Like many people, we were deeply disturbed by the unthinkable hate crime involving shooting deaths that occurred at “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C., this past June. However, we were enthralled by the related public discourse that led to the removal of the Confederate flag — a symbol to many of the South’s racist past — from the grounds of the statehouse.
Our interest was not just due to its historic significance; it was much more than a news story to us. We were born and raised in the very cities that served as the epicenter of these acts. Consequently, as an African American son and daughters of the ex-Confederacy, we began to consider how this history has influenced who we have become and what we could do to help end this disturbing legacy of hate.
Although we are currently colleagues at a research university in the Midwest and have spent most of our professional lives working in places other than the South, we still identify strongly with our southern roots. One of us, a native of Charleston who has family members who belong to Emanuel AME, made a pilgrimage to the state in the aftermath of the tragedy and served as a lifeline to the group, sharing newspapers and firsthand accounts of the reaction in our home state.
We were not surprised by — and were quite proud of — the response of the family members of the victims, which was one of forgiveness and reconciliation. To forgive even the most heinous acts in order to begin the process of moving on in service of the greater good has generally been a hallmark of blacks, particularly in the South. As we look back on what has led to our relative success, such as obtaining PhDs and tenured and senior administrative positions, this ability to not hold grudges and to keep close to our hearts purposes much larger than ourselves helps us withstand the daily microaggressions we still face as people of color.
The tragedy in Charleston provides an opportunity for us to have productive conversations, both in our classrooms and with our colleagues, about how social issues like racism relate to our disciplines.
As we explored the impact that growing up in South Carolina had on us, one struggle we vividly recall is living in the shadow of the many symbols representing the inferiority of blacks. The Confederate flag, which for some people is a reminder of slavery, is only one of many symbolic, public images that illustrate our ancestors’ disenfranchisement. You need only look at the names of local roads, highways, buildings, and bridges to see the history of white supremacy on display.
One of us is a proud alum of Clemson University. While she applauded the Confederate flag’s removal after it had been displayed so prominently first above and then in close proximity to the South Carolina statehouse for several decades, she had also been closely following the debate upstate regarding the fate of another important symbol, Tillman Hall on the Clemson campus. Although Ben Tillman helped found Clemson University and served as governor, as well as a member of the United States Senate, the Clemson University Board of Trustees expressed concerns in regard to Ben Tillman’s racially discriminatory attitudes and behavior toward African American individuals, according to a July 17, 2015, article in The Post and Courier.
During our education, there was even more powerful, subtle discrimination inflicted on black students that also served to normalize the privilege afforded to those who identified as white in the South. It was the misinformation — or missing information — received in school about the contributions of people of color. We recall this omission motivating us, out of necessity, to become more active participants in our own learning by seeking out the work of people who looked like us in the various subjects we studied. We recall discovering treasures like the poetry of Langston Hughes and the fiction of Toni Morrison through our own research. But what about those African American students who don’t have encyclopedias (or nowadays, computers to access the Internet), parents to take them to the library, or some other person who supports this extra educational activity? Surely many students, not seeing themselves in the curriculum or in front of the classroom, fail to comprehend the relevance of their education and become disengaged.
Despite the recent painful reminders of the struggles that still exist around racism, having been raised in the post-civil rights era South, we are optimistic. We have benefited from legal protections that would have been unthinkable more than two generations ago. We are also the realization of our families’ strong commitment to education — which, although common in African American communities in the South, was often thwarted by poverty and legally enforced discrimination. Additionally, we have benefited from the good will of people from different racial backgrounds in supporting or serving as guides for our success. Considering both the challenges and the tremendous good will we know exists, we propose the following strategies to speed up progress toward the creation of a society in which the institutionalization of racism through symbols, incomplete histories, and acts of systematic discrimination is truly a thing of the past.
First, we must look at ourselves to examine, without judgment, the cultural influences and assumptions that make us who we are and influence our actions. Next, we must stop the intergenerational transmission of hostility among various groups, particularly those who identify as black or white; hate is learned. We can begin this process by teaching children — in school and at home — about our shared, inclusive, multicultural history. An essential part of this process is helping everyone understand the social construction of race. Race is a cultural idea, not a biologically determined characteristic. We believe this misunderstanding on the part of many in our society is what makes racism so difficult to extinguish. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to unlearn racism because it wasn’t taught in the first place?
Another strategy central to stamping out racism is integration. Separate is never equal and inevitably breeds distrust and misunderstanding. That is not to deny the value in sustaining spaces — actual and virtual — in which people of similar backgrounds can congregate to support each other in what is currently a less than inclusive society. However, living, learning, and working in integrated environments is critical to promoting trust and, most importantly, empathy. It provides opportunities for groups who perceive each other as different to work together as equals on problems they both consider important. This is the only effective way to truly eliminate prejudice and come to see each other as unique individuals rather than stereotypes. This is why people who espouse forms of cultural supremacy often work hard to keep us apart and why the re-segregation we are increasingly witnessing is particularly troubling. Remember, separate is never equal.
Finally, as academics, we need to develop the courage and practical facilitation skills that will enable us to have productive conversations, both in our classrooms and with our colleagues, about how social issues like racism relate to our disciplines. The tragedy in Charleston provides an opportunity for us to do just that nationwide. We believe that knowledge is still the most powerful ingredient for sustainable social change. We hope to model for the next generation of sons and daughters of states that comprised the Confederacy an objective acknowledgement of our troubled past that empowers us to work toward a just future while honoring the many cultural points of pride we share today.●
Kimberly Barrett, PhD, is the vice president for multicultural affairs and community engagement at Wright State University (WSU). Sharon Lynette Jones, PhD, is a professor of English at WSU. Tracy Snipe, PhD, is an associate professor of political science at WSU.