Confessions of a Southern White Man
“Tell about the South,” writes William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom! “What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
As a Southerner, my skin likes the feel of seersucker, and my ears, the sound of “y’all.” Even at my age, I still uncontrollably say “ma’am” or “sir” to some elders, and I respectfully address a few women friends of the family with “Miss” in front of their first names.
Moreover, I undeniably acknowledge the sin of racism that exists in me.
But my confession of racism isn’t meant to feed into a stereotype that all white Southerners are inherently racist or let others off the hook from facing their own realities.
In fact, I take issue with the generality that racism is more endemic to that “confederacy of dunces” below the Mason-Dixon line because I know too many people born and raised in the South who contradict this oversimplification. I’ve also lived and traveled outside the South enough to know that it’s an easy target.
In Frankly, My Dear (Yale University Press, 2009), Molly Haskell writes about a liberal post-civil rights North and its vision of the South that’s intractably racist: “By demonizing the South as racist, we can disguise and also express our own prejudice….The more it became apparent that the North had its own racial problems and prejudices, the greater the need to see the South’s as wholly other and pernicious, a difference in kind rather than degree.” Haskell adds that, in effect, Northerners are saying to Southerners: “My outrage proves that I harbor no such prejudices, that I am not like you at all.”
Yet, in light of the widespread upheaval in our nation over racism, are more people like the image of a stereotypical white Southerner than they care to admit? Regardless if some Southerners are not half as bad as our critics suggest and some non-Southerners are not half as good as they imagine themselves to be, racism has so permeated Americans throughout our history, it is difficult to be immune to it. “You start off with the assumption that you are (racist), because everybody living in the United States has internalized stereotypes about Black people,” says Mark Naison, an activist and a professor of African American Studies at Fordham University in New York City.
The US is at a graced, watershed moment to seriously examine the racism built into American systems and hopefully implement reforms that will make a lasting difference. Our country’s perennial wound may be easier to heal when our white population not only confronts its prejudice toward people of color, but also acknowledges any defense mechanisms that foster moral superiority and any feeling of righteousness.
To this end, our Catholic experience of the sacrament of reconciliation is helpful for a change of heart and mindset, as well as for a call to conviction and action: name the sin and own it, ask God for pardon and strength, and make firm resolutions to do something about it.
The sacrament of penance also recognizes there is no such thing as a “private sin,” as stated perfectly by St. Augustine. Nor is there solely a regional one, when it comes to racism in our American union. Whatever affects some people directly affects all of us indirectly.