This is a guest post by Rachel B., a real-life Southerner, now living in our nation’s capitol. It is in response to this Alternet piece, entitled “Is the South Dragging the Rest of the Nation Down?”
When I first moved to Washington, DC, more than seven years ago, I noticed many people put on a fake smile after I told them I’d come from Texas. It wasn’t until a few months in that it came out that I was liberal, and suddenly the ice melted. That was the first time I realized that the open-minded North could be as closed-minded to Southerners as the folks back home were to Yankees.
I’ve visited many Southern and Western states through my jobs, and there seems to be one universal truth: everyone seems to think of themselves as “the true America” – the Eastern founding states, with rich colonial history and modern economic centers; the South with its former glory days as an economic powerhouse and the current seat of god-fearing patriotism; and the West, the ongoing evidence of Manifest Destiny and the entertainment and tech industry headquarters.
When I visit these places away from the East Coast, I find people distrustful of me until I drop in some “y’alls” and mention I’m from a small town in Texas. Something I didn’t intend to happen – a mixed perspective from growing up in small, all-white, proudly conservative Christian town, and then living as an adult in a large and incredibly important international city – has actually become one of my greatest strengths in my career: the ability to adapt and relate to different viewpoints. I don’t always agree with those viewpoints, but I generally know why they think they’re right, and I’m able to seem relatable enough to get work done.
I was lucky to have parents – and grandparents – who were Democrats and raised me to believe that being Christian meant really loving everyone, and allowing them to live their lives. And yet, I was also surrounded with religious beliefs that didn’t mix well with our politics: I went to college firmly believing that while we should accept gay people, they were sinning and should be prayed for; that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery; and that sexuality was wrong except in the confines of a marriage.
Some older, yet progressive, relatives were known to use Paula Deen’s favorite word, and some who lived near the Mexican border had an intense distrust of Mexicans. The author says of Confederate soldiers and sympathizers: “This enabled them to stand above the mudsill of black slavery and prevented them from sinking into the morass of inequality, as did wage workers and poor men in the North.” This is quite similar to why the immigration debate is so very heated in the border states. To suggest that immigrants should be given rights – to be protected under the law – is to associate oneself with them. Poor whites feel better having someone who seems more downtrodden than themselves; we can’t have the immigrants raised up to an equal socioeconomic level. This has been true throughout history; I fear there will always be a downtrodden, yearning mass.
I was fortunate to be able to travel the world, meet people from different perspectives and races, and spend four years in college learning critical thinking skills and world history (much of which pointed out how much of religion and politics depended on one other for power) – and still considered myself a traditional Christian and a proud Southerner. I had expanded my viewpoints on many of the social issues, but I still hadn’t shaken the antiquated parts of the value and belief system that was hammered into me every Sunday, with prayers before school events and football games, with neighbors flying Confederate flags, and with all the things that had surrounded me for the better part of my first two decades.
All this is to say that while I, too, shake my head at the things I hear many (but importantly, not all) Christian Southern whites say, that I hear Republican elected officials proclaim with unfortunate regularity, I have seen myself how hard it is to escape a mentality when you are both immersed in it and a victim of those under-funded public schools. And what if I had grown up in more conservative household, and hadn’t had the opportunities to travel? Had wanted – or had no choice to – stay close to home rather than move away? It would be even harder to mentally break away.
Of course, that doesn’t make any of it okay. I don’t feel bad for the plantation owners who had a hard time understanding that they couldn’t own their slaves anymore. But I think that there is great danger in grouping 35% of the United States population (those in the former Confederate states) into one big bucket. It assumes that there are no dissenters, no people who would be horribly impacted by a return to the white extremist Christian South of the past. Liberals spend a fair amount of time worrying about victims of government abuse in foreign countries; it seems the least we could do is to want to keep the Southern United States with us to protect the gays, blacks, Muslims, immigrants, atheists, and other marginalized groups in these areas. Perhaps some of them don’t want protecting; but that’s never stopped a good liberal from protesting before.
It also assumes that there are no racists, extreme conservatives, or otherwise unsavory folks in the North. One only has to go off the main highways in Pennsylvania to see Confederate flags waving proudly in the wind, with no less gusto than those in Alabama or Louisiana. I’ve heard some incredibly offensive comments and ideas from people who live in New England, about as far North as you can get.
Another problem with this scenario is – what of the West? Do we define the South as the states that fought for the Confederacy 150 years ago? Is it any state that went red in the last election? There are some Republican-leaning states that still have progressive policies; Republican doesn’t have to mean innately religious (although it unfortunately usually does, these days). Do we split up California, so the liberal coast becomes part of North USA, and the conservative interior goes to the South? Would Northern Virginia, Austin, Denver, and other spots of blue in a red landscape fall to the same divisive fate?
I also find my Texas pride and my hope for a more progressive society, no matter where you live, renewed from stories like a state representative standing for eleven hours to defend countless women who have asked for no more than control over their own bodies. Even more, I am inspired by the thousands of men and women who stood, and continue to stand, with her. Stories like this emerge occasionally from small and not-so-small corners of the nation – like a break in the clouds on a stormy day, giving a glimmer of hope that these are just growing pains and not a permanent slide backwards.
As for the cultural implications – while I will always love my home state and have an affinity for the South, despite all its flaws – that’s overrated. The primary irony in this is that rock and roll, jazz, blues, and much of Southern cooking was heavily influenced – if not originated – by slave descendants. Plus, it didn’t just originate in Memphis or New Orleans – Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Buffalo all were host to a variety (dare I say mixing pot?) of cultures that helped grow and refine the musical and culinary offerings of the United States. Many of the most famous Southern writers traveled and moved often, and some were even (gasp) gay – a part Southern Christian conservatives would probably gloss over when touting the great artists of the South. What these authors were good at, if not being a “true,” acceptable Southerner, was documenting the plight of the Southern man it in a way that resounded with people. There is indeed a unique culture and heritage in the South; but it is intrinsically tied to the development of our nation. We grew up together.
The article states that the US is like a “bad marriage that needs to end in order to save the children.” It seems to me like we’re more like arguing parents who are forgetting about the children in our desire to just give up on a difficult marriage that will require much work to make it work once again.