Home Social Justice Opinion: Confederate flag defense upholds contemporary priviledge

Opinion: Confederate flag defense upholds contemporary priviledge

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I went to the South over spring break. I spent a few days in Birmingham and another few days in Nashville. While I was driving around, the Confederate flag conversation became very real to me. They’re everywhere. On cars, above houses, temporarily tattooed on children’s faces, painted on coffee mugs and flapping everywhere. Before my trip, I knew this was the case, but seeing the symbols everywhere convinced me of the gravity of this national conversation.

I think it’s lazy to assign one generalized meaning to any symbol — even the Confederate flag. While the flag does have a significant historical connection to slavery, Jim Crow, racism, plantation exploitation, et cetera, the defense of the Confederate flag is something worth exploring. This is especially true as we approach April — the month celebrated as “Confederate History Month” by six states in the south. Although opponents of the flag decry those who tout the flag as racist bigots (often, interestingly, using racialized generalizations themselves), if we consider the Confederate symbol’s contemporary significance, a celebration of a racist past doesn’t completely explain it. Rather, the defense of Confederate symbols is a defense of contemporary privilege through the relationship between pain and privilege.

Let’s unpack this.

Privilege is normally discussed as a measurement of access. Some individuals are allowed benefits that others are denied. For example, white people are called back for more job interviews. Men tend to hold more leadership positions and get paid better for those positions. Cisgendered individuals are able to find bathrooms assigned to their sex. Further examples of this access are numerous. However, the description of privilege as a measurement of access doesn’t address another significant aspect of privilege: distance from certain types of pain.

This pain is found in the violence against black Americans by police — or when Trayvon Martin was killed by a white neighborhood watch in 2012. This pain is also found in the poverty and violence just across the Rio Grande in Mexico, along with the stigma associated with appearing Latino across the United States. Here in Athens, the pain manifests in the poverty of Appalachia, often a result of environmental degradation and economic exploitation. The list goes on. This pain is communally inflicted — humans affected by the decisions of other humans — but it doesn’t reach the privileged.

By celebrating the Confederacy through symbols such as the flag, we celebrate a time when black lives did not matter beyond the financial investment of whites. This was accomplished by a social and legal disregard of black pain and black grievance. So the flying of the Confederate flag celebrates a history of black enslavement, but — more specifically — it disregards the validity of black pain.

And here is where the real significance of the Confederate flag lies. Bearers of Confederate symbols are not only celebrating a racist past, but also actively defending their contemporary racial privilege by maintaining the distance between privilege and pain. They do this in two ways:

  1. By claiming the power to determine the validity of pain. Even though Confederate symbols are defended by claiming a freedom of expression, the power to determine the validity of a grievance is the ultimate prize. Flying a Confederate flag is a political statement that prioritizes an individual’s expression over the pain of slavery’s legacy, inherently expressing that pain is not legitimate unless the dominant culture deems it so.
  2. By rendering black pain invalid. With the power to determine the validity of a grievance, our white-dominant culture silences any voice that would express black pain. The “race card,” an argument used by a member of Ohio University’s Board of Trustees last year, is an example of this as the term “playing the race card” communicates that expressions of pain as a reaction to racism are somehow inappropriate. Slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, segregation, et cetera were all harmful, they admit, but they still maintain that any pain tinged with race specific grievance is either a performance or not legitimate enough to move us to action.

The Confederate symbol is an abomination. But simply disregarding its new significance, especially when we realize the passion with which it is defended, would underestimate the racism in our communities and obscure the power relations that influence the conversation. Our symbols are communal expressions of history, real or imagined. And a symbol like the Confederate flag is not only offensive, but also a dangerous tool of the dominant culture to maintain power and ostracize voices before they can find expression.

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