Of flags, privilege, and family

A few days ago my brother changed his Facebook profile picture to the confederate flag. I am not sure what to do in the wake of this small, harmless, heinous, ugly action. I am torn between my identities as an antiracist activist, an antiracist educator, a sociologist, and a sister. Not to mention a friend. Am I a bad person if I continue to allow a person in my life who openly proclaims racist attitudes?

As you might imagine I am not exceptionally close to my brother. We are almost a decade apart in age and have never lived in the same house. We are different in lots of ways. Example: he never went to college, I am a college professor. We have other things in common, like we both talk unstoppably and are pretty loud about it. And we both hate cops, although my brother has spent some time in jail while I’ve never been. I love him because he is my brother but if blood ties were socially meaningless we would never even speak to each other.

So I could detach from my brother; it would not even be that hard. I could stop sending him cards or asking my dad about him and I could be curt and polite when I see him on visits to other family. We had that kind of relationship for several years and no one would really say anything if our relationship became that way again. I wonder if maybe that is my moral obligation. Maybe I am cheating, relying on my white privilege, when I leave my antiracist politics at the door in order to have a relationship with my brother. Relegating these deeply held beliefs to a set of political opinions like who I vote for that I can just set aside for a while in order to have a conversation about gardening with someone who will only disagree with me about anything else. I do not know if it would be so easy to relegate my antiracist beliefs if they were actually about me instead of just my friends, or if they were about my partner or my children. Why do I even want to have a conversation with someone who flies a confederate flag even though he knows it symbolizes the belief that some human beings are not, in fact, really human beings?

But I guess there’s the rub: family is not socially meaningless. It is, as Bodhi just reminded me, the place where I’m from. Family and home form a core part of me, I guess, even if it’s a part I’m ashamed of and sometimes repulsed by. I wonder if that’s why I never feel more impotent as a teacher, sociologist, and activist than with my family.

I am proud of the success I have engaging university students to think about white supremacy in 2015 and in their own lives, but I worry how I can convince anyone in the broader world of anything if I can’t even convince my own family, the people who supposedly love me best. My family are some of the few people I interact with who have truly divergent views from my own, not counting students who are directly subject to my authority. They are one of my few chances to preach outside the choir. When I can’t do it, when I know it’s useless, I feel like a complete and utter failure.

Worse, I know that any descendants of slaves who might look at my Facebook page and see that flag will know that I am not the kind of white person that can be counted on. I often feel proud of my relentless efforts to remain close to my family and that they are part of my integrity as a person. But I guess right now I stand (ambivalently) for family, but also for racism, and what kind of integrity is that?

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One thought on “Of flags, privilege, and family

  1. “I never feel more impotent as a teacher, sociologist, and activist than with my family” – Yes!!

    The family issue is a tough one. I’ve had many many arguments with cousins, dad, uncles, and after the hours-long arguments, I’ve always felt angry and ashamed of myself, and have never felt that I’ve changed anyone’s mind – in fact the opposite, I’ve worried that all my arguing has actually made them dig-in even deeper into their positions. On a positive note though – time does seem to make a difference – example, I met a cousin last week whom I hadn’t seen for 15 years, and a lot of stuff he was saying and doing was pretty feminist although I am pretty certain he would never call himself one (this was the one who about 16 years ago proudly told me how he and his friends would pinch girls on the bus because the girls “really enjoyed it and their protests were proof that they enjoyed it”).

    So all that is to say that my instinctive urge is to tell you not to cut yourself off from your brother. Talk to him about gardening – you are not being a traitor to the cause by having a brother who might have racist attitudes. This is my instinctive reaction and I’m not sure I can fully justify the reasons behind my reaction. I think it involves some vague notions about beliefs being important, but people and relationships being more important and beliefs being impermanent. Also, it seems to me that if everyone was required to cut-off all family/friends who were racist/sexist/homophobic, then perhaps we wouldn’t have any relationships left.

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