Tonight in Wilcox County, Georgia, the “white” prom, a private party sponsored for white high school students by parents, goes on as planned and as it has since the schools were integrated thirty years ago. Since integration, in a county with about 10,000 people and a high school with a graduating class of about 100, two private proms have occurred each year, one for “blacks” and one for “whites.” Last year, police were called when a biracial student showed up at the “white” prom. Apparently, one drop rules. Tsk, tsk. The story has garnered national and international attention, for example this Toronto Star story. This story isn’t the only bit of “backward” in the news lately. Catalyzed by Spielberg’s Lincoln, it came to light that Mississippi had “forgotten” to file their ratification of the 13th Amendment banning slavery, an oversight they remedied this February. What year is this?!? Meanwhile, in Boston, police have just wrapped up the “manhunt” for the Boston Marathon bombers, a hunt that included at least four wrongfully accused, and widely publicized via social and conventional media, non-white suspects. My point? Racial tension is alive and well in the good ol’ U.S. of A. So is scapegoating, and much to our detriment.
Full disclosure: I write you now from my home in north Georgia, about thirty miles from the site where my white family’s tenure in the south began. This tenure predates the Declaration of Independence, and yes, my “hardworking and God-fearing” ancestors owned slaves. I, however, have spent most of my life “away,” and as the wandering prodigal and a radical liberal, I have been ostensibly “relieved” of the responsibility of my inheritance. Just about everything I know about my family, beyond the hardworking and God-fearing part, I have learned through research over the past five years of living here expressly for this purpose. I share these tidbits with you to locate what comes next: Our racial history saddens and horrifies me, but our present frightens me, not because it echoes this history, but because of its sophisticated exercise in displaced/misplaced responsibility, in our capacity to relieve ourselves of responsibility.
When I moved to the south in 2007, I can’t tell you how many friends and acquaintances asked me some variation of the questions, “How can you do it?” and “How will you survive?” followed by the assertion, “Better you than me!” In fact, no less than a dozen people found it so implausible that I had willingly relocated to the U.S. south that they could only fathom that I meant Athens, Greece and not Athens, Georgia. “How’s the Med treating you?” they wrote for the first six months I lived here. What these folks, and many like them have in common, is that they configure the south as the repository of all things awful: racism, conservatism, backwards-ism, idiot-ism, marry-your-cousin-ism, right-to-bear-arms fanaticism, etc. While I have no interest in arguing that these phenomena do not exist here, I’d like to assert emphatically, that these phenomena are American, not southern, and relegating them to the south in the way folks often do, scapegoats the south and lets the country off the hook, much, I might add, in the way we have demonized and scapegoated Islam and let ourselves off the hook since 9/11.
Redneck jokes, hillbilly jokes, and “tsk, tsk, the south,” remain some of the last bits of bigotry that folks in this country feel no qualms about leaving unexamined and about getting away with. Xenophobia is the other. I would like to propose that we feel okay scapegoating the south, and Islam, because it allows us to contain and distance uncomfortable phenomena, like racial tension and inequity, so that we can feel good about ourselves as separate from these phenomena even though we are fully implicated. Unfortunately, such a move is so seductive that we, as a nation, have developed a mighty capacity for employing it conveniently and on a global scale. To wit, the ready connection between Islam and terrorism that justifies radically unjustifiable war efforts.
A friend, professor emerita of theology, and priest recently wrote on her Facebook page that since the Boston Marathon bombers were Chechen Muslims, she was concerned that the fires of anti-Islam xenophobia would be stoked, and her concerns are founded for all kinds of complex reasons. She went on to point out that in the U.S., most violence against abortion clinics, women and children, people of color, gays and lesbians and transgender folks, immigrants, and “the other” is perpetrated by Christians. I’d like to add that this is both a contemporary and a historical phenomenon. Take for example, my devout Christian slave-owning ancestors. Regardless of the truth, we are quick to assume radical Islamic terrorist cells and plots rather than to examine our own implicated subjectivities and the nuanced socio-political-cultural-historical forces at play in, for example, the Boston tragedy—forces that include war, immigration, and racial and ethnic tension. I am haunted by Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s oft quoted sentiment, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” Tsarnaev, at 26, had lived in the U.S. for ten years, more than one-third of his life, which ended in a shoot-out this week. Likewise, in the case of the segregated proms of Wilcox County, Georgia, most of us are quick to distance ourselves from any responsibility or relationship to the phenomenon of 21st century segregation, even while few of us can claim particularly diverse social practices.
Yes, Mississippi just ratified the 13th Amendment. Yes, a small county in south Georgia will be hosting a whites-only prom tonight. And yes, radical Islamic terrorists exist. I would like to appeal, however, to nuance, and to ask the questions “Why?” and “How?” are these phenomena true. Furthermore, I would like to implicate us—all of us—in the phenomena, and for the sake of argument, and in the interest of chipping away at unproductive scapegoatery, I would like to propose that we examine the complex web of forces that contribute to and perpetuate inequity, violence, fear, and oppression. Moreover, I would ask that we grapple with the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we contribute to these phenomena when we conveniently, casually, and self-righteously locate them “over there.” I want us to ask tough questions, like “What is my responsibility as the descendant of slave-owners?” “How does my personal dependence on oil contribute to the rise of radical Islamic sects and cells?” “How, when I was a high school senior at Cambridge Ridge and Latin—an alma mater I share with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the recently captured, 19 year-old Boston Marathon bombing suspect—did I treat my classmates in the international house to which I was assigned homeroom? And how, when I attended prom in north Georgia prior to moving to Cambridge, did I treat my black classmates? Did I make them feel welcome in my white-dominated school? Did I create room for them? Did I make efforts to understand the other? Or, did I rely on the easy assignment of categories that kept me safely detached from responsibility?
This year, against tradition, and in the face of opposition, a racially mixed group of four students at Wilcox County High School have decided to make a prom that they can attend together. On Saturday, April 27, the formerly “black” prom will become Wilcox County High School’s first integrated prom. These students have not displaced the problem or located a scapegoat; they have simply and bravely decided that the categories before them aren’t working, that these categories don’t represent their vision and experience of the world, and that they will do something about it. They will celebrate prom together. What will you do? What will we do?
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on April 20, 2013