Written by Andy Beck ’17 and Zach Gabor ’15.
Last week, Tri-Co students and faculty gathered at Bryn Mawr College to express their outrage at the appearance of a Confederate flag on the school’s campus, and the perceived reticence of the administration to respond adequately to the flag’s publically visible presence. We applaud them for having done so. In displaying a symbol with deeply hurtful connotations, the responsible student behaved inexcusably. We do not expect most Bi-Co students to have to consider the incident for more than a moment to make this same determination.
However, the question of what cultural or social conditions in the Bi-Co could have contributed to the occurrence of this incident is a much subtler one, worthy of careful consideration. This question is an interesting one, but more importantly, it is one that has to be addressed if we Bi-Co community members are interested in lessening the likelihood of similar events occurring in the future.
In considering what motivated the responsible student to display the flag, it makes sense to first discuss what probably did not motivate her: a conscious endorsement of an ideology of racial supremacy. Although various individuals and organizations do still adopt the Confederate flag as a favored symbol for this reason, the most common motivation for displaying the flag, particularly in the South, is to express pride in Southern culture.
Of course, this is no excuse. When somebody in a Confederate flag t-shirt argues that their garb is not offensive because they only mean to endorse the racially neutral aspects of the South, and not the flag’s racist connotations, they miss the point. The intent behind the symbol’s display does not matter; it is the symbol under which a large faction of American society fought for the right to enslave people of a certain color, and it carries the odious and hurtful connotations of that fight whenever it is displayed, regardless of intent. But although an understanding that the responsible student most likely intended to express Southern pride in no way excuses her actions, it affords us a perspective from which we can begin to unpack what, in all likelihood, her motivation was.
What situation would drive an individual to such a predictably inflammatory gesture? We suggest that it was most likely an expression of frustration at the marginalization of southern culture within the Bi-Co. Surely, everybody in either college is aware of the sense in which, on our campuses, and among the Northern academic community in general, the South is a punchline. In Northeastern academic culture, it is distressingly common for the American Southerners to be subjected to jokes and judgments grounded in stereotypes. This treatment is inappropriate, just as similar treatment of students of other cultural backgrounds is inappropriate. We do not dispute that white Southerners occupy, due to their whiteness, a position of privilege in our society in many respects. We simply mean to point out that in the North, there are also certain respects in which white Northerners occupy a position of privilege in comparison to white Southerners, and as a white and Northern commentators, to remind a mostly white and Northern community to be mindful of this reality.
Why is this reality pertinent in this context? Because although last week’s protests are a laudable and necessary part of an ideal response to this incident, they are not the entirety of the solution. Everyone in the Bi-Co is well educated enough to realize that displaying the Confederate flag would hurt and anger much of the community. The perpetrator of the incident presumably realized that it would, and acted as she did anyway. Thus, although reaffirming that we are hurt and angered is important to do, it is unlikely that reminding people of what they already know will discourage anyone who is inclined to do something like this from doing it. We need to concern ourselves not only with condemning incidents of this sort, but also with preventing them.
To do so, we need to understand what sorts of conditions provoked this incident as a response (however inexcusable that response may have been) and attend to alleviating these conditions. In this case, the relevant understanding is of the ways in which Southern culture is marginalized in Northern academic culture, and the relevant attention should be directed toward refusing to participate in this marginalization.
We believe that the ostentatious display of a Confederate flag on a Northern college campus is reactionary in its very nature. In describing the incident as reactionary, we fully intend to convey all of the negative connotations that are traditionally associated with that adjective (see what we did there?). However, we also find this choice of adjective fitting, because it raises the question: “if this incident was reactionary, what was it a reaction to?” In considering the answer to this question, we may well be able to make more substantive progress in preventing similar incidents from occurring in the future than we could in any other way.