The Confederate Flag Is Not the Only Thing That Needs to Come Down
The Confederate Flag flying over the South Carolina capital building was a morally bankrupt phenomenon in our country long before nine great saints of the Christian church were martyred because they were black.
What happened in Charleston was white supremacy terrorism.
And what’s been happening in the institutions and in the soul of this country for centuries is white supremacy culture.
It’s good for the Confederate Flag to come down. But, it’s not good enough.
The soul work of the “American experiment” (as America was often called in my high school U.S. history class) is much more difficult, much more radical than removing a symbol of white supremacy from one state capital building. No incremental titration will do. For this experiment to turn a corner and be a healthy system, there are some elements of this experiment that must be extricated.
The ones who have the most work to do are “my people”—white folks, including all us white folks who believe in our hearts that we are “not racist.” This includes us white Christians, who have some particularly big transitions to make if we truly want to “take down” more than just the symbols and memorials of white supremacy in America.
The Internet is full of blog posts about the “10 things white allies need to know about racism” and the “5 things white people need to stop saying.” This is not one of those blog posts.
I don’t have a recipe for dismantling the architecture of white supremacy in America that would work for every single soul who needs it. I’ve been at the work of being antiracist practically my whole life. I’ve been an activist, a learner, a friend, a listener, a minister, a voice for change, a confessor, and a penitent.
I’ve done work in the church, in the academy, in the intimacy of my family, and in the shadows of my own soul and psyche. I’ve done all this work for all of these years, and I still have a lot of work to do. Even with all my good intentions and my sincere willingness to hear and internalize the truth about white supremacy, this way of seeing things, this way of doing things, this way of being in the world formed me in ways that I have yet to discover. This is not a statement of resignation. This is a statement about how profound, how deep this whole thing goes.
Some could say I got a “head start” in this work growing up in a family who actually talked about race in a liberative way, with a father who was a member of the NAACP, with a heritage of generations who spoke up against racism even in the deepest parts of Mississippi at the turn of the century while the Civil War was still smoldering. What can appear to be a “head start” can also be a deficit at times in this journey. I have benefited from racism in ways that are hard for me to look at. “Good white people” can easily lapse into thinking it’s the Dylann Roofs of the world who are the problem, not us.
I have had a steep learning curve, immersion learning in fact, about how some of the very values I have held dear are actually containers for entrenching white supremacy culture. Things like “academic integrity” and “good manners” and even the good old “Protestant work ethic” can be carriers of white supremacy culture. Realizing these things is disorienting. Rebuilding from those realizations is bewildering and, frankly, lonely. For me, being antiracist has also meant loss of community and a reframing of my mentalities, habits, and practices that do not make me a welcomed part of many of the conversations I use to feel at home in.
The Dylann Roofs of the world are, indeed, a big problem, and they are a problem we need to acknowledge. They are the white family’s racist uncle who everyone just tries to ignore. These hard-core white supremists are a dangerous and ruthless part of American culture. They are domestic terrorists and we need to regard them as such.
At the same time, the subtleties of white supremacy are the biggest barriers to real change and substantive justice in this country. And these subtleties are some of the building blocks of white supremacy and some of the pillars of how many of us whites build our sense of justice, kindness, and even love. We have not found our way through these things. The way is being made now—and we need more people cutting the switch backs through some pretty dense overgrowth.
We white folks have our hardest work to do in recognizing the givenness of white supremacy in American culture and in our own selves. Our university system was born out of white supremacy (if you don’t believe me, read Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder), the heart of American capitalism was spoon-fed by white supremacy (if you don’t believe me, read The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist), and our laws and views of justice and fairness were fast friends for white supremacy from the beginning (if you don’t believe me read, Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today, by Jacqueline Battalora). And this is just some of the institutional architecture of white supremacy. The Church has been a BIG partner in all this, too. (If you don’t believe me, there is a great article by Dr. Willie Jennings at Duke on it. If you don’t mind hearing more from me I’ve got a book coming out this fall co-authored with Duke Theologian Mary McClintock Fulkerson about it).
In and among the two by fours of the institutional architecture, are the nuts and bolts and the cement of this whole system—internalized racism. Internalized racism includes the unconscious layers, the biases we embody around everything from parenting, to appearance, to what’s right and what’s wrong. And all of these layers of who we are have been in the cultural formation we have all ingested, breathed, and found our way in—not just white people, but all Americans. Unlike the “double consciousness” that W.E.B. Du Bois described for how black people figure out how to function differently in the white world and in enclaves of black communities, white Americans have moved about in the world with the privilege of obliviousness around the intricacies our own complicity and privilege. We have not learned how to embody a critical consciousness around white privilege. We have not learned how to resist its hold on us and grow a counter-cultural sense of ourselves. And, so dismantling white privilege can be very threatening, it can feel like an erasure of our very selves.
And from this obliviousness and fear come all of our learned defenses around really looking at race and at whiteness. This layer of white supremacy culture is what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “a new kinder and gentler white supremacy” that “talks about race without naming it.” We talk about fairness, not whiteness. We talk about individual responsibility, not systemically racialized disadvantage. We talk about the American dream, not about all the ways wealth has been tenaciously concentrated in white-dominant communities, families, and institutions. We talk about “reverse-racism,” not about power and the invention of whiteness as the payoff of racism.
Those of us who are white, who benefit every day from a system of privilege based on whiteness, who want to be antiracist need to work together and support this difficult work among white people. We need white-dominant communities and institutions as well as individuals who are willing to do this work. I am praying that this time in American culture is the tipping point, and that this work will be less isolating for white people and become an accepted part of being a white American in the 21st century.
If you are a white antiracist person reading this, thank you for taking the time and for being willing to listen. Those are two important skills we need to habituate if we want things to change. Taking down the Confederate Flag is not a start, it’s another step. And what your next step is, I cannot say. But I know if you and I are going to keep finding our way on this antiracism path, we will see more than the world change. You and I will change, too.
16 thoughts on “The Confederate Flag Is Not the Only Thing That Needs to Come Down”
Great job as usual Marcia! I will re-post the link on Facebook so more can read it. I am often asked for a formula to end racism, including today at water aerobics. My class consists of about 10-12 white women, and usually 4-5 black women, all of us are north of 50, most north of 60. Since the killings in Charleston I have been the only black woman to come to class. One woman told me when I asked why she had not been coming that she could not be around white people right now. I did not, on purpose, bring up Charleston, these are conservative, Midwestern white women, generally uncomfortable with issues of race. But, they brought it up. They wanted to express dismay, fear that i would this against them, puzzlement about why it happened. The fact that it seemed so incomprehensible to them is one of the main things that amazed me. They wanted me to tell them how to stop racism. I told them the first thing America has to do is admit it has a problem. Like any disease or addiction you have to identify it first, diagnose its origins and then develop a plan to eradicate it.
Dear Dr. Newsom,
Thank you for reading, for your reply, and for sharing. Amen to your call toward acknowledgment. That is still a big step for lots of white folks.
I agree with you that it has been startling to hear how many people don’t have in their historical memory bank that this kind of violence against black people has been going on for generations.
It is hard to have a one-size-fits-all formula for soul level work, but Jesus seemed to have his finger on the pulse of one the most important things we need to do if we care about the status of our souls–tell the truth! That is my fervent prayer these days–for truth.
Thank you, again, for your comment. It is always a blessing to hear from you.
Marcia, I am so grateful for your truth telling and the way you invite us all into conversation, evolution, and hope. I have little that’s helpful to say right now and am so glad for those who can find words to try to move us forward, through, into a nation of equality someday.
Thank you for your comment. I have felt how you feel right now for several months–like I don’t know what to say. Sometimes we need to just sit with ourselves and the pain of it and let it speak to us.
I’ve also been doing a lot of reading (and listening) these last few months about slavery and whiteness. It has been really helpful. Some the reading are the books I list in the post.
Doing this work is a difficult road, and we don’t have a lot of sign posts or fellow travelers. But, I am finding that every once in a while I come into a clearing where I get some clarity on which way to go next.
I am thankful for you and for the ways you seek to speak truth.
Well said, Marcia, as usual. My fear is that when the dust settles and some other screaming headline draws our attention to something else, all the energy around white privilege and racism and confederate flags will again fade quietly into the background. That happened after Sandy Hook. That happened after Aurora. I am a white antiracist but sometimes I feel like a stranger in a strange land. And I am on the other side of 70 now. Why should the young people want to pick up the banner (especially if there isn’t an app for it. . .) when they don’t identify with some of the institutions that are addressing racism such as the church? I know I sound discouraged, and I am, but not enough to give up the journey. At least not yet.
Thank you for your comment. I hear you and your discouragement. I’ve been feeling that some of late. So much of the way our society deals with issues is fleeting and not substantive. I have to trust that there is a deeper, more intricate process at work that I can’t always see. Even when the conversation seems to die down and go away, there are still people doing the work (like you and me and others we know) who just don’t make the headlines. There are threads of continuity.
And, I do think there are ways that things have reached a tipping point in the last year that we have not seen before. How it effects the quagmire of politics and policy, I am not sure. I am praying it effects peoples hearts and souls!
Thank you again for your comments. They are always insightful and welcomed.
I join the chorus of thanks for this piece and for your voice and witness that continues to make a difference. One thing I learned early on at VU Div School was that once you learn something you can’t unlearn it and to go forward acting like you don’t know is the sin. I turn 55 in a few weeks and I continue to be amazed and saddened by my own sheltered ignorance. I am hopeful that our children’s generation will move forward with greater tenacity in acknowledging their privilege and claim their place in breaking it down.
Thank you again for voice, my friend.
Thank you for reading, for sharing, and for your comments. This work is a steep learning curve that pretty much changes everything. It is a journey that doesn’t sound very inviting to most people I know.
One of the things that strikes me about this and other healing opportunities is that we deny and avoid at our peril. That is, we can think that we could have chosen not to learn, see, or change–when in actuality waking up to the truth is something we must do to really live.
I join you in prayer that there are new pathways emerging for all of us to live into the transformation that our country needs.
Thank you, again, Linda.
I followed over to this thoughtful post from your husbands account on twitter. Please take my comments for what they are, my opinion and my opinion alone.
I just walked into the house after having had a fun time eating ice cream and spending time with my nieces, who I guess would be classified as black, and I guess I would be classified as white. Not one time while with them did I ever consider that we were a different race. It was a very fun time, and then I come home and realize that I should feel guilty.
I am sorry, but God does not want us to classify each other, he doesn’t want us to dwell in the past, he wants to move forward, love each other for who we are, and do the best we can with our talents and abilities.
I wish we would stop talking about race. I hoped that by now we would all be one. But it seems that will never happen.
Obviously I am very sad about the loss of those Christians in Charleston, just like I am sad about the endless murders in all of our big cities. But please do not lump me in with the illegal horrific actions of one deranged evil minded youth, or the lynch mobs of the early and mid 1900’s.
Thanks for listening.
Thank you for reading and for sharing your feelings. I know that much of what you are saying resonates with many white people.
The call to be colorblind and color-neutral is one that has sounded off the lips of many well-intentioned white people. This aspiration to “not see color,” however, does not erase the hard facts of racialized disadvantage that exists in every aspect of American culture. If you are dubious about the extent and depth of these disadvantages and inequities, I hope you will take a closer look. A great learning resource for unpacking these facts is entitled Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, by Tim Wise.
While it is wonderful that you and your nieces can enjoy one another in a space that doesn’t feel burdened by guilt or judgment of one another based on the socially constructed category of whiteness and blackness (a category that white male landowners in seventeenth century Colonial America created to protect their wealth and power), these moments of ease and joy do not change the fact that your nieces face different obstacles than you do. Your nieces will have to contend with race (and gender, too), whether they want to or not. The decision to navigate life without race being a factor is not one that people of color have in this country. That is a fact backed up by countless studies, statistics, and testimonies of people of color themselves. That is not my opinion.
This reality is one that white people have the luxury of denying–often because we’d rather not look at what that means for us. I agree with you that it is hard to look at this stuff and not feel deeply conflicted and confused and ashamed. At the same time, I know I must look at these things to truly live into who God calls me to be, who God made me to be. It is safe to say God didn’t want race to ever be the way human beings made sense of the world. Unfortunately, we have used it to make sense of the world, concentrate wealth, abuse power, and tell lies to ourselves for generations. When we say we shouldn’t have to look at those truths of how history has unfolded in this country, we deny how profoundly harmful they were and are particularly to people of color. And we deny that part of change and transformation includes truth telling. How can we ever be free from the ravages of racism, if we aren’t willing to tell the truth about it?
I think it is great that you are voicing your feelings. I hope you won’t stop there. I hope you will explore them and ask them what they have to tell you about yourself and the work that lies ahead for you. What is at stake for you in denying that race matters? What are you afraid will happen if you took a closer look at how you are connected to the payoffs in a world where race matters? Can you open yourself up to the possibility that your relationship with your nieces may actually be enhanced, not diminished, if you find the courage to look more closely at the realities of racism and white supremacy in our country?
You and I don’t know each other at all so I hope we can continue the conversation. We need to build relationships and communities willing to do this hard work together. And it has to start with our honest sharing about our feelings: our fears and our hopes. Thank you for sharing yours. Thank you, again, for listening to mine as well.
Thank you for your courage to explore and post about racism. I am feeling overwhelmed by all of it and not sure what my next anti-racism step is. I liked your above point about sitting with the pain and giving it space. I see the need for that, but I fear I might sit with it and never move. Do you have any recommendations for how folks can determine what their next step is in anti-racism?
p.s. I cannot wait for you new book!!!
Thank you for reading and for commenting. Your question about next steps is a good one. And I am sure it is one that you share with many people.
My answer to your question are some questions similar to those I asked J above.
What is a stake for you in doing this work?
Can you generate a list of fears and hopes: what scares you about going deeper into a critical awareness of whiteness? What do you hope for/what are your aspirations for what could come of doing this work?
I believe we have to tap into our own unique sense of urgency and come into awareness of where our resistance is to know what’s calling to us and what’s holding us back. It can be hard sometimes for the answers to surface, but they are there waiting for our attention.
When I lived in Oakland, CA and pastored a multi-ethnic/multi-racial church, we engaged in some of this work as a community. It was very helpful and generative to have these difficult and honest conversations in such a community. I’ve also believe that white people need to do more such work in all white settings as well. Some antiracism templates back me up on that explaining that people’s true feelings surface and can be addressed in a different way in these cohorts. The idea is that people of all different racial identities can benefit from open, honest processing with those who have common experiences and perspectives when the intention is to look critically at privilege and unconscious biases. These are not the only kinds of cohorts and relationships we need in this work, but I think it is an idea worth our consideration.
I feel like white people often have a learned helplessness around race conversations. We can think we can’t talk about race unless someone of color is in the room to start the conversation. This mentality indicates how difficult it is for white people to comprehend that racism is a system of privilege that starts with the benefit of whiteness. If we are not willing to acknowledge that and do constructive work in communities about what that really means, then I do not know how we can truly make our way into the new spaces we need to occupy.
I would love to hear more about your next steps, Rachel. Thank you, again, for sharing your questions here.
Thank you Marcia! Those are some great starting points/questions. And I love the point you made about the need for white people to talk about privilege and racism in a room full of white people. You’re right that the very makeup of the group can be a reason we don’t talk about it. I have witnessed that where I live. And I fear I will easily become part of that. But I love having this conversation here and I’m excited to be diving more deeply into these questions.
Thanks for the reply. I read every word. I hope that some day we can all be judged by the content of our character, and the efforts we make to improve the world around us, and not by the color of our skin, or our gender, or our attractiveness, or accent/language, or our IQ. I feel that I am well on the way to doing just that. Not always, but I am trying.
Thanks, Boiler Up!
Thank you for your reply and for reading mine so closely. Yes, the aspiration Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr voiced to the nation during his ministry that you reference in your comments is a beautiful one.
Dr. King also spoke of the profound importance of surfacing and addressing the realities of systemic racism and privilege alongside this individual soul work that we all need to do around how we regard others.
He was engaging in that kind of prophetic call around systemic racism to our nation in the first version of his “I have a dream” speech that he actually gave in Detroit before the second version became famous during the March on Washington. He was talking about poverty, education, housing, and the workplace in Detroit in some ways that, unfortunately, still ring true today. And, when he was assassinated in Memphis he was there to support striking African-American sanitation workers.
While these historical facts may be familiar, we still would rather hold up the aspirational parts of Dr. King’s words than attend to the ugly details of why we still are not where Dr. King’s dream called us yet in America.
I have no doubt that you are a good and earnest person. I have no doubt that you are working hard to be a good person. The challenge is how that translates into the discomfort of looking at systems and institutions–many that we trust and that helped to form who we are.
I do hope we can stay in conversation. I appreciate your willingness to start the conversation here. Blessings to you and your family as you continue to explore what all these things mean for you and for the larger world.