I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina and as a white kid, the Confederate flag was a part of my everyday cultural capital. Like many, if not most, white kids of my generation, I had binders with the flag, clothing with the flag, anything with the flag. Like many, if not most, white kids of my generation, and perhaps white southerners in general, I never thought much about its broader signification beyond a vague sort of pride in being from The South.
When I got to high school that started to change for me. A young African-American woman at another school was sent home for wearing a shirt from the now long defunct NuSouth Clothing, whose symbol was the stars and bars redone in the colors of the African National Congress. Students would eventually be suspended over this.
I’m sure there were numerous other instances I simply failed to notice and others I’ve forgotten, but I honestly remember that incident as being the first where I noticed the overt policing of white privilege and white symbols. On reflection, it helped me make sense of another, even stranger incident from several years earlier when a white student attending my public Middle School wore a t-shirt parodying the title of Spike Lee’s 1991 film Boyz N the Hood. It was one of the first iterations of a white-power themed franchise that, if Google results mean anything, remains in circulation. I didn’t (and don’t) remember the white student being sent home for what anyone would recognize as an aggressive, overt gesture of hostility.
Those separate incidents fueled my awakening to what it means to be a white, heterosexual man in the south and the rest of the US. White privilege means, in part, the ability to define other people’s symbols, histories, and humanity without ever having to reflect on your own. Whiteness means telling others what the Confederate battle flag means to you without listening to what it means to them. In the examples above, t-shirts nakedly celebrating white power are acceptable (everyone looks the other way), but those contesting or decentering white narratives are not (students get suspended).
Regarding the use of Native American mascots by sports teams and the use of Native American images like the now infamous #siouxperdrunk, this is where I’m coming from as a white, heterosexual man. I understand the use and abuse of these images as ultimately coming from and reproducing white privilege, regardless of the “intent” white folks express in their use of such imagery. Put another way, whiteness means never having to see yourself as others see you, a way of seeing that the African-American thinker W.E.B Dubois termed “double-consciousness” in his masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk. This failure is reflected in the kind of tone-deafness being exhibited all across the internet with regard to this matter, with a number of white folks asking “what’s the big deal?,” telling Native Americans to “just get over it,” and accusing those offended to stop being “overly sensitive.” Never having been subjected to this kind of symbolic violence, a symbolic violence that comes from a history of material violence and reminds all parties that material violence happened and could again, many white folks simply do not understand why this is a problem and reject even listening to those who say it is.
As a white, male, heterosexual faculty member at the University of North Dakota, this is precisely why tomorrow I am going to #WalkForChange. This IS a big deal. If I may paraphrase the title of one of Standing Rock Sioux Vine Deloria, Jr.’s books, it’s time for white folks to shut up, let others talk, and listen.