I am a Black doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, home of Silent Sam. When Silent Sam, a Confederate statue erected on UNC’s campus more than 100 years ago, was pulled from its pedestal by student protesters on the night before classes began this fall, I was proud.
I have been a UNC student since I began undergraduate study in 2011, and in these years, I have walked past the statue more times than I can recall. The statue is a reminder of the White supremacist history of this campus. But beyond that, its permitted survival and prominent display despite decades of protest and scholarship have served as a constant reminder of the tremendous extent to which university administration values certain interests (and donors) more than it values students, faculty and staff of color.
So when finally, finally, this statue found its face on the ground, I allowed myself to feel joy for a few minutes. Then I logged onto Facebook. And against my better judgment, I read strangers’ comments on the issue. For every person proud and elated over the statue’s fall, there was another equally furious. Some veiled their frustrations behind an alleged simple affinity for law and order, but others were upset for reasons that were clearly far more personal. The passion of these people — few of whom live in town and far fewer of whom have ever attended the university — seemed like such lunacy to me. I read these comments and watched footage of pro-Sam groups as they arrived on campus, and I wondered, in unsophisticated terms, why are you like this?
I wanted to know, so I asked. If I learned nothing else from the election of Donald Trump, I learned that there exists a mass of people in this country who very passionately adhere to and behave according to very harmful beliefs rooted in very irrational fears. And as much as I’d like to write these people off as hopelessly ignorant, I — as a researcher, a Black woman and a human who wants to help create a better and safer country for all people – have to try to understand where these people are coming from. So I asked. But as a Black woman, I couldn’t expect honest answers from White advocates for Silent Sam. So I pretended to be a White woman.
I created a Facebook profile appearing as a conservative White female student. Then I scrolled the comments of local news articles on Silent Sam, seeking comments from people angry over the fall of the statue. I ignored comments strictly discussing the legality of the issue, factual or otherwise. I looked for comments from people demanding the return of the statue to UNC’s campus because of what it represented. Then I sent each of those people a message.
As a Black woman, I couldn’t expect honest answers from White advocates for Silent Sam. So I pretended to be a White woman.
I told them I was a conservative student at UNC and was writing a paper to highlight the pro-Sam perspectives often overlooked on “UNC’s liberal campus.” The profile was clearly fake, with no listed friends, and no pictures other than a profile photo of Sam and a cover photo of a Confederate flag displaying the punchy falsehood: “heritage not hate.” So I explained away the inauthenticity of the profile.
I told my new friends I had created this fake identity because as a conservative student on UNC’s liberal campus, I did not feel comfortable using my real identity to write a Confederate-sympathizing paper, as I’d be ostracized by my peers. My new friends on this page quickly bought into the lie. More than one even said I’d get kicked out of school if the administration discovered my “true” conservative identity!
In the message I sent these pro-Sam individuals, I asked why they felt the statue should be returned to campus and how they felt about the students who destroyed it. And as a “White woman,” I was met with what I believe were honest answers. More than 20 people responded to me — not a bad sample for a qualitative investigation developed and conducted within two weeks. I’ll note here that I had no real intention of writing any paper. I was motivated by pure curiosity. As a social science researcher in my graduate career, I generally seek to understand the motivations of others, as it helps better inform my research, my everyday interactions and hopefully my career. The responses I received, though, were enough with which to fill a full academic article, despite being (surprisingly yet unsurprisingly) similar to one another. However, for the sake of general reader accessibility, these responses are worth summarizing and reflecting upon here.
As a first line of defense, Sam supporters were insistent that the statue existed irrelevant of slavery, while simultaneously attempting to educate me on the “true” history of slavery. Beyond the (allegedly undue) focus on slavery, respondents lamented what they viewed as a general miseducation of UNC students and liberal Americans in general. They encouraged me, the innocent White student, to hold fast to my values or even escape the university before I was brainwashed to misunderstand American history.
They encouraged me, the innocent White student, to hold fast to my values or even escape the university before I was brainwashed to misunderstand American history.
Respondents warned me of the country’s impending destruction, as “they will be invading your home and business next.” Who is they, exactly? If I had to guess, I’d say they are liberals, Black Americans or liberal Black Americans. But I didn’t have to guess. These respondents made it very clear who they are. One respondent raved, “it their [sic] can’t be white supremacy there certainly can’t be black supremacy! I’ve experienced so much hate from blacks but we’re racist? You can’t say anything against blacks...The world has lost it!!”
Erased cultural histories, consequences for disparaging remarks, perceived race-based hatred — whether White conservative Americans realize it or not, they are terrified of what they view as a minoritization of their race.
It was an interesting feeling for me, posing as a White woman, to pretend to be afraid of the real me, a Black woman, in order to engage with these respondents. As a Black woman, my friends and family, my ancestors and I have always existed in a state of constant confrontation with the harms these respondents imagine themselves to be facing now. The reality is that there is no threat to the sociopolitical dominance of White Americans, and this dominance will remain unthreatened whether or not Silent Sam returns to UNC’s campus. But I have written today about a group of people who feel genuine fear and believe beyond any doubt that their lives and their values are in critical danger. Years of systems and interactions, or lack thereof, have allowed these fears to cultivate to the violent, intractable level we see today.
I did not originally intend to write anything about the responses I received. The fake profile was not created as a grand undertaking. Only my closest friends, with whom I discussed in no great detail some of the more ridiculous responses, know this profile was ever created. But I feel it is worth sharing. As a Black person, I am somewhat flattered that we and other advocates for our safety and just treatment have so clearly challenged American practices rooted in racism that Confederate apologists feel their world is literally falling apart. But I also recognize that the palpable fear felt by these respondents and like-minded others is neither healthy nor safe for anyone.
I hope to see and help create a world in which individuals like these respondents do not feel they need to be afraid of me.
The disdain these respondents felt for anti-Sam protestors is steeped in excessive fear, and it’s clear that such fear leads to harmful, irrational, reactionary behaviors. I hope to see and help create a world in which individuals like these respondents do not feel they need to be afraid of me. I hope that the future sees the phasing out of generations so disengaged with facts and so isolated from interactions with diverse groups that they are able to simmer in unchallenged paranoia. I am proud and thankful for the students of UNC and beyond who come from a variety of backgrounds and have developed an understanding that erasing national pride in this country’s racist history is nothing to fear.
I expect the coming years to be tumultuous, as racial diversity continues to increase and the individuals unwilling or unable to educate themselves and adapt accordingly will fight against this change in every breath and keyboard click. I hope and believe in the increased recognition among White conservative Americans that, in short, improving my life and safety will not challenge theirs.
Dear respondents and UNC administration frantically trying to justify Sam’s return to campus: I know you don’t believe this, but you’re going to be OK.
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