Spring break brought me to Charleston this year —seafood, history and beaches awaited me as I took the four hour trek from my hometown to the historic city. I had a list of places scoped out, from the historic district to the newer, trendier restaurants.
But it only took a half-day of walking around for me to spot my first one: a Confederate flag, hanging from a bright white house’s piazza.
And it didn’t stop there. They were everywhere —slapped on truck windshields, adorning T-shirts, emblazoned on bandanas, pasted on signs.
As a Southerner, I’ve heard the argument from others before. “It’s part of our identity,” they’ll claim, hoisting the flag on top of trucks and porches.
They’ll say that “The flag is symbolic of our heritage, our existence as a people unique from the Northerners.”
Okay, but get this: It’s a symbol with a hateful history.
They respond: “No. It has nothing to do with slavery or racism. It represents our distinct Southern culture —agriculture, lineage and small government. We tried to secede back then because we wanted to fight for states’ rights.”
Sure, it was fought for states’ rights —states’ rights to own slaves, that is. Nice try.
On one hand: Of course you can be proud of your Southern heritage. Eat all the biscuits and gravy you want, revel in your Southern accent, go visit the Biltmore Estate —these little celebrations don’t hurt anyone and stay true to your identity.
But when you raise a flag that represents an attempted nation founded on oppression, you can’t get angry when people call you out on what it actually means. Or when they make assumptions about you for raising it.
But the second counter-argument these flag-wielders use is that everyone is too sensitive. That it’s freedom of speech and people need to learn to ignore it.
The reality is that there’s a lot of hateful rhetoric and symbolism in today’s society, whether it’s used for identity, humor or just straight up terror. AIDS jokes, Holocaust humor, Confederate flags—it’s increasingly prevalent in this polarized country to see people prioritizing their own comfort over other people’s safety.
They’ll say: “What does it matter? It already happened, and a long time ago at that. Get thicker skin.”
It matters because it’s trivializing the hardships and horrors of people’s respective pasts. It’s normalizing horrendous events that we collectively decided to never let happen again.
The government neglect and ridicule of the LGBT community in the midst of a fatal epidemic should never be considered normal. The systematic killing of six million Jews should never be considered normal. The forced enslavement of millions of people of African descent should never be considered normal.
It’s this insistence to make light of the past and ignore the present that is leading to fear. When you disregard the current day implications of words and symbols, throwing them around without thought, you’re tell people that you think this was normal—that you would let it happen again.
The bottom line is this: Your nostalgia or your joke is not nearly as important as someone else’s safety. If you’re actually an ally, if you actually care about their feelings—stopping won’t be hard.
The Confederate flag means different things to different people. But interpretations of discomfort and oppression should be prioritized over glorified days of the long-gone South. It might be a symbol of identity, but it’s an identity founded on hate.
Real, living people’s feelings and fears are more important than those of long-dead people. And they’re certainly more important than a flag.
Sarah Taekman is a first-year student majoring in biology.