‘I’m from the South’ isn’t an excuse to be racist

Shahamat Uddin, Intersections Editor

The crisp crackle of fried pickles in my mouth, the loud cool Georgia winds singing me to sleep, and the kind warm smiles of strangers ready to turn family. These are the symbols of my Southern heritage, reminders of pride in my geographic identity. 

Yet, for those not from the South, racism, hatred and bigotry are often immediate associations with the region. “I am so sorry” has become a typical response when I tell people I am from the South. And frankly, sometimes I began to feel sorry too.

For breakfast each morning, I would have myself a fried chicken biscuit, with a side spread of apricot jam and a tall, cold glass of white supremacy. Growing up, I began to understand racism and Southern identity as inseparable. I figured I would escape racism in the same breath that I escaped the South.

I have experienced more racism, homophobia and classism in parts of the South than I ever have in the West or Northeast. Southern history is deeply shaped by the theft of indigenous lands and exploitation of enslaved Black people. Bigotry permeates history, lingering through Southern lifestyles. 

Coming to Tulane was a strange amalgamation of a largely Northeastern and Western population with a deeply Southern Louisiana backdrop. Conversations around race, power and privilege somehow began to assign social awareness to people based on their geographical backgrounds. California hailed the social justice warriors, the Northeast the neoliberal Democrats and the South was of course home to the uneducated mild racists.

Soon, these conversations would continue to repeat the same circles of rebuttal. Something racist would happen at a campus party, and my defensive friends would say, “I mean he just doesn’t get it, he’s from the South.” 

Explaining things like white privilege, people would retort with, “We don’t act like libtards in the South.” Or most significantly, fraternity brothers would be held to lower standards of racial awareness because of their predominantly Southern membership. 

Neither mine nor your Southern heritage is an excuse to be racist or perpetuate any form of bigotry.

When running the gambit of using Southern identity to justify prejudice, dangerous forms of classism and, ironically, racism are perpetuated at an insurmountable cost. It is no secret that the South has the worst education systems across the country. Only two Southern states rank in the top half of states with the best schools. The rest are close to the bottom 10. Southern states also consistently fall into the lower ranks of economic mobility and have high rates of poverty

The ideals of social justice and racial equality are inexplicably reserved for the rich and educated in American society — those that largely hail from the Western and Northeastern region. It is somehow okay for Southerners to be racist because our own lack of high performing education and economic success. 

But what went wrong with the South? 

“Our region’s history of economic dependence on free, forced labor, and then later on cheap, exploitative labor, meant there were minimal opportunities for wealth creation for those outside the economic elite, and particularly for people of color, and there has been unequal investment in community resources that are beneficial to the entire population, like schools, transportation, and health care,” said Alyson Zandt and MDC of “Facing South.” 

“Centuries of slavery ended only to usher in an era of racial terrorism and legal segregation. With restricted economic opportunity and nonexistent political power, black Southerners had limited capacity to invest in community institutions like schools to ensure their children received quality education.” 

Finding pride in my Southern heritage is a complex battleground. It is an attempt to separate oneself from the long history of Southern racism. Yet it is also recognizing that it was the white bureaucratic hands of governance that ensured the South remained a place with bad schools and sluggish economies.

I want to be able to be proud of the evergreen North Carolina meadows and the quaint architecture of Kentucky small towns without having to defend the racism of the Southern region in the same breath. It is daunting to find love in your heart for a place that was built on the very denial of your right to equal citizenship.

Yet, there is an unexpected beauty in this seemingly contradictory legacy. Anti-racist Southerners express the true boldness of resistance and growth. We have been able to confront a disgusting racist history behind us and alter our framework of thought to say no to the hate that has defined our region and build it back up for the better. 

As anti-racist Southerners, it is our obligation to ensure our region is not a breeding ground for the nation’s brewing, re-discovery and simple continuation of racism. The conflation of Southern identity and racism comes from none other than the white supremacists themselves, ready to weaponize poverty and classism for violence against Black and Brown people. It was the racist ideologies of government officials that politically fragmented our communities and repressed our representation in systems that would further instantiate systems of white power. 

Being from the South is not an excuse to be racist because there are no excuses to be racist. Southerners know that better than anyone else. Our cities hold some of the largest populations of Black and Brown people in America. We gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement. And yes, we endure the effects of centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow, but it is the continuing presence of white supremacy that is furthering the notion that our states are backward and socially inept. 

My Southern background is laced with stereotypes of racism and bigotry. Non-Southerners are armed and ready to throw their ‘I’m so sorry’s as I tell them I am from Georgia. 

And yes, sometimes I am still sorry for myself, but many times, I am more sorry for them. They have learned to trust the white supremacists. They have bought into the idea that our region is irredeemably racist. They have bought into the cyclical white power that has broken our justice systems. When you believe that Southern heritage is an excuse to be racist, you have given the white supremacists exactly what they want an apparently inseparable tie between bigotry and Southern identity. 

It is a shame white supremacy has painted our region with the darkest brush of hatred and prejudice, but is our Southern resilience that will continue to prove our identity is more than what any racist could ever define for us.

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