I lived the first eighteen years of my life on three different small, rural farms in Southern Missouri. I remember once, as a young adult, seeing a map that listed the regions of the United States. Missouri was divided in half; the northern half being the Midwest, and the southern half included with the South. Now I know most Southerners wouldn’t claim Southern Missouri as a part of the South (and when I get into those disagreements, I usually avoid an argument with a Southerner by touting the fact that I was born in Arkansas to bolster my Southern credentials), but when I saw that map, I remember feeling some illumination. “Whoa! I grew up in the South! That explains so much!” By that, I mean, I felt like it explained the rampant racism that I grew up encountering and absorbing.
Like most of you, I grew up believing that the South was the epicenter of racism. I didn’t realize until later that this was just anti-Southern sentiment spread by other USers in order to deflect from their own racism. You see, racism is everywhere. It is a part of the fabric of US history and culture. And while Africans and then their descendants were enslaved in the South, they were also indentured in the North and their labor exploited in order to manufacture the textiles from the cotton being picked in the South. These histories, intertwined, though different, contribute to different flavors of white supremacy that exist today in the North and South (and Midwest, West etc.), but living under a racist system is terrible, no matter the flavor.
Racism is bad everywhere. Anti-Black racism is killing Black people in every state. Racism has to be fought against, pointed out, resisted, undermined, and uprooted everywhere, from the smallest towns to the biggest cities, from the furthest Northern point in the US (somewhere in Alaska) to the furthest Southern point (Florida maybe? I know I could google this). And so, even though I thought it explained “so much” when I saw that, according to one map-maker, I grew up in the South, I now don’t think it explains much about me at all. I would have absorbed all the racism in me whether I had grown up in Minneapolis, Minnesota or Mineola, Texas.
Instead, I now focus on the fact that I was raised in an area of the US that is predominantly white. I’m pretty sure that historically this is due to both the attempted genocide and removal of Native peoples, and the implementation of Sundown Town laws throughout Missouri. But more personally, my parents chose to live somewhere where they knew I would be surrounded by white people. Maybe not consciously, but they chose that. What must we absorb being raised in places like this? What must we internalize? After doing anti-racism work for the last 10 years, I’m pretty sure all of us white people internalize messages of white superiority, white normality, and white centrality.
Have you ever seen what is done with a house that has deteriorated past recovery? Here in North St Louis, where white flight and ongoing systemic racism have left lots of houses in such a state, they just push the whole house into its own basement, cover it with a thin layer of dirt, and then sprinkle on grass seed. You don’t have to dig much to find the bricks and detritus. I think most of us white people that see ourselves as “not racist” have just attempted to bury all the messages that we absorbed being raised in this society. We put them in our basement and assume with a little grass seed, nobody will ever have to know these messages are there. I think digging up this debris is a key part of anti-racism work for white people.
The digging up and hauling out process has to be done thoughtfully though. On a regular basis, I’ve been trying to have intentional sharing and listening sessions with smart white people where we dig up some of the racism we have absorbed and been trying to hide in order to clean out our basements together. There is no richer access to this gunk than being in a conflict with a person of color and taking the time to figure out where my upset, my sense of rightness, my anger, my entitlement etc. is coming from. One thing that I’ve found is that if I dig deep enough into my feelings on top, there is often a sentiment rooted in white supremacy that is gripping me.