Why I Put Away My Confederate Flags
I am and have always been fiercely proud to be Southern. I speak Southern, and I eat Southern. I feel sad for those poor souls who are not blessed to be Southern, and at the same time I don’t want them to know how great the South is because I don’t want them moving here.
Others are free to disagree with me. We all have the right to be wrong.
I grew up around, and myself proudly displayed, Confederate flags.
In High School, I wore a jacket with a Confederate flag patch on the sleeve. My truck had both a Confederate flag license plate and a sticker on the window. Even my High School ring had a Confederate flag on it.
This probably sounds bizarre to many of you, but it was not to us. The Confederate flag was a common symbol of Southern pride and heritage, in spite of its association with and usage by white supremacist organizations.
If objections were ever raised, our default response was always, “It’s heritage, not hatred.” We don’t celebrate the enslavement and abuse of millions of Africans, we don’t participate in the ongoing mistreatment of their descendants, but we do love being Southern, and this flag is a symbol of that, no matter what others might say.
In the Fall of 2002, when I was nineteen years old, I had a single, short conversation that made me reevaluate that symbol.
I was working year round at a Christian camp. One of the volunteers there was a man named Hank, whom I had known for a few years. One Saturday, after our day of basketball ministry had ended, Hank sat beside me on the bleachers.
“Hey, Jarrod,” he said, “I wanted to talk to you about something. I’ve noticed the Confederate flag on your truck.”
I mentally rolled my eyes before letting forth with my prepared response: “It’s heritage, not hatred. I’m from the South and I’m proud of that. I’m not racist.”
“I understand that,” Hank said. “I know you, and I don’t think you’re racist. And I know that you love Jesus, and that you want to tell other people about Jesus. I know that you love people. But when people see that flag, they don’t think of that, they think of hatred. They assume you hate them because they see you with that flag. I would hate for someone to get the wrong idea about you, or about Jesus, because of that flag.”
That was it. The conversation moved on to other topics from there, and Hank never said anything about it to me again.
But a few days later, I removed the Confederate flags from my truck. I haven’t displayed a Confederate flag since.
That conversation had an effect on me that no prior conversation had, and the reason why is friendship.
Hank and I were friends for a few years before that conversation. He respected me, and I respected him. We worked together, played together, and annoyed each other. When he broached a sensitive subject, it was as a friend, not a stranger or an enemy.
Hank acknowledged both my perspective and my deeper purpose. He never told me I was wrong, but accepted my explanation as right from my point of view. However, because he and I were friends, he was able to know what meant the most to me, where my heart was. He did not accuse me of anything, but appealed to something better in me.
Hank gave me no ultimatum. He presented an idea, and let me make my own conclusion. If I had chosen differently, Hank would have remained my friend. But he left the decision up to me.
You cannot change someone’s mind through accusations, demands and ultimatums. That causes them to dig in their heels, throw up their defenses, and double-down on whatever it is you want them to change.
Racism is an ongoing American sin.
It is multifaceted and complex, nowhere near as simple and straightforward as many of us wish it to be.
Racism is both prevalent and subtle. It is deeply ingrained in our society and culture, so much so that we think of it as normal. When light is shined on our systemized racism, we protect it as the status quo.
That’s why I didn’t want to take down my Confederate flags. I saw them as one thing, even if the world saw them as something else. It’s not my fault that others use this symbol differently than what I intend.
But I can’t be willfully naïve and ignore the message that most of the world receives. No matter what intention I might have in flying that flag, the world will continue to see it as a symbol of hatred and violence. This is not news.
It has been nearly twenty years since that conversation with Hank. In that time, I have had to learn how to listen. I have had to sit through uncomfortable lessons. I have had to acknowledge my own complicity in racism, and I have dug in my heels and refused to acknowledge my failures far too often.
I am still learning. I am still growing. To my shame, I am only now starting to speak out against something I’ve claimed I’m against my whole life.
It has taken a lot for me to accept that my actions, my words, my apathy and my choice of symbols have consequences beyond my intention.
People have had to have patience with me.
It is my intention for my daughters to grow up speaking Southern English just as naturally as me. But it is also my intention to improve their heritage, to raise them to love all people not in word alone but in deed and action.
They will still be Southern even if the only place they see a Confederate flag is in a history book.