Clueless White Boys, the Confederate Flag, and Race
"If I can take an action that affects you, you have to think about what I will do and enter into my mind, but if nothing you do affects me, then I don't have to think about you at all. I am clueless about you because I do not have to spend any time thinking about you; it does not even occur to me that you can do anything to hurt or help me, and my cluelessness is a statement that my status in this sense superior. . . . Another explanation for cluelessness is empathy prevention: if you start thinking about another person's goals and thoughts, you might start to care about them."*
At the University where I teach there was an unpleasant incident last week in which a resident of a fraternity displayed a confederate flag in his window. Members of the Douglass Leadership House (which happens to be on the fraternity quad) took offense and spoke out in a frank but, I think, reasonable manner. (Full disclosure: I am faculty adviser to the DLH students.) In the subsequent exchange on Facebook some students sought to defend displaying the flag as simply a symbol of southern culture, denying that - past or present - it has any racist connotations. Others dropped the pretense and engaged in truly outrageous statements expressing nostalgia for the days of slavery. And, of course, everyone invoked free speech. But, of course, the students in DLH simply spoke back.
This episode plays out in different ways in other contexts. I snapped the photo above with my iPhone while driving in our small western NY town this afternoon. Two young men were cruising in their pickup. And, of course, there was the rebel display at the White House last week (see here and here). Of course, there is no racism on display in any of that - at least as long as white boys get to define what falls into that category.
I see two possible explanations for the behavior of young white men displaying the confederate flag. Some may actually be racist. Saying so typically elicits howls of protest from those so described. Others, though, may just be clueless. It is in no way obvious that the latter possibility is any less objectionable than the former.
* Michael Suk-Young Chwe. 2013. Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Princeton University Press, page 222, 224.