A Confession of Racism by a Southerner
As I sit holding and examining the print of the famous painting “The Last Meeting of Lee & Jackson” by E.B.D. Julio, I reflect on my own racism and prejudices that I grew up with as a Southerner. I feel as Wendell Berry wrote about, The Hidden Wound, inside me and the South, the hidden wound of racism. In this piece I would like to make my confession of how being raised in the South influenced me and other Southerners.
Being raised in the South, I became entrenched in the racist heritage of the South and beholden to the religion of the Lost Cause. I did not know or think of myself as a racist, for I had African American friends and colleagues. But deep inside me was the hidden wound that goes unnoticed by many Americans.
Growing up in segregated Tulsa, I went to a suburban high school where there was only a handful of African American students. We had students of Asian, Hispanic, and Native American descent, but the African American students stood out to the primarily White student body. Racist comments were constantly made by my fellow peers; although I did not contribute, I was complicit by not challenging those beliefs and prejudices.
For two summers I worked with my father on his car lots as his lot boy in North Tulsa. One of the men that I worked with, Elwood, detailed the cars and provided some light mechanical work. I got to know Elwood. To me it seemed like the relationship between Huck and Jim in Mark Twain’s great work. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was my favorite book growing up. Twain’s reflection on racism resonated with me, but it did not challenge my own prejudices because of my culture and my own denial. I could not see within myself the hidden wound. Elwood was a good man, although he had his demons with alcohol. He was a hard worker in the exorbitant summer heat of Tulsa. He would refer to my father as “Boss,” and I was the “Boss’s” son. I had privilege over an older man simply because of my relationship with my father and to some degree because of the color of my skin. We both knew that in our relationship, and I remember Elwood commenting to me about it. I wonder to this day whatever happened to Elwood. Is he still alive?
Seeing the Confederate statues in Richmond on one vacation, I remember my heart being filled with Southern pride. Robert E. Lee is known as the most beloved American general, although he lost the war. Other generals and Confederate leaders were represented in the Capitol of the Confederacy. Seeing these reminders of the Civil War, or The War of Northern Aggression as some Southerners refer to it, engendered pride and belonging to the special status of being a Southerner. At a gift shop in Richmond I purchased that print of Lee and Jackson as well as a computer game of the Civil War in which I could lead the Confederate troops to victory over the Yankees. Additionally, visiting Atlanta I was able to behold Stone Mountain with the faces of Lee, Jackson, and Davis carved into the side of the mountain overlooking the great city of Atlanta. I never wondered what African Americans thought of these monuments. They were part of Southern history and heritage.
While I was never overtly racist in treating African Americans less than me, I do remember certain beliefs and comments that I made growing up. I remember once using the N-word in front of my father. He immediately chastised me and made me eat a bar of soap for this transgression. I have never used the word since. I was ignorant of the meaning of the word, and I had heard adults in my own family using the word to refer pejoratively to African Americans. But more insidiously, I believed that I was better as a Caucasian. I would patronize and be condescending toward African Americans in my own heart.
Today, we Americans and Southerners have a great challenge and opportunity facing us. As I see the desire to remove the monuments of the Confederacy as well as other monuments that stand against Native Americans, I realize in myself how these monuments must be seen and understood by African Americans and other peoples of color. In America, African Americans have been understood as “other.” They have been treated as less than the dignity of a human being. As one African American has pointed out, her body is a monument to the Confederacy. Southern heritage and Southern pride must change. The focus on the religion of the Lost Cause must come to an end. The South lost the war for good reason, and it will not rise again. The symbols of the Confederacy, the heroes that so many Southerners look up to, must be laid to rest. These are affronts to our brothers and sisters of color. It is time that the South recognize the other, and in so doing recognize its own complicity in oppression and racism.
As a mental health therapist, part of the code of ethics is being culturally competent. This means first and foremost that the therapist understand his or her prejudices in working with a culture that is different from him or her. It also means trying one’s best to understand the culture of the client. The client is other to the therapist, but the onus is on the therapist to come to an understanding of the client’s culture so that he or she can utilize those cultural strengths to help bring healing to the client.
Likewise, as an American it is important to realize that African Americans are also Americans entitled to respect and dignity as afforded by the Constitution and laws of America. As an Orthodox Christian, they too are children of God and are made in the image and likeness of God. Working as a priest and a therapist I am called to advocate and work for justice and mercy for all of God’s children regardless of color. St. Paul reminds us that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man and woman in Christ Jesus. May God forgive us who have sinned against our brothers and sisters.
Fr. Daniel Payne is a Greek Orthodox priest and a mental health therapist in Wyoming. He is also a scholar of religion and politics and has several publications regarding religion, nationalism, and human rights.