I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee well before social media made its entrance. There was no real outlet for all of these politically-correct Jiminy Cricket types to get in the way of everyone having a grand ol', uninformed good time. That meant that the "Southern Flag", originally a battle flag and one of many designs associated with the Confederacy, was free to parade around town unchecked. I had friends with Southern flag license plates, truck decals, baseball hats, baseball gloves, baseball bats, baseball balls, you name it. (Trust me, you can get that flag on anything). And no one thought twice. No one was called out or forced to examine the historical context or social implications of their behavior. In my many years in the South I never saw the flag used in a hateful context (which does not mean it wasn't happening). But to me, and to many around me, it was just not a big deal.
And I loved it.
I wanted to be part of it. I felt connected to it. But my thoroughbred Yankee mom wouldn't allow "Southern Flags" in the house, and it made me crazy. It was a symbol of pride. It was used by many families to remember ancestors who fought, and perhaps died, in the Civil War. It was a symbol of Southern heritage and camaraderie and community. I was a social being, I craved community, and I wasn't remotely interested in being the one weirdo who stuck out for not embracing a widely-agreed upon symbol of our home. When I was 17, I got into a fight with my mom about what the flag meant. She tried to explain that it was a painful symbol of hate for the black community, and I fought valiantly with all my teenage might to prove the contrary. "It was that", I told her. "Maybe once". But symbols change, they change all the time, "The swastika was once a symbol of good luck!" I protested. Why couldn't everyone just chill out and let this symbol become what it is now? A beautiful symbol of a shared home and culture...
But I never got anywhere with her, because she understood something that took me many years to come around to. Putting the fact that many hate groups share the same symbol aside for a moment, what the flag meant to me is simply not what the flag represents to everyone. For the most part, the flag carries a positive connotation for the same sub-group of people that were in power when it represented the Confederacy and a pro-slavery agenda. Worse yet, it now serves as a cruel reminder to many that those are still the people who have the power to say "it's just a flag" today. Sure, not every descendent of slaves or victims of hate crimes feels this way when they look at the flag, but many do, and that should be enough. Admittedly, it took a lot of very patient conversations with my mother, friends, and mentors for my mind to slowly change.
Now, in light of the recent tragedy in South Carolina, the same debate my mother and I had over a decade ago is being echoed on the national stage. The same clever rationalizations and undying loyalty to spoon-fed narratives of pride are filling my newsfeed and clogging the radio waves. Many also point to the nuances of complicated political agendas at the start of the Civil War, question whether Lincoln cared about slavery, or argue that, by the same logic, it's the US flag we should all hate. All of these things may stem from a seed of truth, but they're not the point, and have very little bearing on what we should do about it. The fact is that some combination of historical, political, racist, and media factors have culminated in this particular flag becoming a symbol that offends many, many Americans. That shouldn't make it illegal for you to love or display it on your bedroom ceiling, but it really should dictate what is and is not displayed on the government buildings that are intended to serve all of us.
I remember the feeling well: it's like being stuck in a relationship that is past its expiration date, but feeling like you've invested too much to get out. The more outsiders question your choice in partner, the more adamantly you defend it (even though you know he can be a real ass at parties). And so, I decided to map out the little beans of psychological and social insights that slowly brewed the change in myself, and share my own personal strategy for moving on. If you already feel like you never want to see a Confederate flag again, this guide will at least tell you what Cedar Springs, Michigan is known for. If you already feel like you never want to see a Confederate flag again, but enjoy sports and think all the mascots are cool, just replace "flag" with "Redskins" below. And if you maintain the love I once shared for this insidious symbol, then as with any relationship, the attachment you feel to the flag will be hard to break. But I promise it's not as painful as the numbing sense of disrespect and marginalization that many feel when seeing it on your bumper. So here's hoping this 5 Step Program for Breaking Up with the Confederate Flag will make it just a teensy bit easier for you to let go, too.
Step 1: Acknowledge your attachment.
It turns out that researchers have understood for a long time how strongly we attach ourselves to symbols. One piece of the puzzle is what researchers call "place identity", which is basically exactly what it sounds like. Place identity is an important element of our self-identity that is rooted in everywhere we've ever lived, and the people, attitudes, and traditions that have lived there with us. Place identity is connected to each place's "isms"; those little idiosyncrasies that only locals know about. It's why you may be publicly shamed in Memphis if you don't love your dry rub, and why the Portland International Airport carpet has its own Wikipedia page. The places we're from often determine what we love, what we hate, who we love, who we hate... they become fundamental to our understanding of our roles in the world. And so we use symbols to capture all of that sentimental value at once. We use symbols that we can attach memories to and anchor experiences on. We use symbols to represent the loved ones and legacy that belong to a place, and as a result, these symbols become intricately tied to who we believe ourselves to be. Symbols make for an awesome way to carry a reminder of your home around in your pocket, or to wear a very personal story on your sleeve.
But all symbols aren't created equal.
Step 2: Accept its power.
We also use symbols to distinguish the groups that we're a part of from the groups that we're not. The groups we're part of form a collective identity, which is often defined by shared symbolism. It can be the weird obsession that Cedar Springs, Michigan has with red flannel underwear, or that true Portlanders refuse to trust anyone with an umbrella. This is like taking place identity to the next level - not only does this symbol represent where I'm from and who I am, it represents how I'm different from you. We see this loud and clear in the countless info-graphics made to capture stereotypes, like the "East Coaster vs. West Coaster". We see it when we find ourselves in a new social situation, and the first thing we do is survey the crowd for signs of people "like us"; people we think we can connect to. This goes back thousands of years, to when we first began painting specific patterns on our bodies, and wearing clothes crafted from specific colors and materials to distinguish one tribe from another. It isn't just about community, it's about that darned identity again, and often we instinctually look to those around us to tell us who we are.
Eventually, these symbols become engrained in our identities, and we can no longer easily tell where one stops and the other begins. They're highly personal, and ridden with sentiment and meaning. Take away a person's group symbol, as the Southern flag has become for many, and you take away a piece of their identity. We don't want to let go, because letting go forces us to give up something that we quite like; something that has provided the invaluable perk of connecting us with others. Letting go forces us to question something we've allowed to define us, even if to some small degree. Or in some cases, to put the pain that it brings others above the joy that it brings us. So, when faced with competing perspectives, instead of listening, we often strengthen our own... to avoid the pain of discovering that we may have been wrong all along.
Step 3: Try on different perspectives.
So far, and this may be nothing new, we know that we use symbols to develop our identity and to draw lines between the groups that we are and are not a part of. You can decide what any symbol means to you, including the Southern Flag, and if there are enough of you who believe the same thing, it's going to be powerful. And everyone else can do the same, which may result in the same symbol genuinely representing different things to different groups. The impassioned response to requests to bring down the flag at the South Carolina Capitol is a testament to the power of these attachments. The problem is, the same power of symbolism works both ways. Symbols also affect how groups view each other. That can get messy when the group in power is, I don't know, enslaving the group that isn't. Contrary to what my 17-year-old self thought, these things don't "just go away" and they don't "just change" because you feel like they mean something else now. Telling the people who are offended that they simply shouldn't be is reaffirming your own sense of power over them. The symbols of the group in power, once used to dominate or oppress another, are just as powerfully engrained in the powerless group's identity. "This is who I'm not". "This is who hates me". "This is who wants to own me".
That's heavy stuff.
Once the weight of this symbol for many members of the black community "clicked", I realized that it's inevitable for it would still be salient 150 years later. By some definitions, that's four generations. That's nothing. That means that there are still a few black Americans living today who are the grandchildren of slaves. And countless more who lived through the terrors of hate groups waving that very same flag. And they still have to cope with this symbol of their pain being embraced by members of their own community. At risk of sounding flippant, that sounds like it sucks.
Step 4: Cry it out.
Assuming you aren't an active member of a hate group who knowingly uses this flag for evil, you may feel like you've been duped or like you're getting the raw end of the "my opinion matters" deal. I did. I drank the Kool-Aid. It sucks. It happens. Have yourself a good cry. Smash some stuff. Let the feelings out. And when you're ready, pull yourself together and get ready for the healing powers of effecting change.
Step 5: Consider your options.
Option #1: You could do nothing and remain firmly attached to your conviction that your own personal feelings about what is and is not offensive are more important than all of the people that are telling you that they're offended. Because no one ever regrets that (*points to self*).
Option #2: You could remain secretly attached to the Southern flag and cover your entire house in all of its stars and bars glory. But then lock your house and let no one else in except for other people you know share your obsession with controversial symbols of controversial battles. Or just keep it in the box with your other family heirlooms to commemorate an ancestor who fought for the Confederacy. Make it your thing. And then fight to make sure that your thing stays yours by keeping it off of buildings that other people can see.
Option #3: You could give seeing it in a different light a shot. That doesn't mean pretending it can't also have alternate meanings for different people. It just means accepting that the negative meaning it has for many outweighs the attachment that others have to its nostalgia. It means choosing a little personal pain for great community gain. The power of symbolism is what keeps the flag waving today. And it's the power of symbolism that should incite us all to take a compassionate and thoughtful stand and insist that the flag be taken down. And also, I'm pretty sure it's what Jesus would do.
I recommend Option #3. Because doing the hard thing, especially when that thing makes some people's lives a little better and yours no worse, is the sort of doing we need more of in this world.
So every time you wave the Southern flag and relish in that incredible rush of social belonging, reaffirmed identity, and cherry-picked heritage, it's at the expense of someone who is reminded of where they don't belong, who they're not, and the heritage that you're forgetting.
So anyway, that's how I feel about that.