White Guilt

Sherwin called me a “stupid cracker bitch” in 1986. Stupid. Cracker. Bitch. I’ve been parsing it out ever since along with your memory, your soft black skin, the bright pink scarf you wound around your coarse hair, and your silence forged in three-hundred years of bigotry and degradation.  

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Your name was Iris. At least that’s what sticks in my head. We roomed together for one semester at UNC-Charlotte. Freshman year, I tried to live at home and go to school but home left me when my parents moved south, to Florida where alligators and Palmetto bugs eat dogs and threaten to snatch babies out of bassinets. My plan was to live at home, gain my freshman fifteen on Cheetos and Whoppers, and learn something about Russian literature because I loved Crime and Punishment, or maybe I loved my teacher because she was from the UK and taught with a posh British accent. I gained the fifteen pounds but failed Russian. Didn’t know there’d be an entirely different alphabet to navigate. They don’t tell you what you’ll have to navigate in college. My parents packed up, leaving me behind at the end of my first semester, and I moved into Moore Hall, sixth floor, with you.

 You came from Fayetteville, North Carolina to school in Charlotte. Majoring in history or sociology if my memory serves, which it does not. You were already settled in our tiny 12x12 room. Cold and stone grey. The tile floors in our hall were beige with tiny flecks of grey. Colorless. When we met, we were generically cordial.

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We spoke, briefly, when necessary. I asked you to breakfast or dinner. Surely the lure of cafeteria casserole could overcome any differences in race or background; nothing celebrates diversity like a communion plate full of unidentifiable meat and processed cheese products. But you refused to go. Every time.

You claimed you had to study for a history exam or a chemistry quiz. Was your silence racially motivated? This was the mid Eighties, not the mid Fifties, I thought.  We’re post race now, aren’t we? We’ve moved past fear and resentment perpetuated by pigment and biblical narratives. Ours was the era of Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie holding hands with Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen. We are the World. Post “Ebony and Ivory.” We’re living together in perfect harmony, with or without a piano. This was Reagan’s America-- trickle down equality.

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I had a big Shakespeare exam coming up and hit the sack early one warm April night. I had to write something smart about Shakespeare’s Green World in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the next morning. Sherwin and Kendra were visiting you that night. You chatted about movies and music. You argued with each other about Whitney Houston, who garnered multiple Grammy awards that year. I can’t remember what Kendra said, but you didn’t like Whitney. You liked Janet Jackson. You loved Janet. You played Control over and over, dancing when I was out of the room and squelching your dance when I was in our room. 1986 was before iPods and personal computers and tiny ear buds. You listened to Janet on your Walkman; I could hear Nasty through the round foam headphones you wore to keep the music in, or to keep me out. I wasn’t into much of anything in 1986, not musically. I collected movie memorabilia and had just scored an Out of Africa poster from the local movie theater. The film, based on a rich white Danish woman’s memoir about running a coffee plantation in Kenya, won multiple Oscars that year and I proudly displayed the movie poster in our room. The Color Purple was nominated in nearly every category as well and took home zero Oscars.

I was pretending to sleep to stay out of your business, but Sherwin and Kendra’s whispered anger was clear. I heard him say something about “that stupid cracker bitch.” He wanted to “beat some sense into her.”  You said, “no, let’s just go to your room to study.” And he muttered something under his breath about “ripping it off the damn wall” as you left, sometime after midnight, slamming our heavy door behind you. I sat up, trembling, heart pounding. Rip what off the wall? Had I just started a race war with my Out of Africa poster? I knew it was a racially charged story, but I thought back then, it’s just a nice love story, and it’s not really about race. No. That wasn’t the source of your indignation. It wasn’t Isaak Dinezen’s infantilizing of black workers on a coffee plantation at all. It was my Georgia state flag, as Sherwin muttered; it was that “bunch of KKK shit.”

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1986 was seventeen long years before my home state of Georgia finally removed the Confederate bars and stars from its state flag; the symbol itself was added to the flag in the mid-1950’s, one account suggests, as a reaction against the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The Confederate version of the flag flew high above the capitol in Atlanta until protests evolving from the 1996 Olympics convinced lawmakers and (eventually) enough residents to change it back, revising the original design with a rather benign state seal with red and white stripes in 2003. My heritage was steeped in the flag’s racist 1956 version. Like sugar in sweet tea—which should only be mixed in while the water is boiling so the sugar dissolves completely with the tea leaves—the racist symbolism in the 1956 flag infused our collective unconscious. 

Further, I’m originally from Kennesaw, Georgia, a Civil War battlefield site just north of Atlanta. Kennesaw, named after a native Cherokee burial ground, is a space heavy with white power memorabilia, gun laws designed to scare black people away, and KKK daggers in the shape of crosses for sale. You can still get them half-priced at Dent “Wildman” Myers’ Civil War Surplus shop, honored by the Kennesaw Historic Preservation Society in 1993. Kennesaw requires every resident to own a gun and the ammunition to go with it. They say it’s to help keep domestic crime down. I say it was aimed at keeping black people from moving there. Didn’t work; Kennesaw is now 43% African American. I don’t know what percentage of those families own guns to keep white people away.

I hung up that flag in your room, in our room, without a thought in my head for how it would make you feel. I took it down after you left for Kendra’s room. But we never spoke of it. We barely spoke again before moving out to separate but equal apartments on campus. Nineteen-year old Amy didn’t know how to talk about white skin, black skin, or the marks the flag left on your memory. Like you, she was also silenced by the burden of race, but on the wrong side of the burden.  

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Stupid. Unintelligent and/or ignorant. Often associated with low class, low birth, characterized by or proceeding from mental dullness. My granddaddy called the black workers at his grocery store the “N” word, complete with all its vowels and consonants. I heard it often. Mama said it was a leftover shackle from our ante-bellum Southern dialect. Except it was also a word used in post-war Southern dialect. And turn of the century dialect. And by the Greatest Generation’s dialect, my grandparents’ generation, a Jim Crow generation. I thought the word had lost its meaning when it lost the syllables and became “the N word.” It was an artifact, a disease destroyed when the cotton got eaten by the boll weevil. But the word, like the flag, was never erased--it was reconfigured for each generation, embroidered in new patterns and weaponry. I thought its disease could no longer infect me. That was stupid.

Cracker. A racially charged term with overtones of rural white poor in the South, particularly Georgia and Florida. I grew up thinking of myself as a Georgia Cracker because I liked how it sounded. I thought it had something to do with saltines, a salty wit and lively, spunky chitchat. In fact, the term connotes wisecracking entertainments, festive conversation from Shakespeare’s age. But in Georgia, it denotes the cracking of whips by brutal slave-owners into the flesh of their slaves, dogs, and cattle. It’s a term of torture. After we went our separate ways, I made sure to change my status to Georgia Peach. Peaches are a harmless fruit and not a symbol of unspeakable terror and pain. Georgia is, after all, the Peach State.

Bitch. Always slang. Always pejorative. Always gendered. I don’t think of myself as a bitch. But I do, in many ways, feel like racism’s bitch. I can’t ever be released from the Southern White Girl label any more than you can change your skin’s pigment. Twenty-eight years after you slammed the door, I cannot reach back and stop my adolescent self from hanging the flag in our small shared space. I can’t find you. Can’t apologize to your face for that indignity. Can’t offer restitution or repent. I now work with black colleagues suspicious of me, I think, because the Southern White Girl stench sticks to me wherever I go, even nearly thirty years later, even in Illinois. I resemble Lady Macbeth, washing my hands, unable to get the blood out, but hopeful, as in Act 2, that “a little water clears us of this deed. How easy it is then!” Lady Mac scrubbed her flesh raw and couldn’t change her past. Neither can I.

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I tried looking you up on Facebook. I’d apologize. Seek forgiveness. At least find you. But memory and Google couldn’t find you--I couldn’t remember your full name. Just Iris.  

Here are the questions I can’t ask because I don’t know who you are: What did your parents do for a living? How many brothers and sisters did you have? I’m sorry I hung a racist symbol in our dorm room. What did you do after college?  Did you get married? Have children? I became a teacher. I teach students why they shouldn’t use Confederate flags as screen savers on their Mac Books. I tell them our story; I tell them how ignorant I was. I teach them to watch for the ways that racism is inherited and embodied in our national psyche. I can’t wash away my sins, but I can encourage all of my students to think and to pay attention to words and images. They ask why this story still matters. Some stupid white girl in the 80’s was dumb enough to put up a Confederate flag in a room with a black roommate? That’s her white guilt story. So what?

So Ferguson. So Baltimore. So everywhere.  An Associated Press headline recently read, Mississippi: 3 Sentenced to Prison in Racially Motivated Killing. Three white men deliberately ran over a black man with their car. The case lingered while the judicial system determined whether or not it was a hate crime.  

White people still see the Confederate flag as a fashion symbol, something embroidered on camouflage hats picked up at Casey’s General Store, or as something to be celebrated on license plates. The flag, some argue, is devoid of the old meanings, as if slavery and the legacy of slavery could be shed like alligator scales. It’s an image of Southern pride and not of racism. The Confederate image isn’t a divisive symbol of racism in the same way that running over a black man for sport isn’t a hate crime.

As I write this, the Supreme Court is hearing a Texas case involving the Sons of Confederate Veterans who argue Texas has violated their free speech by rejecting a state license plate sporting the Confederate image. The Sons’ aim is to remember the history and legacy of those who fought and died preserving the Southern way of life, which is inextricably bound to slavery. In the end, the court could rule, listening to the ACLU’s well-articulated defense, that the state of Texas may not choose to regulate speech on the basis of ideological differences. And, legally, perhaps that’s correct. But it’s immoral. The Confederate stars and bars perpetuate hate and only serves as a reminder of human cruelty.  

Of course this is a story of white guilt: Middle-aged white woman wrestles with racist demons in public. Guilt, in its Anglo-Saxon (it’s as white a word as you can get) origin has two distinct meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Guilt simultaneously denotes a “failure of duty, a crime, or sin,” and “responsibility for an action or offense.” I am guilty of hanging a Confederate image in my college dorm; it was a failure. I thought, like other sons and daughters of the Confederacy, that the flag carried Southern pride. Pride in a way of life supported by slavery, kidnapping, rape, and the destruction of families isn’t pride—it’s a sin. We’ve failed in our collective responsibility to heal national wounds if we continue to ignore the flag’s symbolism as an ominous Faulknerian portent: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”