For some, “bless your heart” might be an endearing Southern phrase, especially when said with an adorable Southern twang. Southerners, however, understand that “bless your heart” is really just a passive aggressive way of calling someone an idiot. When applied to Southern idioms, the South’s tendency to avoid its true thoughts might be good-humored. When extended to issues of race, however, the white South’s ongoing inability to admit how it has benefited from the historic and current system of repression is at the core of the racial divide today.
My ancestors arrived on the Carolina coast in 1680, owned slaves and fought for the Confederate army. Nearly all my relatives still live in the South, in the same regions once populated by their own slaves, and some still exalt the Confederacy. My family and I have always been part of the persecuting class in the South.
The privilege from which I have benefited throughout my life is built on years of advantage, years of constructed superiority and years of minority subjugation. My education was superior because lawmakers were afraid to admit that they perpetuate a segregated school system with mass disparity in resource allocation. My access to travel, sports and educational activities was greater because the government did not admit that minority communities need extra support to access these vital opportunities for learning and growth. My health care was better because officials chose to play politics instead of admit the disparate impact of their decisions on minorities. My life has been easy because generations of my family have profited from political and social white supremacy in the South.
Admitting my inherent complacency in a Southern system of persecution allows me to move beyond underlying feelings of guilt and shame. I admit that I have benefited greatly from my position in the hierarchy and therefore understand what I can do to break from its generational perpetuation. This does not mean I plan to subject my family to abject poverty in an ill-conceived sign of solidarity. Rather, it means I will use that privilege to support others in their own fight for equality, respect, freedom and justice.
In the wake of the acts of domestic terrorism at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and renewed calls for removal of the Confederate flag from state grounds, it is time for all Southerners to become comfortable with admitting the realities of the region. Admitting these realities does not mean assumption of sole personal liability, nor does it mean the complex issues of the South can be remedied solely by open acknowledgment. Nevertheless, a century removed from slavery and decades beyond segregation, it is disheartening we are not beyond the simple step of open and unashamed admission.
Southern culture’s dignified traditions of hospitality, civility and courtesy should be venerated north of the Mason-Dixon. Yet the Southern tendency to bury the ugly behind niceties and conveniently ignore sad truths of the past should no longer hold back the advancement of racial equality. White Southerners need to admit how they have benefited from repression in the South and then do something about it.
B. Shaw Drake of Summerfield is an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill and recent graduate of Georgetown University Law Center.