The Need for Southern Heresy
“Be willing to ruin the party.” --Danielle LaPorte
I am a white woman who was born and raised in the South. I have a lot of white friends who were born and raised in the South. I haven’t witnessed them commit violent acts of racism. No one I know has been shooting black people in the streets.
What I see and hear about is far more subtle than that.
It’s the white construction worker who will share a drinking cup with his white co-workers but not his black co-workers.
It’s the white guy who tells a woman he doesn’t want to date her if she’s been with a black man.
It’s the white housewife who won’t let non-white yard workers use the restroom inside the house.
It’s the man who ends his story about a burglary with the statement, “And of course the guy was black.”
It’s the guy who tells jokes and stories to his white buddies that he would never tell in the presence of blacks.
It’s the white woman who uses 5 exclamation points in her comment that “All lives matter” when she see a #BlackLivesMatter post on Instagram.
These are real examples from my immediate community.
These are not uneducated, hateful morons. These are people who send me Christmas cards.
They are respected in their communities. They hold advanced degrees. They donate when their friends walk for cancer research. They are church deacons. They volunteer. They adopt dogs from the shelter. They’re generous, thoughtful, respectful people.
None of their white friends would label them as “racist.”
You see, most Southern whites think that racists are "bad people." Racists throw rocks through windows, burn crosses, and hang people from trees. But that nice lady who brings donuts for the staff on Fridays? Not her. Because she dresses well, lives in a nice house, and shares photos of her wholesome family trip to Hilton Head on Facebook.
White Southerners don’t seem get that you can be wholesome AND racist. That you can be generous AND racist. That you can be a nice person AND racist.
Racism is having or acting on the belief that a particular race is superior to another. Period. That’s the entire definition.
There is no sub-clause that says “but those who shop at Dillard’s and donate to the bake sale are exempt.”
This is the point where some people are going to get all hot and tell me that making a joke about black people is not the same as shooting them. And of course it’s not.
But what these nice, kind, white Southerners do is create a culture of permissiveness.
In this culture, it’s ok for anyone to be *a little* racist, as long they’re an otherwise “good person.” Which means that it’s ok to devalue the lives of others *a little bit.* Not “try to keep them from buying the house next door” devalued, but “assume the worst about them and think of them as fundamentally ‘other’” devalued.
And that’s a problem. A big, big problem.
Because they’re not the people who are going to pull a trigger, but they are the ones who are going to turn away when they see someone else do it.
As a white woman born and raised in the South, I was taught two competing ideas:
1. To think for myself and do what I think is right.
2. To keep quiet. Don’t make a fuss. Don’t cause a scene. Don’t be difficult. Don’t make people uncomfortable. Keep it private.
Southerners prize politeness. It’s time we accept that being polite and being honorable are not the same. Staying silent in the presence of a quieter, gentler racism is still staying silent in the presence of racism. We’ve got to stop valuing Emily Post above Alton Sterling.
I’ve held my tongue when I’ve overheard racist comments because I don’t want to start a thing. I know I won’t change anyone’s mind. It would be easier to just move the conversation along. But I’m done with that. I’m not going to lecture anyone, but I’m not going to stay in tacit agreement by saying nothing.
So consider this your notice: I am willing to ruin the party.
If I witness a comment or action that degrades a human, I will absolutely speak up on your special day when it will be inconvenient and uncomfortable for you and everyone else.
This baby shower? Just got weird. Thanksgiving dinner? Totally awkward. Your birthday party? “Who invited HER?”
I’ll say things like:
“I wish you wouldn’t say that.”
“Would you say that if a black person were here?”
I’m not going to speak up because I’m the race police or want applause from my black friends. I’m going to do it because it’s the fucking decent thing to do.
And it’s going to piss some people off. Because in Southern white culture, not sweeping things under the rug with everybody else is a betrayal. Speaking up is heresy.
We need heresy. We need to be leaders in our own families and communities. We need to be willing to ruin the party.