A Southern White Woman's Response to the Charleston Massacre

06/25/2015 02:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016
Win McNamee via Getty Images

I have always willingly identified as a southerner. My mother is from Savannah, Georgia. My father is from Greenville, Mississippi, and I grew up in various towns in Alabama. I am most at home when the humidity is above 80%, there's a pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge and folks stop by just to "visit." Many people are surprised to hear that I'm from Alabama -- I'm not sure why, but maybe it's because I don't fit the stereotype that most people have. I don't even know what the stereotype of a white woman in her 30's from Alabama might be, but I think it probably includes a strong southern accent, a considerable lack of education and cooking with lard, fatback and streak-a-lean. Oh, and someone who stays in Alabama. Moving out of state to attend university gave me my first taste of the shock I would often encounter when meeting someone unfamiliar with folks from the Deep South. They are often genuinely surprised that we can be level-headed, articulate and sincere.

But I am from the south and, until recently, thought I would live there forever. A year ago, my husband, our two young boys and I moved to Long Island, New York. We knew it would be an adjustment and there would be hard moments. We knew it would take a commitment on our part to hold ourselves here, to wait for things to get easier, to trust that the decision to leave home -- to leave everything we'd ever known -- was wise. And we were right. It has been incredibly difficult at times to be so far away from loved ones who know us and love us. It's been hard to find our rhythm in an environment where the pace is much faster than anything we've ever experienced. It's taken a conscious effort on our part to remember why we came in light of how homesick we've been. This past year has confirmed that I will probably always feel more at home in a place that is hot and muggy and where the people move slower because of it.

And yet... I am becoming painfully aware in the wake of last week's massacre in Charleston that much of what made up the air I breathed as a little white girl growing up in lower Alabama was revisionist history. The "South" that I love and have been desperately homesick for doesn't really exist. I have always known this on some level, but I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't know the extent to which my ideas of home have been informed by things that just aren't true.

I've long been disabused of any idea that the Civil War was really about states' rights or that the Confederate flag has any business being anywhere but a museum, but I can't escape the fact that my very experience has been that of a privileged white woman. And I can't escape the fact that most of my friends are privileged white women. Amazing women. Gospel-loving women. And we have the privilege of going to church on Wednesday night without the fear that someone will gun us down because we are white. There is no flag flying high above a government building that symbolizes the hatred people had for my ancestors. The very fact that we can post on Facebook about puppies, vacations and funny jokes in the days after the Charleston Massacre means that we have no idea what our African-American brothers and sisters are experiencing.

I was born in 1979, just 15 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Fifteen years. How can I think that the south I was born into and interacted with as a little girl was so very different than the south that tore itself apart in the 1950s and 1960s?

I think the problem white people in my generation have with understanding race issues is that we see it as taking place a lifetime ago, long before we were born. My mother tells me about a time in the 1950s when they didn't have a television, when she was required to wear either a skirt or a dress to work in the 1960s and about the first microwave they bought in the 1970s. There is a vast gulf between her childhood and mine. Her history seems far away, so separated from our society today. The videos I've watched of the protests, marches and speeches from the Civil Rights Movement seem to be from a different time, much like Armstrong's walk on the moon seems to have more in common with the invention of the automobile than with my daily experience. And though my father went to the University of Mississippi in the 1960s around the same time as James Meredith, I often forget that particular part of his history. I forget that the man who raised me was raised in Greenville, MS in the 1950s.

I forget because my parents are wonderfully loving people who tried very hard to raise their children to see everyone as equal. They talked often about making friends with people of all races and set examples for us in their own lives. They didn't talk, however, about the reason it was so important to intentionally treat everyone as equal. They left it up to the schools to teach us about the Civil Rights Movement in that very sterile way textbooks teach everything -- I certainly never read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in school. My parents and many other white parents didn't talk to their children about the things they must have witnessed in their schools, on the buses or at water fountains. I know that living through the Civil Rights Movement in the south impacted my parents and I know the collective history of the south is one that must be painful to them and others like them. Therefore, like many other whites from that time, they didn't talk to their children about their true, painful, bloody history. And so, our history -- our heritage -- didn't become real to us. Instead, we were left to parse together a romanticized version that leaves us feeling incredibly defensive whenever someone comes along and challenges our love of home.

I know some of my white friends will be frustrated with me after reading this, and that's OK. We have a shared history of silence when it comes to discussing difficult things. Race, poverty, and injustice -- these are things that polite southern ladies don't often enter into discussions about. As my mama always said, "Honey, don't stir the stink, 'cause it'll just make it stronger." Perhaps we don't discuss these issues because we don't know how to begin. Or because we are afraid of doing it wrong and making things worse. Or because we haven't seen it modeled for us by our mothers and grandmothers. But I don't want to stay silent any longer. I want to be part of the discussion. Mostly, I want to listen to my African-American brothers and sisters and learn about their experiences. I want my African-American students, along with all my students of color, to know that although I have not had their same experiences, I stand with them.

I won't remain silent any longer. Even if I mess up in my attempts to understand, I trust that my African-American brothers and sisters will be gracious with me and help me. The only way I know to start the process of reconciliation is on a personal level -- through conversation. And so I am beginning. Will you join me?

Also on HuffPost:

Charleston Vigils