“part of who we are”

One of the developments in South Carolina has to do with the Confederate battle flag flying on the dome of the statehouse there: what does it mean? and should it be taken down?

The full history of the flag is complex, but there’s no question that after the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s it was used as a powerful symbol of Southern resistance to the movement, black people, and the federal government.

Into this terrain walked Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, whose first response was to protest that the battle flag is an integral “part of who we are”, part of the Southern heritage, and as such should be proudly preserved in situ. (His position later moderated.)

The first thing to ask about his statement is: who are the we in what he said? From the larger context, I assume that Graham’s intention was to refer to Southerners in general  (or at least to South Carolinians). But I can’t credit that claim.

Surely the number of blacks living in the South (or just in South Carolina) who would take themselves to have been embraced by Graham’s we is vanishingly small, and I can’t believe that Graham imagines otherwise.

That’s when it occurred to me that Graham, and some other white people in the South, might well be conceptualizing the social categories in question in such a way that the SOUTHERNER category (with its accompanyng label Southerner) covers only white people; for them, black people in the South aren’t Southerners — because they’re blacks.

Now, it’s certainly true that there are people who use the expression black Southerner and take it to be entirely compositional: for them, it simply refers to black people who live in the South. (I note that there aren’t nearly as many ghits for black Southerner as I might have expected — and the hits for white Southerner are many times as large.)

So I’m suggesting that Southerner might be like some other identity labels I’ve had some experience with: Pole, for example. (Also, some other national labels in Europe.)

In talking about Polish society with people from Poland, I’ve sometimes referred to Polish Jews and had it explained to me (whether gently or firmly) that these people were not Poles, but Jews: they couldn’t be Poles because they weren’t Catholic.

Now, both for Southerner and for Pole, it’s possible that some people conceptualize things in terms of centrality: for them, there would be  what we could refer to as “true, or real, Southerners” (who are white) vs. “marginal, or exceptional, Southerners” (who are black, hispanic, or mixed-race). This would fit with the many people who talk about “true (or real) Americans” for other dimensions of social difference.

One Response to ““part of who we are””

  1. Michael Newman Says:

    Tom Bonfiglio has argued that the anomalous lack of prestige of NYC English (a cultural capital generally is linguistically prestigious) is owed to the fact that New Yorkers by the early 20th Century became largely immigrant and were considered not (really) White and their kids not really American.

    It’s interesting that the term “All American” has been used in hiring discussions to imply White. Isn’t it a question of prototypes?

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