Kovie Biakolo: Malcolm X once said, “If you are black, you were born in jail, in the North as well as the South. Stop talking about the South. As long as you are South of the Canadian border, you are South.”
I like this quote a lot probably because it seems to get to the heart of the perception that Southern racism is not worse than Northern racism. Now there is a history to point to, that can make the argument that it is. But I want to know your take on this: Is the South more racist than the North? And why or why not?
Dan Hayes: While I’ve never lived in the Deep South I’ve certainly visited and the only blatant use of real racist language I’ve ever heard from an adult was in Mississippi, and it was unapologetic. Having said that, having lived in East Tennessee, Eastern and Central Kentucky, Northern Virginia, and Yonkers, New York, there seemed to be as much casual racism in the North and around DC as there was anywhere else I’d lived.
I think there’s a sort of illusion that may be expressing itself again now, that the North has never been a racist place and that it’s currently not a racist place. We all saw on social media when Eric Garner was killed that the media wanted to talk about how it was the police that were racist and it seemed to be framed as an issue within law enforcement there. When it happens outside the North, the media and people from outside seem to want to say it’s more representative of the people and racial tension in the community.
I think that’s an interesting spin on it. In the North it’s a police problem but in the South it’s defined by others as a community problem.
KB: I would mostly agree with that, even having only lived in the so-called North of the United States, but also having traveled to almost every region, and sufficiently interacting with different places and people in each region. That said, I like to say that the difference between the racism in the South and the racism in the North is that Southerners are just more upfront about their racism, which, to be honest, is a lot easier for me to deal with. I think people in the North tend to cover their racism with a certain kind of liberal politics and sensibilities. But maybe I’m also just the kind of person who likes their racism upfront. (I may be stealing this line from Dave Chappelle.) What do have you say about the notion of these above-mentioned differences?
DH: Well, in my experience racism in Appalachia, at least, isn’t racism born out of experience or tradition for the most part. Definitely there are older people and certainly the odd younger person who are explicitly racist but I don’t think there’s a ton of them. For one thing, in the mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, etc, there just aren’t that many black people. I’ve also written about this phenomenon where people in the mountains kind of play at racism as if they think they’re supposed to be racist, as if they heard it somewhere, but when they have actual encounters with black people they find they’re a lot alike. In Lexington, the city I’m in now, I think it’s a lot more like a caste system where there’s a really pretty bad part of town and most of the poor black people live there. So you have that contrast even across different areas of the South often with cities being full of more actual, real, and culturally institutionalized racist feeling than in rural areas.I think that’s likely counterintuitive to some people but it’s been my experience.
The feeling I got when I was in New York, and I was there from 1999 to 2002, is that there were a lot of white people who sort of empathized with the black community but didn’t actually have any black friends and that’s, I think, a common theme among a lot of white liberals. They like the idea of black people but they don’t necessarily want to be around them. I say that as someone who considers themselves a liberal, generally.
To me, the hidden “I’m your ally” kind of racism is more culturally dangerous because it’s predicated on a deception that can’t be directly addressed. It’s almost like it’s invisible or camouflaged behind a smile. Have you come across that kind of thing at all?
KB: I tend not to generalize personal experiences of racism because my reading of interactions is often much more complex, due to my specific education; and then there is my nationality and “third culture kid” upbringing. Considering I studied this in school, considering I’m a black person who had to learn of the constructs of Blackness in the American context in both theoretical and practical ways – the truth is I can point to racism in just about any place and contexts. And for me, it exists in every facet of the country – some places more than others. But I don’t know if I would divide those places by region, and certainly not North or South.
As far as friendships between black people and white people, or white people and other people of color in general, it’s always been a surprise to me when people can “count” the number of friends they have of a particular racial background. And indeed they can. I think about that famous Chris Rock joke about all white people having one black friend – and it isn’t actually a joke – it’s a reality. And I’ve found people often use that one friend to shield themselves from being seen as racist. Or in the case of a romantic relationship, they might use a significant other. But I don’t buy into that logic. The truth is white friends are still white, and as such, are institutionally racist. They might be good, decent, and ordinary people, but they’re still racist. And not necessarily in an overt way, but can you really grow up in America’s social system and not turn out a racist? I’m yet to meet that person.
I think one of the problems is that we think of racists as only people who wave confederate flags and yell “Nigger!” But that’s to make racism into something so narrow, and clearly it isn’t. I think we would probably have more serious conversations about race and racism if we can accept the institutional participation of racism that all people are complicit in.
I’ll have to think more about your “hidden ally” position though. I think there’s some goodness in it, but if it’s not actually being translated from an idea into your personal life, reflection is needed. If you’re white and live in a “diverse” place and have only one black or friend of color, maybe you should ask yourself why.
DH: And I think that’s a fine question, really. I don’t think there’s much doubt we live in a pseudo-segregated culture where this group of people goes here and the other goes there and I’ve never seen one whit of difference in that behavior between the North and the South. One thing I think does occur is that the South, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, is made to be the symbol of racism for the entire country when any person of color from the North knows that’s just silly. I tend to think a lot of the “Southern pride” stuff we hear out of the South these days is as much a reaction to that as it is some deep seeded love of Lee’s battle flag. I also literally don’t think a lot of Southerners (or maybe anyone from anywhere, really) actually know what the Confederate flag looks like, which should tell everyone just how dead serious those talking heritage are about the flag being a symbol of heritage.
It does seem that the rowdy, beer swilling, flag waving racist is sort of the default stereotype for what a racist is. In terms of American culture and history, that’s a deeply American concept. The notion that the North won the war and was therefore deemed by history to be the non-racist party is sort of an American default. We’re taught it in school as a binary where the North opposed slavery – which it did – and therefore every person in the North is deemed not racist. It’s a very convenient thing but the scapegoating that it creates isn’t helpful for addressing racism in either the North or the South. It’s really most useful for finger-pointing and point scoring in a game with no winner. And in this way, I suppose, some white people can make the ills of racism about themselves.
KB: Your last statement is striking to me. It’s somewhat of a revelation that maybe these North and South conversations about who’s better or worse at being a racist, really come down to which sets of white people are trying their hardest not to be seen as racist. And I choose my words carefully because I think perception is the key here.
I do think, however, that a lot of people in the North because of the way they’ve been raised to think about racism, tend to view the South as backwards. And I also think that there are many instances where we know that a lot of white supremacist groups tend to be in the southern United States. So I don’t think we can completely render the South free from the claims that it might be a worse place to live if you’re a Black person, depending on where you live in the South. Would you agree or disagree that the north might be “safer” to live in general? Or is there no basis for that claim?
DH: Of course it depends where you lived. Some cities are less safe no matter who you are. However, I think it’s telling that a list of 10 black majority cities in the U.S. only includes two Northern cities and those are Detroit and Flint in Michigan. If the South was still unimaginably dangerous for black people then I think more would be moving out.
As for white supremacist groups, sure, I’d imagine there are quite a few and we’ve seen in the media that even some police officers have been found out to be members of white supremacist groups. I don’t think you’d see that in the North, ever. I mean, there’s a reason the Southern Poverty Law Center isn’t in Pittsburgh.
I literally cannot speak to what a black person may or may not feel about safety in the South. I can, however, share an odd anecdote that I think is fairly good at illustrating the friction of overt racism at least in places I’ve lived near. I lived in Knoxville, TN for a long time both as a kid and a college grad and there’s a community called Halls that’s out in the county on the edge of Knoxville. I can’t remember exactly when this was but I believe it was the early 2000s. Apparently a black family moved to Halls which is known to be quite rural although less so in 2015. They bought a home and either a few days or a few weeks after they’d moved in, some enterprising individual decided to burn a cross in their yard. This family was not from the South. They were from the North and this rightly terrified them. At the same time, the rest of the community flocked to them and when they told the local news they were considering moving, the supportive people, and there were many, asked them to stay and, as I recall, they did stay.
I told that story to say that I think, yes, the racist groups or people willing to do things like burn crosses on lawns are more prevalent in the South but the truth of that is that those people are punching above their weight, generally. This is sort of the “small, vocal minority theory” of all this. The idea that most people aren’t this way, but some are, and with a past that included burning crosses – the idea of doing so does not shock the conscience of the average Southerner as a concept. That’s not to say it’s not seen as disgusting, just that it’s been done thousands of times before.
The burning cross, to me at least, is basically a hollow symbol. There’s no army of hooded race warriors standing behind something like that. Most likely, it’s two drunk racists with a truck, some wood, and some gasoline.
But as I’ve said to you before, the Deep South experience of blatant racism is basically an unknown to me. The Southern/Appalachian aspect of it is my direct experience.
KB: I know that was a tough question, and maybe almost an impossible one to answer because it is ultimately about black experiences. But I sometimes find that asking such questions boldly to those outside of the experience may get us to a different understanding of their perceptions.
That aside, I tend to be less fearful of white hoods in this day and age than of the ordinary person who might be harboring violence in their heart, waiting for the right trigger. And even more so, those who have found a way to be in positions of authority who don’t wear the hood, but might as well do so. Of course, burning crosses and hoods for many black Americans is embedded in a real subcultural memory, so I imagine it is not something that one renders insignificant even when times have changed.
Now one of my problems with how we discuss race in general and of course it’s here as well, are our binary black/white conceptualizations. It’s so difficult to avoid it even as we become more and more aware of it. Can you speak to what you think are experiences of difference of North and South in terms of people of color as whole in relation to White people? Or does it just always depend on the particular race and ethnicity?
And to go on a bit of a tangent from that too, our race conversations in this country continue to be inadequate, and for many reasons, in my view. I think people have a hard time coming to public conversations with both openness and empathy, which are both needed. I think there is often a lot of deflection from fundamental issues and instead people prefer to talk about being “nice” to each other. And in the end, I prefer the brutal honesty of people in conversation because I can handle that. But I can’t handle trying to read between the lines of how people talk about race. And I certainly don’t appreciate the refusal to focus on the institutional racism and its consequences, in favor of focusing on other less impactful conversations. I guess in your opinion, how do we talk about these things in public? How do we overcome our fears of talking about these things with each other?
DH: I think that black people in the North and South generally have to deal with the exact same kinds of issues. Since the North generally has a higher average wage, etc, I’d imagine there are theoretically more opportunities to make money and have a higher standard of living there, but I couldn’t say that for certain. Housing in NYC is insane, after all. If you really pushed me for a big difference in issues I think black people have to deal with, I can’t come up with one. That may be down to simple ignorance.
In terms of other people of color, I don’t think Southerners, for instance, have any racial animosity historical or otherwise towards people of color from places like India or East Asia. That’s just not a part of the culture. In my experience they’re seen benignly as a sort of oddity, and that’s just down to low populations outside of large Southern cities. I think there’s probably more racist feeling in terms of non-black people of color in the North than in the South proper. Now, of course, anti-Islamic feeling knows no regional boundary.
Regarding the notion of an open racial dialogue, I don’t think the media wants that, and I think they’d destroy it if it started. That’s not a knock against “big media” or something, but a real discussion isn’t going to come out of everyone nodding and being polite. Black people have very real fears about what white people might do to them in terms of economics and, of course, physically. At the same time, white people have very real fears about black people. There’s no polite way to talk about these things. These are real fears and in many cases these fears have seemed to be proven justified. Keep in mind that when you’re afraid of something it only takes one occurrence of your fear coming true to keep justifying that fear.
A lot of these things are simple stereotypes but they have to get addressed and not in a hand waving “these are silly questions” kind of way. People, black and white, are ignorant about each other and I think that can only change face to face. These fears and others’ are real and they won’t even start to go away until we start taking each other seriously. That may require getting mad at one another a bit and if that’s done with the intention of reconciliation and friendship then it can be positive. After all, you can get mad at your friend and you’re still friends.
But the kind of racial dialogue we see being called for at major events and on television isn’t a dialogue at all. It’s a call for public figures and the media to create an event that people can cover and make money from covering, and I think most people recognize that. What do you think of the sincerity of these calls for action in the media, etc?
KB: Firstly, I would disagree that black people are as ignorant about white people than the reverse. The default American culture, American representation, etc. is white. That’s just what it is. And I think when you’re raised with those messages in mind, it would be hard to be ignorant. You might get stereotypes along the way, but I would think that black people are generally more aware of white culture than the reverse.
As for sincerity in the media with regard to racial dialogue, I don’t have much to say about it other than it comes across as trite at best, and completely disingenuous at worst. I think that we do this thing all the time where something major happens – people moan and cry out, and then maybe we’re pacified for a while, and then a few days pass – maybe a week – something else happens. Rinse. Repeat. For me, I think there should be a truth and reconciliation measure that takes place on local levels, and encourages real participation from everyday people.
And you’re certainly right on the money – I think that we need to have these bitter truths and perspectives and opinions out in the open. For what it’s worth, I don’t think many of us caught in this racist system are out here with racist intentions and plans and actions – and that goes for everyone. But I do think that we need to have the courage to be more self-reflective in both a personal and communal way, especially those who are in positions of privilege. And I’ll end with that.