Whistling Dixie

800px-General_Lee_scale_modelMidnight, our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us.
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat.

– U2

I still remember the Christmas morning at my grandparents’ house in Waxahachie, Texas. I found one of these little guys under the tree: a remote-control model of the General Lee. And I was pumped! The Dukes of Hazzard was one of my favorite TV shows as a kid. I once busted my knee wide open pretending to be the Duke boys on my Big Wheel. They were, to me, the height of cool.

Of course, I was a kid, and I didn’t know from the Confederacy or the Civil War. I knew I was supposedly related to some guy named Robert E. Lee (that has since been debunked as a myth), but that was pretty much it. I hadn’t an inkling that the awesome design on my favorite car in the world (beside K.I.T.T., that is–it could talk, after all) actually meant something. I didn’t know what racism was, or slavery, or prejudice and discrimination. Jim Crow would have sounded like a storybook character to inexperienced little me. I had no idea that I loved something that to many, many people was a symbol of hatred, fear, and inequality.

Now I know. But I still don’t often think about it. I still watch reruns of the Dukes without stopping to consider the underlying cultural message, one that still resonated, apparently, two years after I was born in 1977–112 years after the Civil War ended, and 114 years after U.S. slaves were (sort of) emancipated. It never occurs to me to wonder how my African American compatriots feel as they channel-surf past TVLand when they happen to have a little free time. How it may, for some, call into question the very idea of “free time.”

Why? Because I’m white. Which is more of a soporific than I often realize. Yes, it is structural, and no, I wasn’t around in the 1800s, nor did–as far back as I’ve gone, at least–any of my forebears own slaves. But the simple fact of my white-ness implicates me in a way I can perhaps ignore, but not in any responsible way deny.

I recently became angry with a couple of fellow bloggers (my sincere apologies to Ruth and Madalyn) when they suggested that I might be implicated in the politics of patriarchy and chauvinism simply by virtue of being a man, regardless of my personal stance on the issue. If you ask my wife, I think she will tell you that I am a fairly enlightened male-type person when it comes to feminist issues, but does that let me off the hook? Perhaps not so much as I’d like to think. I also consider myself fairly enlightened when it comes to racial issues: I grew up in Argentina, where they did to their natives what we did to our buffalo–literally; I belong to the local race relations committee (or I will, if they ever get around to cashing my membership check); I have worked in educational settings with minority youth of multiple backgrounds and ethnicities. There isn’t a racist bone in my body.

Except it’s not my body that matters. It’s the space my body inhabits, the system of which it’s a part, however innocently. I have never burned a cross; I have never donned a bedsheet or strung a noose. I haven’t turned away a job applicant because of his color or denied anyone the right to vote. I have never summoned up sufficient hubris to try and own a fellow human being. I have never done any of these things. But they are still a part of who I am, because they are an ineluctable part of my cultural milieu. They are, whether I like it or not, whether I even know it or not, mine by birthright. An ideological inheritance I have to acknowledge, painful as it may be.

I am white. Therefore, I am responsible.

I also think in a racialized manner. In this context, I don’t think there’s really a significant difference between “racial” and “racist,” no matter how many people tell me there is. I think it is a distinction born of collective guilt, of a certain helplessness in the face of systematized conceptual violence. We’re all of us whistling Dixie, and we’ve no idea how to stop.

When I was on that misson trip to the Carver Baptist Center in New Orleans, and made a conscious effort to interact with the people there in a way that would show them I “wasn’t a racist,” I implicated myself in my white-ness. As much as I rail against gentrification, I avoided the same neighborhoods as everybody else in Waco when I bought my house, never stopping to consider the fact that the very feasibility for me of that avoidance implicated me in my white-ness. I am implicated by the simple fact that I have never nor will I ever feel the stigma of minority identity. I will never look at the General Lee or the flag flying over the South Carolina capitol building with any other than white eyes, and I am implicated in my white-ness by that, as well.

I am white. Therefore, I am responsible. And I haven’t a clue what to do about it.

But perhaps that’s the beginning of comprehension, the first step toward a solution: I cannot understand. Not completely, by any means. And if I cannot understand, then how can I presume to be the arbitrator? So much of our society, our politics, is based on this misbegotten assumption of “understanding,” of comprehension we cannot possibly possess. Men want to regulate the sexual and procreative choices of women; heterosexuals want to define the family lives of the LGBT community; Christians want to limit the political participation of atheists, Muslims, and people of all other faiths (and vice versa–don’t think you can get off the hook that easily).

Whites want to decide whether African Americans should be able to look at the their own state institutions without the constant reminder of centuries of subjugation and injustice. Because we think we know better.

Am I a racist? I don’t believe so, but that’s not really the question. The system is, and that’s the real problem. I sit at the end of a timeline I cannot fathom, a history I can study but never truly understand. Because I am white.

And I am responsible…

Around Butler (Release Date: March 4, 2013)

To all those who followed my adventures in local history over the last year or so, thank you so much. The journey is over, and the finish line is fast approaching. My new book, Around Butler, will be available to purchase on March 4, 2013.

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By Vance Woods and Brian Phillips. Images Of America. Arcadia Publishing. $21.99.

Meet the Electric City! From cattle to coal mines, border ruffians to businessmen, and rockets to railroad schemes, the air around Butler, Missouri, has crackled with energy since the settlement’s establishment in 1856. Ravaged by Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers and consumed in 1863 by the flames of General Order No. 11, the settlement rose from the ashes in the late 1860s and 1870s to become a hub of culture and commerce at the western edge of the “Show Me State.” In 1881, the capital of Bates County went electric, becoming one of the first municipalities west of the Mississippi to generate its own power, outstripping Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in Manhattan by almost a year. A quiet little community with a loud and vibrant history, Butler is the quintessential example of the American small-town experience.

If you find it difficult to leave the back road behind; if you love nothing more than an excellent piece of homemade pie to go with your homespun tales; if you believe, deep inside, that there’s a wide-eyed, small-town kid inside us all–take a trip through the story of Butler with me. Then, if you are touched as much as I have been, perhaps even take a trip through the streets of Butler, and meet the people who call it home. Go to South Side Cafe and ask Randy about his pint-sized ghosts; check out the Suzie-Qs (curly fries, for those who don’t know) at The Flaming Lantern; take a walk around the brick-cobbled square; and stop by Sam’s for one of the best burgers in the world today. Finally, pop your head in at the Bates County Museum and ask Peggy about a man named Eddie and his amazing collection of Butler stuff. You will not regret it.