OK Vassar, we need to talk.
Time and time again I have seen “liberal” individuals, especially those who have never stepped foot in a Southern state, subtly imply or explicitly vocalize that racism is an exclusively Southern issue. This line of thinking is not limited to our campus; it permeates towns and cities across the northern United States. Worse still, this belief only serves to harm the lives that progressivism aims to center. As a Mixed Race non-Black person of color (POC) who grew up in both the northern and southern United States, I can tell you about my experience as a POC (albeit, one who is not Black) in the American South and how it varies from the North.
In my interactions in states across the east coast, I’ve found that no one region is more or less racist than the other. It may be easy to say that the difference lies in the fact that the South more overtly expresses the same core racism found throughout the United States—the same racism that we are confronting nationwide, a reckoning that has in no way been confined to the South. Still, being the sociology major that I am, I know it’s not that simple. After all, I’ve had friends tell me of confederate flags being boldly brandished as far above the Mason-Dixon line as Pennsylvania and New York.
The fact is that systemic and institutional racism knows no bounds. As depressing as it is, we must confront that truth. It is everywhere. Redlining happened in the North, and its effects can still be felt today. Gerrymandering, and the disenfranchisement that ensues, was invented and still happens in the North. Gentrification happens in the North. The same policies developed in the Jim Crow era South were also present in the North and continue to affect legislation throughout the U.S. today. Voter suppression, which disproportionately affects communities of color, happens in the North. The effects of segregation in the Northern public school systems are still prevalent today, and, in fact, the desegregation efforts of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision were more effective in the South than in the North. If you find the enormity of this legally endorsed oppression startling, exhausting or impossible to single-handedly combat (you are just one person, after all)—congratulations, you’re starting to get the point! The realization of the prevalence of racism in all aspects of our society is the first step towards a solution.
None of this is to say that the South doesn’t have problems that need to be addressed. I’m not here to defend the South or claim that the racism I’ve experienced there is in any way acceptable. Still, nobody knows the flaws of the South more than the people who have to deal with them firsthand. By viewing the South as beyond hope and ignoring how these issues are prevalent in your own community, you’re only serving to make it even more difficult for organizers in the South already fighting for change. After all, if something is fucked up beyond all repair, why would anyone invest resources to fix it?
Using Southern states as a scapegoat for racism reifies your bubble of white comfort—you’ve become a participant in activism while not recognizing the issues in your own backyard.
You don’t get to only care about these issues of racism when it’s easy and you think they don’t directly impact you—they do. You, the person reading this, exist in the world. You interact with other human beings. Regardless of where you call home, you have the same work to do as the rest of us ; you are directly impacted by legislation in your hometown/state/country. You are complicit in oppressive systems by making it easier for racism in your own community to go unchallenged. You’re simultaneously delegitimizing the experience of Black, Indigenous and people of color in your community and making it more difficult for them to call attention to the racism they deal with on a daily basis. This is hypocritical to say the least—you’re perpetuating the very racism you’re decrying in the South.
Black people, people of color, disabled people, queer people and all other folks with marginalized identities in the South do not need Northern liberals to save us. We’ve been defending and protecting ourselves for as long as we can remember, creating our own organizations to make up for what our conservative local governments refuse to do. Finding and strengthening our own communities. Building our own table to compensate for the spot those in power have denied us time and time again. In fact, we’ve gotten pretty good at it. We don’t need your passion for justice. We don’t need your pity. We don’t need your scorn. We need you to deal with the racism in your community before you step into ours, because it’s there. We promise. If you don’t see it, you’re not looking hard enough.