Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Confederate Flags and Aggressive Identities: When Did "Just Being Me" Become an Offensive Game?

Another conflict over the display of the Confederate Flag has cropped up on a college campus. That's not particularly remarkable; such conflicts occur all the time. What's interesting about this one is that it has stirred up an institution north of the Mason-Dixon line generally thought of as a more liberal/progressive place - Bryn Mawr College.

Despite its unusual location, the conflict has played out predictably as an argument between those asserting their rights to display their heritage under the basic doctrines of free speech, and those asserting their rights to learn in an environment free from coercion or oppression.

As usual, almost everyone is disappointed in the outcome. The students who displayed the flag eventually took it down, likely disappointed that their rights to free speech and to their cultural identity had been trampled on. On the other side, many minority students were disappointed that it took so long to affect that outcome, and are now blaming the college for being insensitive to their needs and voices. I feel bad for the college administration - if ever there were a higher ed version of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, this is it.

What interests me about this story is not so much where it takes place, or the predictable nature of how it has unfolded. It is the origin of the conflict itself - the decision by two students (unnamed, at least in the story above) to put the flag up in a public space in the first place. That's a decision I both understand and find puzzling.

I understand it, in that college students do a lot of things out in public as a means of asserting and experimenting with their identities. Clothes and hairstyles change; attitudes and arguments are adopted, often loudly; posters and flags put up in decoration. This is the time of life when students are growing into their own identities. As southern young women in a predominantly northern institution, it doesn't at all surprise me that these two would choose to assert their southern-ness. I imagine that they, too, felt the pinch of being in a cultural minority (which they undoubtedly were).

I also get the "they have every right to" argument. Yes, we all believe in free speech, even speech that offends. But we see what happens when the argument turns only on rights. It bogs down in anger, recrimination, and division. Rights are important, but they are not the highest good here. They are necessary but not sufficient if the goal is building real human community.

Given that, what I don't understand is why these two young women chose to assert their cultural identity in a way that they must have known would cause pain and anger in others. It's possible that they might argue naiveté - that they didn't see this reaction coming. I find that hard to believe; even relatively sheltered young women from the south must know how incendiary the Confederate Flag is as a symbol. So I can only imagine that this was done deliberately - not necessarily to cause anger but indifferent to whether it bothered others or not.

And there lies our great failing. 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, we have not yet found a way for two important identities - African American and White Southerner - to coexist. The two groups pose no existential threat to each other anymore, yet they continue to behave as if they do.

Some of this, of course, is the difficulty of coming to terms with history. But this far removed from that history, that is an obstacle that should be overcome. Most White Southerners who fly the Confederate Flag today don't want to enslave African Americans, and many of them have overcome the racism of their ancestors. They, and their African American colleagues who are generations removed from slavery and Jim Crow, are free to forge their own identities for themselves.

The problem is not that we can't fashion identities that are both true to their roots and yet coexist with others. The problem is that we don't know how. We know what doesn't work - flags and snarky memes and "in your face" combativeness don't get us where we want to go. Sadly, that's a lot of what these young adults see the rest of us doing - we're no better at it then they are.

But there is a better way. Its details vary from context to context, but it starts in the same place every time: I am who I am. You are who you are. I respect you for who you are, and I ask that you do the same for me. After that, everything else is conversation. If I respect you, I don't demand that you change who you are. But if you respect me, you may change anyway. Everything begins and ends with respect.

If I act out of both identity and respect, I don't throw my symbols in your face. I don't put up flags I know you hate and mark the floor with tape to cordon off "your side" from "my side". I hope that out of this latest kerfuffle at Bryn Mawr, a few of their students - some of the best and brightest we have - will figure this out.

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