Being a Southerner in a major city has made me acutely aware of what I appreciate about my heritage, and those qualities I loathe about it. When I moved to the DC metro area 5 years ago, folks knew immediately that I wasn’t from around here. I learned quickly that the ease of my smile was welcomed precisely because warmth is an unfamiliar character trait around these parts. Likewise, the first time I visited New York a few years ago, I thanked a man for information and he called me back over to where he was standing to ask where I was from. When I told him I hailed from the great state of Alabama, he said to his comrades, “Told ya she wasn’t from here.”
Moments like these provide great perspective. Because to Yankees, southern hospitality represents a kind of charm and grace that you just don’t get everywhere. We say “please” and “thank you” and “ma’am” because somebody along the way told us that’s how decent people treat people. Now that I’ve had the chance to experience being Southern from the outside looking in, I’ll shred my usual diplomacy for what my parents called “constructive criticism.” Dear Dixie, I’m only telling you what I see because I still love you.
And what I see most often is a purposeful acceptance of ignorance that flows as mightily as the Mississippi. Sure, there’s some up North too, but Yankee know-nothings are more frequently confronted with the manifestations of their ignorance. It’s more difficult to degrade a person or a group of persons when you have to interact with them on a basic level everyday. It’s difficult to assume that all Arab-looking people are terrorists when one has invited you to his family’s home to celebrate a special occasion. It’s more difficult to conclude that all Spanish-speaking people are “Mexican” when you work with a gang of Guatemalans.
On the other hand, it’s easy to be against something that you don’t already know or understand. It is both easy and cowardly to convince yourself that you’re protecting tradition by discriminating against people who practice life differently than you.
Yet, not understanding or not knowing is never the ultimate offense; life is an exercise in trial and error, and triumph. The true crime lies in the South’s prideful incredulity about change and progress. There’s an undercurrent of “this is how we do it down here; this is how we’ve always done it; this is how we’ll always do it.”
The former governor of Alabama echoed a similar refrain in 1963. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama blocking the path of progress, both literally and figuratively, for Black Americans and for Southerners. I imagine that Wallace hoped to prevent Black students from integrating the University of Alabama, and White social psyches by proxy. Because it’s difficult to perpetuate the “lazy,” “stupid” narrative about Blacks when they sit right beside you in Chemistry class — when they have the same opportunity as you to succeed just as much as you. As soon as just one of “them” graduates with honors and just one of “y’all” doesn’t, then the superiority and entitlement you’ve grown so comfortable toting around, has holes in it. So does your superiority narrative.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-elitism — these are but one aspect of the issue. I mentioned decency earlier, and I believe that’s the common delusion about southern hospitality. It’s not unconditional; you get it unless and until who you are is something different from what they (the majority) have deemed “normal,” and therefore acceptable.
Yesterday, voters in North Carolina voted to amend their state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. And to be fair, North Carolina isn’t the first state to pass a constitutional amendment discriminating against ordinary Americans in this way. There are at least 30 others. But we expected more from the Tar Heels. From a state that boasts pillars of higher learning and advancement like Duke and Wake Forest Universities, the University of North Carolina, and from a state that grows increasingly culturally diverse with metropolitan areas like Charlotte, we expected better from North Carolina.
Amendment 1 is not only disrespectful of human difference, it is unconstitutional, make no mistake about it. Reverend William J. Barber II, a pastor in North Carolina and head of the local NAACP, laid it out beautifully. “However you feel about same-sex marriage, ” he says, “religiously or personally or morally; you can be for or against, you should always be against division and hatred and discrimination being written into the constitution.”
The intolerance for difference in the South is a tradition, as is the comfort with not knowing or caring about what an amorphous “they” do wherever “they” are. In my view, the South goes kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and to its own peril, as it lags in virtually every indicator of intellectual, social, and cultural upward mobility. There are pockets of progress, but Atlanta simply isn’t synonymous for Georgia, neither is Houston for Texas, nor Charlotte for North Carolina.
Honestly, how much more “organizing,” hand-holding, pandering, and there-thereing do we need in the south before we can say ‘you are wrong’? Your traditions, like marching a Confederate flag across the football field at halftime (which I experienced in high school), are wrong. Can you imagine how it feels, as a Black woman, to be immersed in a celebration of the Confederacy when your intention was to show up for a football game?
I can’t keep giving out passes for incredulity about growth and social maturity. The south consistently votes against its own interests. “They don’t know no better” doesn’t work as an excuse in this case; these are conscious choices. If you’ll drift with me down memory lane, you’ll remember that Eddie Long and T.D. Jakes sure did lead Black folks to the George W. Bush promised land in 2004 precisely because G.W. was an avowed opponent of marriage equality. Bush wasn’t saying much about the dwindling prospects for middle- and lower middle-income Americans, but that was neither here nor there. At least he would ensure that the gays couldn’t marry. Unclouded by the haze of religious rhetoric, folks might have seen that GDubs’ ideological perspective would also ensure that they couldn’t marry either — because they couldn’t afford to once the economy tanked while they marched in opposition to a matter that had absolutely no bearing on their own lives.
Since I left home, I’ve been asked many times if I would ever move back, and the answer has consistently been no. I can’t. I don’t want to. I can’t live in a place where my personhood, the way I love, and the relationship I’ve built isn’t protected; where discrimination is tolerated because the majority is comfortable with it. I don’t begrudge anyone who has the courage to go back and fix what’s wrong where we’re from. However, the first step – the most important one – is acknowledging that there is a problem.
The challenge and triumph of diversity allows to you to see objectively. You’re able to measure who you are and what you think against something different. And while you may not always agree, at least the experience of meeting someone who looks, speaks, or thinks differently than you has opened you up some. It makes clear that how you do it, and how it’s always been done isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it always the right way.