me for the past seven to eight years of my life.
I call this annoyance the Yankee White Man syndrome (although it also affects white women). This syndrome involves a distinct, New England, provincial, moral superiority in regard to racial issues, and all things connected to racial issues. "The South" becomes the scapegoat for all racism, thereby absolving the northeast of all culpability in racial conflict. I you are a white southerner, you are automatically classified as "racist," which is only part of a duality: racist or not racist, with no area of examination in between.
Not that the south hasn't more than earned that role of scapegoat for racism! Lord knows many down there (here?) work their butts off to prove the stereotype. I am more than willing to own that. What irritates me is that these same people doing the scapegoating will be completely blind to racial issues in their own region and constantly congratulate themselves on their moral superiority in that area. They flat out refuse to see racial conflict as a national issue of either the past or the present.
I first confronted this from my boss between 2001 and 2004. He fancied himself a Yalie (he wasn't) and a citizen of Connecticut (we were in Indiana). He liked to lecture me on my accent, which he described as "heavy" and which he insisted made people think I was a racist. I responded to this by turning up the volume on my accent and playing the Dixie Chicks (a trio of Texas women) in the office.
Then I moved to New England. Sometimes the "colorblindness" astounded me. No one was racist, of course, but I heard a lot of code words like "just happens to be black," or "urban elements," or "THAT part of town" or "THOSE people," or "I don't care if a person is black, white, yellow or purple with pink polka dots -- I just see people." (Purple with pink polka dots? That's always the giveaway).
To those comments are added the judgements passed on black faculty -- coded as "that southern way," which translated into "lazy" -- that were much harsher than those passed on white faculty demonstrating these same allegedly "southern" characteristics. Then, of course the patronizing tone taken on when directly addressing African Americans elsewhere: "Those poooooor people, they just can't help themselves."
We won't even get into the comments made when I revealed that I actually knew dark skinned men personally, despite the large number of interracial couples that I encountered. "Good God!" I thought. "Are their sheets hanging in their closet?"
I was also kind of shocked at the judgements passed on other groups of non-Anglos. For instance, Native Americans were referred to in similar terms as "THOSE people" and -- I shit you not -- as "savages." I heard also "dirty Portuguese." "The Portuguese are all disgusting," that particular source told me. "Portuguese?" I thought. "Aren't they white?" I thought I had just walked into a Chris Rock joke.
At the same time, whenever I offered some insight into race from my admittedly limited white southern view point, I was dismissed simply because I was southern. How could someone white from the south (especially one with a Ph.D. in southern history and three years of intensive study of Frederick Douglass) possibly know anything about racial interaction? After all, we are all "backwards-ass, inbred, narrow-minded muthafuckas," as my brother would say.
This current person had been jumping on that already raw, scapegoated nerve in some sort of perverse game to undermine me as a historian (and perhaps also as a moral being) while trying to curry my personal affection (men can be such assholes). He finally got to the frayed end of that nerve when he said that southerners were lazy and devoid of any culture or innovation. He, if you will note, either implied "white southerners" or did not realize that half of the black people around whom he made this statement also identify as southerners.
That last nerve produced a gut reaction that, in turn, has produced this upcoming little diatribe. Please understand that this comes from frustration over several years of trying to remove myself from a stereotype that has been forced upon me by people with whom I do actually agree on some points. Who can argue that the white south is regressive and racists? It is the section that brought us George W. Bush and the Contract with America.
At the same time, these Yankee White Men are people who think Joe Lieberman is a liberal, and who really need to learn a little more history and examine their own culpability in the problems of race in this nation.
At the risk of showing my racist white ass, or of having the wrong element interpret my racist white ass as a good thing, here is my rant (all examples both below and above are from actual conversations that I have had with Yankee White Men):
Thank you, O great Yankee White Man. Because of you, I finally see the light. New England is the center of the universe. At the very least it is, has been, and always will be the very apex of American intellectualism, artistic creativity, economic innovation, and morality.
You are so correct, Yankee White Man. New England bears no responsibility for slavery. The region had no investment in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, made no profit off of slave-produced resources, and never had slavery within its borders. In fact, I had never realized that all New Englanders were radical abolitionists, from the first Pilgrim settlers, to John Adams, to John Quincy Adams. Thus, they are totally absolved of what we in the least of the regions in the country call “the burden of southern history.” Thank you for setting me straight Yankee White Man.
I cannot believe that I never realized that New Englanders were never racist: not to slaves, not to fugitives, not to free blacks, not to Irish, not to Italians, not to Portuguese, not to Native Americans. New Englanders were always open-minded and accepting of different skin colors and cultures.
O.k., maybe one or two instances might call this assessment into question. There was as that incident involving the Pequot; but, I now see that the mission of the Pequot War clearly wasn’t genocide because some Native Americans survived. Besides, those who died were all savages and, by removing them from the land, the great harbingers of a more moral New England could settle their land and bring forth on this continent a great people.
Racism in the abolitionist movement? You have shown me that is impossible. Their abolitionism proved that they were for racial equality, and because they were for racial equality, they were abolitionists. There were no other motives. Sure, they wanted to marginalize the black speakers, but those speakers just did not understand the importance of the movement and that those in charge of the movement knew what was best for the movement. You couldn’t go off and try to speak about differences in tactics or strategies. You couldn’t go about raising your own money to run your own newspapers. That would have fractured the movement and then where would all of the black people have been?
I know, explaining that bit about segregation and the riots in the 1960s and 1970s is difficult. Still, I get it. Those poor Irish, after a century of struggle, were being forced out of jobs to make room for less qualified people….who just happened to be black. After a so long pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, as all of your immigrant ancestors did, they just felt entitled to the rights of Americans.
Then, the busing. I get that too: who wants their kids to be shipped miles and hours away to an inferior school, all so some students (who just happen to be black) at that school (that just happens to be in an under privileged neighborhood) have to endure the same journey to attend your children’s school. If the parents of those students (who just happen to be black) want their kids to go to your children’s school, well why don’t they just move to your neighborhood?
That brouhaha over the interstate was silly, too. Like you say, you have to join progress or get out of the way. “Those people” (who just happen to be black) in “those neighborhoods” (that just happen to be poor) would do neither. Similarly, gentrification, particularly when the process involves historic preservation, has nothing to do with keeping out the “urban element.” You just want the people who are best able to take care of those places to live in those places. Besides, they have ancestors from that area. “Those people” (who just happen to be black) couldn’t. Because New England didn’t have slavery.
By the same token, after my entire life in the south, I never would have realized how wrong I was in my assessment of some of the very few positive features of southern history and culture.
How, for instance, could I have thought that African Americans, and all that their ancestors brought to the region, were southern? Those Cajuns, too, how could they be southern? Or the Hispanics in southeast Texas? What about the Irish and Italian immigrants who gave New Orleans its distinct accent? Or the Vietnamese and Indians who became part of Houston’s sweaty gumbo? Those gay people in the Montrose area, in my Women’s Group, next to me on the float in the Pride parade? The ones who challenged the anti-sodomy laws? Not a southern person in the mix.
After teaching history for a decade and a half, I realize now that I have wrongly shown that progressive political movements came out of the south. Without your enlightenment, I would have continued to think that the Populist movement was entirely one of western farmers, and I would have continued to mistakenly believe that poor white and black people sometimes (even if only briefly) attempted to work together as a class through Farmers’ Alliances at the end of the 19th century and during the New Deal. I would have gone on thinking that the Civil Rights Movement was not a local southern movement, but was entirely guided by good Yankee White Men like yourself , working to elevate Martin Luther King, Jr. The challenges to anti-miscegenation laws, which will now provide the arguments for gay marriage, could not have come from so closed a society as the south. Molly Ivins, Linda Ellerbee, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Casey Hayden could never have come from the south. Even in this past election, those swaths of blue through the Black Belt, around southern cities, turning red Virginia and North Carolina into Obama blue, they could never have been the result of any southern influence, black or white.
I might have also thought that artistic movements did not emerge from the south. I will have to revise my lectures about jazz and the blues, correctly identifying their origins as coming from somewhere outside of Mississippi and Louisiana. Soul and Creole food, fried chicken and pecan pie might all southern foods, but really, they weren’t of any consequence until the northeast discovered them. Edgar Allen Poe, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Harper Lee, Truman Capote: their work is only limited in appeal, too preoccupied with the Gothic or race to be of lasting importance.
Most importantly, however, if it weren’t for you, dear Yankee White Man, 30 years in Louisiana and Texas would never have led me to figure out that the south was and is so terribly racist and small minded.
I never would have known that the Negros in the fields weren’t really happy. I never would have understood that trafficking in human property was a vile and vicious deed.
I never would have thought that segregation led to economic and political inequality. I never would have believed that the Klan was a terrorist organization. I never would have repudiated the Lost Cause romanticized interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction in which I was raised. I never would have realized that Jim Crow was a violation of the Constitution.
I never would have understood the importance of a black president, or even a black teacher, a black college, a black doctor, a black scholar, a black advisor, a black class, a black boss, a black date, a black friend. I never would have sought an understanding of race, oppression and privilege beyond white/black dichotomies.
I never would have been aware that stereotypes are not people and people are not stereotypes. I never would have chosen to educate myself about those stereotypes so that I could be more sensitive and aware of their use, by others and by myself. I never would have chosen not to utter racial epithets, even in quotations.
I never would have chosen to bluntly state and examine the meaning of the slaveholding and Klan participation of my ancestors, despite the aversion others might have to my admission. I never would have begun to study African American history in order to know that side of the story that no one wanted to tell me when I was a child. I never would have known the “burden of southern history,” or begun to deal with it by questioning the way that my white skin privileged me over others.
I never would have realized both the conscious and unconscious racism in which I was raised. I never would have known the grinding, constant, struggle – often to fail – of examining and eliminating my own racism – and doing it not for congratulations from anyone, but because the act of examination and elimination is the only moral choice in this world.
I never would have opened my eyes and my ears to other people’s experience --- not just black people, but other people who are not white, poor people, politically persecuted people, disabled people, people who are not me and have never lived a life remotely like mine. I never would have realized that this is an act of revolution against everything I was raised to be: the reason for so many dead bodies hanging from trees: the flower of white ladyhood.
No, none of this could have happened without you, Yankee White Man. None of this at all. After a lifetime of bearing witness to racism, I would never have seen this on my own. Only a Yankee White Man, in all of his moral and historical superiority, could have shown me the way. Thank you so very much.
As we say in the south, “mighty white of you," Yankee White Man.