I've watched the Nashville Pride celebrations this weekend with a full heart and unspeakable joy. I'm actually a soggy mess about the whole thing, tissues at the ready. I've been moved in ways I never expected. Hell, I even wore rainbow knee socks in 90 degree weather to tell everyone I saw: THE WORLD IS BETTER TODAY. CAN'T YOU TELL BY MY RAINBOW SOCKS THAT I'M SO HAPPY?
But on the same day I was overcome with overwhelming love, I also watched as our president gave a heart-rending eulogy for an honorable man, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, murdered in his place of worship because of his race. There came another report of an unarmed Black man shot in Baltimore. And still the bickering about the Confederate flag continues with a terrifying fervor. Can I wrap my head and my heart around both the love and the frustration I feel today? I'm struggling.
I'm a Southerner - and for the most part, a proud one. I love my home and I believe we Southerners have contributed (and continue to contribute) so many wonderful things to American culture. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't live here - because sometimes doing so feels really damn hard. Sometimes the sound of my accent can trigger a shocking response from strangers. In my opinion, my Southern accent can be adorable or knowing or sweet or, if I try really hard, elegant. To others, the sound of my voice can mean: this person sounds uneducated, so I will treat her like an idiot. But I don't want to change my accent. I love it. I love lots of Southern things about me.
We Southerners are quick to be defensive sometimes; we are sensitive because we have been stereotyped as backward, uneducated, poor, and downright evil. And, you know, where there's smoke there is often fire. Sometimes those things are true; sometimes we are backward and conservative and slow to change. Even I, with my liberal leanings and relatively humanist upbringing find myself occasionally chafing under the assumptions of my non-Southern friends that I'm not really like "THEM" - my Southern neighbors of different mindsets. Sometimes I don't know how to react. Do I chuckle and insist that 'No, I'm not like those people. THEY are uneducated and backward. They are white trash. They are rednecks. They are walking punchlines. I'm in on the joke, I promise. I know that Southerners are idiots.'
But can we really be boiled down to our viewpoints on God, guns, and gays? Are we a monolith?
Chuck Reese, editor of The Bitter Southerner writes, "A lot of people in the world believe that most folks in the South are just dumb. Or backward. Just not worth their attention. And you know what? If you live down here, sometimes you look around and think, 'Those folks are right.' We do have people here who will argue, in all sincerity, that the Confederacy entered the Civil War only to defend the concept of states’ rights and that secession had nothing to do with the desire to keep slavery alive. We still become a national laughing stock because some small town somewhere has not figured out how to hold a high school prom that includes kids of all races...But there is another South, the one that we know: a South that is full of people who do things that honor genuinely honorable traditions. Drinking. Cooking. Reading. Writing. Singing. Playing. Making things. It's also full of people who face our region's contradictions and are determined to throw our dishonorable traditions out the window. "
I feel strongly that it doesn't make me less Southern to denounce symbols like the Confederate flag or call for greater gun control measures in America, or celebrate the fact that loving gay couples can have their unions recognized across the country. I can be an authentic Southerner who loves her home AND I can still believe all of those things. Do you know how I know that? Because I'm living it.
There have been moments recently - during discussions on race, sexuality, gender, gun control, and other issues - when I've had the nagging desire to play the #NotAllSoutherners card. Some time ago during the #YesAllWomen conversation on social media, some men tried to separate themselves from the men/behaviors in question by insisting "NotAllMen" treated women with disrespect. But what they actually did was pull focus onto themselves and distracted from the real issue - which is that horrible, sexist, dangerous things really happen to women. All women. And bad things really happen to Black people and gay people every day in the South (and elsewhere). But I don't want my desire to clear my conscience with a "NotAllSoutherners" statement to derail an important conversation.
I want so badly for people to know that allies exist - that I am an ally, that I'm always trying to be more and more open minded. It is important that people know... But I have to remind myself that the stories I hear about hatred and intolerance in the South and elsewhere are not necessarily about me. My job is to listen first, then speak. I've seen that same "not me" argument made by many people I respect, and I understand the motivation to separate oneself from the frothing mob. But I choose not to advance this particular argument at this moment for several reasons - among them:
1) I know who I am. I live my life with as much honesty as I can. Those who know me know my heart. Those who don't know me, please hear and understand that I welcome you with love.
2) People already know we exist - the Southern supporters. My friends and most reasonable people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, etc., understand that they have allies in me and in other Southerners. (If you don't know, let me introduce myself now: My name is Sara and I believe in your fundamental rights as a human and I will fight for you.)
3) Taking a "#NotAllSoutherners" stance puts me in the position of being defensive - which is the opposite of what I'm trying to project. My need to insist I'm open minded shouldn't supersede someone else's truth. My goal is listening first, then dialogue and understanding. Again, I want to show my openness with actions, not apologies and protestations.
4) Every story told is not about me or my reaction and not everyone cares about my opinion. I learned the (very) hard way that I am not the center of the universe. My opinions on an issue are not more important than your truth. I want to hear you and know your story.
5) I don't want to invalidate or take away from ANYONE'S experience of racism, hatred, discrimination, and violence. Those things really happen all of the time, whether or not I participate.
6) "#NotAllSoutherners" is not helpful. Seriously, it's not. My insistence of this would really only help make me feel better.
I'm a straight, white woman who has experienced her own injustices. But I haven't experienced the kinds of bigotry and hatred that many of my neighbors have. I can guarantee you that every Black person in America has experienced racism. They experience it every day. I can also guarantee you that any person who does not identify as straight has been the victim of hatred and discrimination. Do I want to shout from the rooftops that I am a proud Southerner who supports your rights? YES. I hope that, when it is appropriate and beneficial for each of you fellow allies to have a conversation about solidarity, that you please take the time to have that conversation - but don't make it about you.
I will continue to share my thoughts and feelings and if you want to have a calm conversation about those issues, I welcome that discussion. I've seen that arguing with people on social media is getting nowhere. We have to change the way we have these conversations. And so I ask you not to be defensive and to open your hearts, minds, and ears.
This is a song recorded in my hometown and is one of my favorite songs of all time. I've heard stories of how in this recording session, Mavis caught the "Holy Ghost". She was once quoted as saying, "When we heard Dr. Martin Luther King preach, we said, 'If he can preach this, we can sing it.'" She says: Help me, now... Mercy, now. I'm callin' callin' callin' mercy.
Let us show one another mercy and grace and understanding. We have that in us - #AllSoutherners