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the slowdown: The “Good” White People

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It’s been just about two weeks since I saw on Twitter, someone I follow put up this tweet reading that the White House is thinking of having Trump do a national address on race after the church photo op fails. And I just glibly shot back a comment saying, “Later this week the White House is thinking of having Trump invite NASCAR officials at the White House to rally the remaining fan base following the national address on race debacle.” It was dumb. That’s most of Twitter. Most of Twitter is dumb. However, the next day NASCAR released this statement, “The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment and inclusive environment to all fans. Our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.” So I commented back to the original person I was writing to and he responded saying that NASCAR had been pretty vocal after the most recent race about this issue and that made me feel really dumb. Not only was I stereotyping NASCAR fans and using them as, sort of, this filler stand-in for a racist Trump voter, but I was also pandering to a Black dude who knew more about NASCAR’s official stance on race than I did.

So, in the past couple weeks this sort of thing is what’s stood out to me the most. I was essentially trying to tell this guy, “Hey, I’m with you, man. I’m one of the cool white people. I’m one of the people who gets it,” you know? But ultimately it just really exposed how ignorant I am. And the more that I’ve read, the more that I’ve listened and watched, it has become increasingly apparent to me how I have crafted this impenetrable space for myself within any discussion having to deal with race. Because I am one of the “good” white people. And frankly I’ve never really taken the time to understand or identify how much of that position simply has to deal with how I see myself relative to other white people, as opposed to what actions I’m taking that are anti-racist.

Last week a former work colleague of mine posted a white lives matter on Facebook and it took about a half hour with my sister to dissect what my feelings were and really just to get me to calm down. And the days that followed, it kind of became more apparent to me where my frustrations and my anger were coming from, and a lot of that had to deal with trying to, sort of, reactionarily distance myself from that person because I don’t want to be seen as that kind of white person, or associating with that kind of white person, because I’m a different kind of white person. Right?

I don’t know exactly what my earliest memory of Southern white people might be but I will say that there is no doubt that Jeff Foxworthy and his comedy didn’t have some sort of impact on me when I was a little kid. My family had his CDs and I still remember segments from them, even if I haven’t listened to them in probably two decades. All of that’s to say that some of my first thoughts about southern people, that I can remember, are really just that they’re dumb. And they’re these caricatures of ill-informed, uneducated people.

“‘Cause in a lot of parts of the country, you know, people hear me talk, they automatically want to deduct 100 IQ points, ’cause apparently the southern accent’s not the world’s most intelligent sounding accent. You know, and to be honest, none of us would want to hear our brain surgeon say, ‘aight, now what we gon’ do is saw the top of yer head off, root around in there with a stick and see if we can’t find that dag-bern clot.’ You’d be like no thanks, I’ll just die, okay.” -Jeff Foxworthy

I guess I relate a lot of other things to southern white people, sort of like southern white culture. There’s country music… it’s all stereotypical. It’s, like, Cracker Barrel. I cannot stand that place. But sometime around the mid-2000s I started listening to music from Hank Williams III. And for those who are unaware, Hank is the son of the “Are you ready for some football?”-Barack Obama birther movement Hank Williams, who’s the son of Hank Williams, the original country music icon. But Hank III has taken a little different style and approach. Without getting too deep into his history, Hank III has spent a lot of time going on this anti-establishment kick. He fought forever to get out of this predatory record deal when he was very young, and has spun out of this traditionalist country template that was set for him by interjecting his music with the same anti-establishment themes. So, that was enough to get my attention. And when I got a hold of a couple of his bootleg albums I really bought in.

The folklore of Hank III’s sets sold me on his brand of “outlaw country” long before I ever saw him live and I eventually went and saw him several times play live. A couple times in Minneapolis and the last time during my brief stint living up in Calgary in 2010. Typically his band plays these three unique sets. The first is more traditional country. The second is a punk-country hybrid, sort of set. And the third is this really aggressive, grimy hardcore metal set. And artistically, particularly as this college kid, I thought that was really cool. But I didn’t ever really recognize his allegiance to southern symbolism in that process. Nor did it ever open up any sort of racial discussion because of my own ignorance on the matter.

Take this, for example. He’s got a pair of albums called Damn Right, Rebel Proud and Rebel Within. The latter of which features Hank dawning this bandana cast across this sepia tone rebel flag. And I use air quotes on “rebel flag” because obviously it is the confederate flag but I didn’t really know anything about it. And, I guess, at that point in time, legitimately didn’t think that there was anything wrong with it. My only real experience with it growing up was recognizing it as a symbol that was on the top of the Dukes of Hazzard car. And I had a little matchbox Dukes of Hazzard car, so within me there was this understanding like that was okay. And through those years where I was writing a lot about music, between the show and album reviews I put out, no one ever really checked me on what he and his symbolism might stand for. Further, I didn’t really understand how relatively progressive artists like Tom Waits or Les Claypool from Primus could appear on his albums if there was some sort of idealogical issue there.

But a couple years later a friend of mine and her husband came to visit me in Nashville. And to, sort of, set the mood as we were driving around town I figured I would play some Nashville artists. And included in that playlist were some songs by Hank. So, my friend shot back pretty quickly when the first one came on, something to the effect of, “Isn’t that guy a racist?” And I remember my reaction being one of serious defensiveness. Like, of course not. How could he be racist if I liked him was essentially how I felt. But, do you know how I know my reaction in that conversation was defensiveness. It’s because I still remember the conversation. I still remember the feeling. It lived with me. And eventually it led me to looking into the claim and realizing there was something to it. There’s something inherently sick to what that flag represented. And so I read interviews where Hank is trying to justify it under the typical argument, like, this is not about slavery, this is not about the traitorous side of what that flag was used for in the purpose of war, it’s just meant to symbolize southern pride. And that is absolutely bullshit.

I don’t know when, exactly, but I stopped listening to Hank’s music sometime after that. And I don’t share that as some sort of claim to this gained virtue that I have. But just that it didn’t feel right anymore. This is a story I wanted to share here because I don’t want to share it. I feel like it makes me look like this ignorant person, and I don’t want to make mistakes, and I don’t want to have mistakes a part of my past. Particularly because it helps create a shade of grey to what racism is and what racism has been in my life. Whereas what I’ve told myself racism is is this really definitive binary of good and bad, of racist/non-racist, somewhere in my head not only have I developed a sense that southerners are some stereotypical Foxworthian redneck, but also that they’re the dumping ground for many of the nation’s ills. Like, racism exists everywhere, but it was first and foremost a phenomenon of the southern bigot; these illiterate inbred Honey Boo Boo people. And for as stupid and simplistic as me having to say this to myself seems, that’s just how it is.

“It has a different style to it—’it’ here being racism or white domination—has a different style, definitely a different style, North versus South. But the fundamentals are not that dissimilar. The other way one of them goes, kind of an African-American folk saying, right? ‘In the North, they don’t care how high you get’—okay, ‘they’ being the white people. So, ‘In the North they don’t care how high you get as long as you don’t get too close, and in the South they don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too high.'” -Shannon Sullivan

It’s not simply that the deeper I get with this the more I feel ignorant, it’s the more I’m becoming aware of my ignorance that exists. Racists in my life have been, in my head, “bad” people. Non-racists: “good” people. And just to think of all the ways that I’m not racist, or that I can’t be like those other white people, that’s been enough for me to claim that I’m not racist. This is almost insulting in my simplicity, but it comes through in ways like: I’m “nice” to Black people, or that I appreciate hip-hop, or that I’m regularly in proximity to Black people and I’m not actively racist against them. We can add on top of that things like, I’m Canadian, which essentially makes me a super-Yankee. And even when I’ve done things as relatively small as supporting the music of someone with questionable values, my moral character is what should be taken into consideration there, because I “get” racism. I’m one of the “good” white people. The bottom line is almost that I’m an ally to the cause because I don’t do things that are blatantly racist, as best I personally define blatant racism.

A couple years ago comedian Trey Crowder gained national popularity over his Liberal Redneck video series, contrasting southern stereotypes with ideological considerations of a well-educated progressive. And I got really into his videos for a while, and in them there’s moments along the way where he’s made a plea to the exact position that I’ve taken against the south and southerners, as being the bearers of all things wrong with this country, that still, to this day–even going back over his videos now–they still don’t hit me in the gut because part of me is still in denial. Like, I appreciate how other progressives might be treating southerners, but again I’m outside that bubble.

“People around the rest of this country don’t know a goddamn thing about the American South. And much like the rednecks that they so openly dislike, even though they don’t know anything about it they clearly think they know everything. People come up to us to shows and say things like, ‘oh you’re from the south? I’m so sorry that you had to deal with that. How did you how did you resist the southerner’s natural urge to cornhole your relatives? Have you ever stopped a lynching in progress? So, when you do your show in the south do your fellow southerners throw biscuits at you, or perhaps use a potato gun?’ Let me explain something. Being prejudiced against poor white people with a twang still counts as prejudice. For people who ostensibly so abhor xenophobia you sure have written off an entire region of this country pretty resolutely. This election day forty-some-odd percent of the people in Mississippi will vote for Hillary Clinton and forty-some-odd percent of people in California will vote for Donald Trump, so please stop acting like we’re in a North/South Korea situation.” –Trae Crowder

And sure, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason sometimes, but that’s not a great argument for why I used NASCAR fans as a placeholder for racists. Several years ago, not long after Ferguson went down, I spent the most uncomfortable Thanksgiving ever with friends of my at-the-time-girlfriend who openly used the n-word. That made me feel terrible and helpless because I wanted them to see what they were doing and how disgusting I thought it was. But when I told my last girlfriend, who is Black, how beautiful I thought her hair was when she straightened it, I couldn’t see what I was doing or what that might mean to her or how that might hurt her or make her feel less than. My intentions weren’t to hurt her, but intentions have absolutely nothing to do with anything here.

“And I think that white fragility functions as a kind of white racial bullying. We make it so miserable for people of color to talk to us about their experiences, to call us in, that most of the time they don’t because it’s not worth getting punished more. Trust me. They take home so much of it because it so rarely goes well. Right? And I’m just going to ask a rhetorical question to people of color in the room. How often have you tried to talk to white people about our inevitable and often racist behaviors and have that go well for you? Okay. I mean, literally, not even once, right? And so it’s weaponized defensiveness. It’s weaponized hurt feelings. It’s weaponized denial and obliviousness. And, so, I’m not the one percent. I’ve never even been a manager, but I can control the people of color in my orbit through white fragility, right? And so I also think of it as a form of everyday white racial control. ‘You can be in my orbit, and I’ll use you as diversity cover as long as you keep me comfortable. But if you challenge me, you’re going to become a personal problem, and you’re going to be ejected,’ and, boy, do we see this in the workplace. ‘We want you on the committee. We’re not going to pay you any more, but we do want you on the committee as long as you don’t actually do what we asked you to be on the committee to do.’ Right?” -Robin DiAngelo

This picks up off the last episode‘s theme of trying to listen, hear people, and understand what racism really is. That “water” that’s all around us. Now I’m coming to learn that I don’t even know what it means to be white though. I’ve never examined the influence that it’s had on me, despite time and time again using my particular brand of whiteness as a tool to distance myself from racism. Because I don’t want to admit to having done racist things, having gained from passively participated in an absolutely racist system, or even manipulated my own interactions to ensure that I wouldn’t be checked along the way. For as long as I can remember I’ve been that guy pointing to some NASCAR fan somewhere and then looking back at a Black friend going, “Hey, we’re in this together, right?” But my own insecurity has always put up a defense up against anyone who pointed out that I was doing some nonsense.

If anything, I don’t really know what this is other than a document of this moment so I can come back to it in the future, and do so hopefully with a completely different understanding of how things are. For now, there’s really no good way to end this thought other than to just reflect on my own history and acknowledge my own inconsistencies and accept my own racism and then challenge myself and say, “Okay, so take all of this into consideration, and what am I going to do with it?”

Notes:


the slowdown, Part 1: Is This Water?
the slowdown, Part 2: The “Good” White People (you are here)
the slowdown, Part 3: To the Benefit of Whom?
the slowdown, Part 4: Separate Realities
the slowdown, Part 5: Amusing Myself to Death