South of what, exactly?

One of the chief arguments pressed into service in defence of so-called “casual” racism – that is, racism that occurs as part of popular culture without any awareness of racist content on the part of the majority – is that in the absence of intent, acts are not racist. While we here know this to be largely a fiction born of self-flattery, it is surprisingly persuasive and popular. It’s not exactly a difficult puzzle to solve – if you have not had to deal with the consequences of racism in your own life, you’re unlikely to have much appreciation for the myriad ways in which it manifests itself and exerts its influence.

The close cousin of the intent argument is the “well that’s not what it means to me” argument. When someone uses racist imagery in this same “casual” way, either out of apathy or ignorance, the typical response is for the person to say that ze simply doesn’t see it as being racist. This is often the case for things like blackface or cultural appropriation from First Nations – it’s not racist, it’s like, totally meant as a compliment! Or it’s completely blind to the culture from which it’s taken. I’m honestly not sure which is worse.

What I do know is that some explanations are more bafflingly clueless and indefensible than others:

A high school in York Region has banned a controversial flag long synonymous with America’s Deep South, but also with prejudice and racism. The Confederate flag became popular at Sutton District High School in the last two years, said principal Dawn Laliberté, emblazoned on bandanas, lighters, belt buckles, backpacks and pickup truck windows. After explaining the flag’s symbolism to students this week, the school implemented a ban.

I’ve seen a few Confederate flags here in Canada, and I’ve always struggled to interpret it as anything other than a statement of “if I could get away with it, I’d kill a black person”. Various attempts to divorce the flag from its history have been made, but the fact is that there was once a country whose chief raison d’être was the perpetuation of a kind of slavery that had been outlawed by the country it sought to secede from. The “stars and bars” was the flag of that country – a visible symbol of what it represented. Beyond that it was used as an official symbol for white supremacy and White Power for decades after Reconstruction (one might even argue that it is still used as that symbol). If you want to wear that symbol, you have to be aware of its history.

Of maybe you don’t:

At the sprawling school parking lot, marked by pickup trucks and snowmobile tracks, most students were angry the administration was intervening in what they choose to wear or accessorize with. Some students in the town on the east shore of Lake Simcoe said the display of the flag wasn’t widespread, and many debated its meaning.

“It’s more about the country values, we don’t think of it as racist,” said a Grade 10 student, who has T-shirts, belt buckles and hats with the symbol, and plans to keep wearing them.

“Country values”, he says. I think he’s confused about which country.

It is interesting to note, just as a matter of geographic and historical fact, that Barrie Ontario (the nearest city to Sutton District High School) was once the home of the largest Ku Klux Klan detachment in the country. While I’m sure the students had no idea this was the case – nor did I until I read the Backhouse book – I have a hard time believing that the parents of these students are quite so blissfully unaware of the racist connotations of the symbol, and the history of the region when it comes to white supremacy.

There was another bit of this interview that caught my eye, and provided the title for this post:

Standing on a big pile of snow in Sutton District High School’s smoking area, Grade 12 student Cody Ley said he sees “Southern pride” when he looks at his Confederate flag lighter. He said the rule is “pretty stupid” since people have freedom of speech.

Let’s assume for a moment that “Southern pride” isn’t the same thing as “white pride” for a moment (although, in the context of that symbol, it absolutely is) and ask Cody a question:

A map of Sutton District High SchoolWhat exactly is “Southern” about where you live? It’s “south” of Lake Superior, that’s certainly true. And hell, the great city of Bracebridge (population 15,000)  is quite a bit north from you, so I guess there’s that. But most of the black people live in that giant sprawling Metropolis that’s directly to the… gee, would you call that ‘south’? So what exactly about your completely not southern-ness do you think is accurately expressed by using the flag of the Confederate States of America?

Cody and his classmates are at the weird age where I’m not sure if I feel comfortable blaming them for their ignorance, or even chastising them for it. What I will say is that, as much as they would clearly prefer to, the history of a symbol like the Confederate flag cannot simply be stripped out and made generic by the lazy inattention and historical illiteracy of high-school students in sort-of-rural Ontario. And as it is for them, so too is it for any group of people who want to try and “reclaim” or otherwise “subvert” symbols and behaviours whose histories they don’t know and haven’t tried to understand.

Maybe the words of a classmate of Cody’s can sum it up more pithily:

“You can buy a f—— swastika if you want, it’s still racist,” said a student walking by.


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  1. Ysidro says

    Correction: The CSA did not seceed from the USA because slavery was outlawed. It wasn’t. No one was taking their slaves from them. Rather, is seceeded over the idea that newly formed states would not have slavery. This, they thought, would eventually lead to slavery being outlawed due to non-slavery states having more representation in Congress than slave owning states. In other words, they sat down and decided “some day in the future they might take the people we own away from us” and THEN decided to take their ball and go home. This wasn’t some reactionary move, it was a well thought out move to keep a probable future event from occuring. Which means they knew they couldn’t justify their belief in ownership of other human beings to others. And that just makes it all that much sadder.

  2. rq says

    That last statement is a real winner (no sarcasm from me). I think it should be the tl;dr of this post.
    Thanks for the great post. Thanks also for your opinion and point of view in general. Recently I’ve been having issues keeping up with your writing, but I hope to read more regularly again in the near future. I appreciate your attempts to educate the likes of myself, and I hope something sticks. 😉 Thank you!

  3. says

    Oh, I actually understand the “mindset”. You’ll see way more Confederate flags in Germany than I’m comfortable with. And the people who buy them and wear them know shit about its history and implications. They are like the children of fascists who innocently scribble swastikas on paper.
    And for good meassure they’ll throw in some picutres of noble savage Indians and howling wolves because they are totally not racist people. You know, they just love the States and the west and isn’t this cool?
    But you can guess the reactions when you point out that this is fucking racist.
    It can’t be racist because I’m not a racist.
    I don’t understand it like that therefore it can’t be racist.
    and, as usually
    “but I have black friends” (for a given value of “have” and “friends”, because actually, there aren’t that many black people around here)

  4. Sivi says

    I think when he said “country values”, he meant “rural”, thinking that the flag was a kind of pan-rural statement of solidarity against urban dwellers. Or something. I was born in Wiarton, and have a lot of family in rural Ontario, and “rural values” are often actually pretty synonymous with “racist values”.

    I do like that aside from the other student.

  5. Sivi says

    Oh lol, they suggested replacing the Confederate flag with the Ontario flag, which is basically the Red Ensign, which is also pretty well only used by racist or massively nationalistic Protestant old people.

  6. CaitieCat says

    I think that pull-quote totally nails why their bullshit protestations of “not a racist” is a load of crap: other students clearly know perfectly well what racist message they’re sending, so it seems deeply unlikely that Gordie Bubba there doesn’t know.

  7. says

    What’s funny to me is that the “Stars and Bars” was never “the” official flag of the CSA. The most popular design nowadays comes from the battle flag of the Army of Tennessee (which itself was inspired by the square battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia). Admittedly, many Southern states went on to incorporate that design as part of their State Flags, but the various capitols of the CSA hoisted many different flags in the War of Southern Treason, and precisely none of them were the star-spangled St. Andrew’s cross. (The second and third flags of the CSA had the St. Andrew’s Cross in the top left corner, in the same place as the US flag has its field of stars, and a white field or a white field with a red vertical margin on the right-hand-side, respectively).

    I also put “Stars and Bars” in scarequotes because the actual Stars and Bars was very similar to the Stars and Stripes, except that the Bars had three thick bars and a circular array of stars. For a fairly good rundown of all of this, see Wikipedia

    I blame the ubiquity of the symbol today on the Dukes of Hazzard, which helped make it an acceptable cultural symbol again in a dog-whistle kind of way. Wikipedia also says that certain US Army units in WWII used a variant of it, which might have spread awareness of the symbol (but not necessarily its racist context) to Yankees. I spent the first half of my life with that flag on my bedroom wall, more-or-less against my will; I’ve seen it on display right alongside KKK insignia. Trust me, to the rural Southerners that these kids are emulating so highly, there is almost no difference between “White Pride” and “Southern Pride”. There are aberrations and nuances, to be sure, but the entire heart and soul of The South was until very recently intimately wedded to white supremacy and the continuation of the “peculiar institution” in one form or another.

    Anyone who tells you any differently is selling something.

  8. Anthony K says

    “You can buy a f—— swastika if you want, it’s still racist,” said a student walking by.

    I’d love to buy this student an age-appropriate beverage of their preference.

  9. smrnda says

    I checked out the article about the Confederate flag in Ontario and took a look at the comments section. No surprise that there was the usual tripe about it being some double-standard whereas only white people cannot take ‘pride in themselves.’ (thanks to auditorydamage for the link.)

    For a moment, I’m not even going to critique the notion of white people taking pride in themselves, just if you’re going to find a symbol that’s supposed to represent the positive contributions of white people to the world, the Confederate flag is a pretty bad symbol. It would be like the English propping up Oliver Cromwell or Cecil Rhodes as ideal Englishman.

    On ‘rural pride’ and such, I can’t deny that as a person who grew up in large cities I’m totally unbiased here, but I always real ‘rural pride’ to be less a statement about rural people being proud of themselves and more about there being a high level of hatred and suspicion of outsiders. You can also get away with saying you dislike *urban areas* which is a pretty obvious coded expression for disliking racial minorities, homosexuals or any other group commonly assumed to be concentrated in urban areas, but said in a way where it can be conveniently denied.

  10. Rip Steakface says

    I cannot possibly understand why *Canadian* high schoolers would be adopting the symbolism of our old racists. I could understand explicitly racist people around the world doing so (nationalist parties in Greece, Russia or Germany, for example), as well as more covertly racist people in the US (both southern and not) but Canadian high schoolers? Kid, you’re north of the North.

    They’re not even real racists, basically (yes, I know racism applies to actions and statements and not necessarily people, but this is a joke). They’re posers.

  11. Edward Gemmer says

    I think it’s worth noting that in the U.S. racial minorities (especially Latinos and African-Americans) tend to be more likely to be affiliated with religion and more active if religious than whites. So it makes some sense that the perceived atheist message of “religious people are stupid” can come off as a racist message, and certainly not an attractive one.

  12. sambarge says

    smrnda @11 – Did you see the comment about “black people own(ed) slaves so this flag’s not racist”?

    I mean, how can you even respond to that level of stupidity? Do those people even understand words and sentences?

    Rip Steakface @12 – Exactly. Posers. Canadian teenagers attempting to co-opt the American experience, regardless of its lack of connection/relevance to the Canadian experience. I mean, if you want to display your racism, there is plenty of Canadian history you can emulate to make your point.

  13. tariqata says

    Rip Steakface: I’m not going to argue that Sutton District High is a hotbed of explicit US-style white supremacism, but I wouldn’t call the overt racist sentiments one hears in that part of rural Ontario a joke, either.

    For example:

    The long pier became the flashpoint of violence recently. Following three previous assaults involving Asians and anglers on a federally owned pier near the bridge, a confrontation last month left one young man in coma, another seriously injured and another in jail. In reports that followed these events, an example of local vernacular emerged, a term teens in the area use to describe how they sneak up on Asian visitors, push them into the water and destroy their gear. They call it “nipper-tipping” — an amalgam of the Second World War-era epithet for a Japanese person and the practice of tipping over sleeping cows.

    (I’m glad to see this posted here, Crommunist – I grew up not far from Sutton and still have some friends and family in the area. When I saw the article yesterday, I wondered what you’d have to say about.)

  14. Edward Gemmer says

    What is this in response to?

    Your post, which is good. I’m from rural Ohio, so I’ve seen a few confederate flags in my life, despite the fact that “HEY MORONS, OHIO WAS IN THE UNION!” But clearly, different symbols mean different things to different people, and the confederate flag clearly means widely disparate things to many people. Still, to ignore it’s history with slavery and war is, well, ignorant.

    But I guess my point was your first paragraph about casual racism, specifically:

    One of the chief arguments pressed into service in defence of so-called “casual” racism – that is, racism that occurs as part of popular culture without any awareness of racist content on the part of the majority – is that in the absence of intent, acts are not racist.

    Statistics abound, but the Pew Forum in 2009 listed African-Americans as 88% affiliated with a church, and of the unaffiliated, 72% still felt religion was unimportant. Less than 1.5% affiliated as agnostic or atheist. My thought is, if between 95% and 98% of African-Americans consider themselves as religion, and, isn’t the message “religious people are stupid” an example of casual racism?

    NOTE: Not accusing anyone specifically of having that message, but it is a critique often leveled at the atheist “movement,” and I think it does have a reasonable basis.

  15. says

    isn’t the message “religious people are stupid” an example of casual racism?

    I really don’t see how. I suppose race could get caught up in the critique, but it seems like a stretch to me. At any rate, I think the claim that religious people are stupid is wrong, regardless of any racist undertones it may have.

  16. says

    Crommunist @14
    Probably just another “Edward Gemmer being better than everybody else and also soon going to be the most dicriminated against minority on planet earth” post
    But I must say there is something about a white guy who comes to a black man’s blog tp lecture him on racism…

  17. says

    I realize you’re a professional cynic, but I’m going to see where he’s going with this first 😛

    [I found out where he was going with it. It was weird and nonsensical, and I don’t want yet ANOTHER thread derailed, so it’s never going to see the light of day.]

  18. smrnda says

    @sambarge 15.

    I hear the same type of stuff when people say things like “The Romans enslaved the Britons, and English people today aren’t bitter about it, so what’s wrong with American Black people? It’s the past!” I mean, your ancestors being slaves over 1000 years ago and your grandparents legally being second-class citizens puts you, in the present, in much different circumstances.

    I honestly don’t think this type of idiocy can be debated or argued against; at best, it can be prevented and we can hope that it becomes less popular over time.

    Another issue with racism – a lot of white people find displaying Confederate flags, using racial slurs or trivializing racism to be rebellious, an act of defiance against what they perceive of as the dominant orthodoxy of ‘political correctness’ or whatever terms they want to use. They seriously see themselves as noble warriors for free speech and freedom, and sometimes go so far as to see doing something like flying a Confederate flag to be an act in defiance of a stifling tyranny.

    The problem is sometimes people rebel because they are oppressed. At other times, they are rebelling because they are assholes who refuse to live decently with other people.

  19. mikecline says


    Great article as always. I often think about this as well. I’m from the South (rural Florida) and grew up knowing pretty quickly what the Rebel Flag really represented. It was disturbing to see it used to identify people who were actually from the South and even more so to start seeing it used by people who weren’t. Being from the South of course is no excuse for racism. What confounded me was the utter ignornace of people who appropriated it and the total disregard for what it means to so many other people. Whether it was a Southerner saying it wasn’t racist or someone from New York saying it just represented countrified rebelliousness, the fact that something very similar as a symbol of hate to the Nazi-swaztika could be so casually co-opted and tunred into pop-culture nonsense blew my mind and still does. You are right this is a lot about the age group. The same age kids (and moronic adults) who do this also do a bunch of other ass-backwards culturally symbol appropriation, for example rich kids wearing Che or Mao shirts.

  20. Brandon says

    Edward Gemmer trying to derail the fuck out of a thread? No way, I’ve never seen that story before!

    Anyway, thanks for the post Ian. This hits home for me, since I grew up as a rural white in Western New York, and used to see the occasional Confederate flag there. I was profoundly confused by it as a young teen, because I had a weird sort of nationalistic personal identification with the Union and I was proud of New York’s role in stopping slavery. I didn’t think the people sporting those flags were racist, and I didn’t put two and two together, so it was just confusing for me.

    Now? Yeah, fuck that shit. Sporting a Confederate flag is as plain of a display of racism as there is. The amazing part is that people throw up that smoke signal and then insist that there’s no fire.

  21. says

    Giliel: “But I must say there is something about a white guy who comes to a black man’s blog tp lecture him on racism…”

    Takes “mansplaining” into a whole new territory, maybe “whitesplaining”.

  22. ischemgeek says

    @dsmccoy Not a new territory. Whitesplaining has been a slang term almost as long as mansplaining… and though I’m white myself, people I’ve talked to have told me that the phenomenon the word exists to describe has been around at least as long as mansplaining has. Seems if you get an ignorant privileged person (usually but not always conventionally successful) around, and you’ll get a ‘splainer of some variety.

    As for the article: In my high school, there was a guy who wore a Nazi uniform to school on a semi-regular basis, and the school let him because freeze peaches. And his friends wore confederate flags.

    In light of my past, I doubt very much that Canadian kids are as ignorant as those kids claim to be about the symbol’s racist history.

  23. says


    I wonder what a Venn diagram of the number of Sutton-area teenagers engaging in sheer ignorance, doublethink, and outright lying about their knowledge and intentions would look like. I dropped a link in the comments on the Oakville KKK story about Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn’s efforts to recruit youth, and how distressingly similar the kids’ rationalizations appear to be.

    I also mentioned that I used to visit the area semi-regularly about a decade ago, and while it may have escaped my weak eyesight, I don’t recall anyone displaying that flag. The people I spent time around managed to keep any casual racism (mostly) bottled up around me. If this started popping up at the school in the past couple of years, it would be worth investigating how it started to spread; who brought it in, who else picked up the behaviour, how they described it to others, etc. These things don’t come out of nowhere, though I imagine anyone suspected of tracing the spread of those memes would be quickly identified as an invader and actively shunned by anyone invested in propagating racism and the flag. I also wonder if anyone investigating would be in danger of retaliation by non-students invested in spreading this crap, given the demonstrated willingness of some locals to attack people coded as “foreign”. Parents? Older siblings of students who adopted racialist ideology? Random propagation to students encountering these images in pop culture? I shudder to think a teacher may be quietly encouraging this stuff, though I remember teachers at my own high school occasionally engaging in political propaganda, so it’s not impossible or even unlikely. A teacher promoting gun-focused libertarianism and another teacher who once dropped a stinkbomb about the “dwindling white race” in the middle of a class come to mind, along with a geography teacher who regularly touched off debates in his class by expressing his own more left-progressive views.

    As that last quote indicates, not all the students are claiming ignorance or trying to excuse the display; at least a few know exactly what it represents. They may have some insight regarding how it appeared, since I’ll wager one or two have friends on the other side of this problem and may know how those individuals encountered it in the first place.

    It’s not enough to hope this simply fizzles out. I hope someone in the community is working to actively counteract the racist ideas and ignorance. The ban may help keep a lid on the flag in the short term, but someone will have to directly attack the ideas behind that flag lest a persecution complex take hold among the flag-waving students, who will sooner or later spread their own hatred and ignorance under cover of free speech. I wonder if that student who wandered by and called out the racism might be interested…

  24. says

    @ischemgeek – I hadn’t come across it before, but it makes sense.
    I guess people just can’t stop themselves from (insert your privileged position here)’splaining.

    That “rural values” thing is all over the states, sometimes spun as “Redneck Pride”. It can be very dangerous. The civil war never really ended in the states, we’ve just had a long tense cease-fire punctuated with minor skirmishes.

  25. Sivi says

    The thing is, I can legit understand people wanting “rural pride”. People living in rural areas are frequently and casually derided as ignorant and uneducated, as hicks and rednecks, “religiots”, etc, as being in-bred and sleeping with farm animals, etc. These stereotypes include rural people of colour. There’s nothing especially wrong with wanting to take pride in living and working in a rural area, close to your roots, being good with your hands, knowing how to farm, or build, or camp rough. Urbanized people often assume they’re more educated, or more savvy, than rural people.

    The fact that “rural values” is often used as as a racist dogwhistle shouldn’t detract from an understanding that there are legitimate reasons why someone might express pride in being “rural” as opposed to “urban”.

    FWIW, having a ton of family in rural or small-town Ontario, I think the Confederate flag thing is part not really knowing the history of the thing (it’s like a Duke’s of Hazzard, country music, kind of thing) and not caring about the history of the thing (since you don’t really care about slavery or whatever).

  26. says

    The thing is, I can legit understand people wanting “rural pride”. People living in rural areas are frequently and casually derided as ignorant and uneducated, as hicks and rednecks, “religiots”, etc, as being in-bred and sleeping with farm animals, etc

    This is important. There’s a huge element of classism and elitism that happens – I too am guilty of it more often than I like to think about. I would imagine that this has the effect of driving a lot of rural hatred for minority groups – since you can’t realistically ‘punch up’, you learn to ‘punch down’ as a result.

  27. Edward Gemmer says

    Weird and nonsensical? Hey, I’m moving up in the world!

    Rural pride is part of the flag thing, though I’m skeptical that in the age of Google kids (even kids from the sticks) aren’t at least vaguely aware of it’s history. It’s more about having an identity and getting a bit of attention, both important values to young people.

  28. says

    “You can buy a f—— swastika if you want, it’s still racist,” said a student walking by.

    I’d love to buy this student an age-appropriate beverage of their preference.

    But but Anthony – that remark was so uncivil! Clearly the students explaining their ignorant/dishonest embrace of racist symbols without using nasty cusswords are the wronged parties here. You should buy them drinks.

    /off topic


    Fuck you, Gemmer.

    /off topic


    On topic: I grew up in the country too. I do not appreciate people – from Ontario or from my home – conflating appreciation of the outdoors, farming, hunting, and that sort of thing, with hatred and resentment of racial minorities. Unfortunately it’s fairly common – the groom’s contingent at my sister’s wedding was a mass of self-described rednecks who alternated between being nervously aggressive and outright racist towards my sweetheart, who was the only person of color there. One of them sexually harassed me. At my sister’s wedding.

    It’s not rural values, it’s just bigotry and assholery.

  29. Edward Gemmer says

    There is probably an element that can be racist, though I’ve never had any issue taking my main squeeze back to the farm. It’s actually kind of fun to see a lot of the shared traditions among African-Americans and Appalachian whites, from the rise of folk and bluegrass music to church traditions and hymns. Unfortunately, as time went on people grouped by skin color instead of musical appreciation, which is perhaps why the banjo is associated with rednecks. As a proud owner of a banjo and a neck that will get quite red in the sun, it’s good to know your history. Recommended listening: Carolina Chocolate Drops.

  30. says

    There is probably an element that can be racist

    Probably. But not for sure. We can’t be certain until one of them burns a cross on someone’s lawn, right Edward? And even then they might just be helpfully trying to get rid of some scrap wood.

  31. Edward Gemmer says

    Probably. But not for sure. We can’t be certain until one of them burns a cross on someone’s lawn, right Edward? And even then they might just be helpfully trying to get rid of some scrap wood.

    I don’t know. My point is that (1) the stereotype that people with rural or country values hate black people is untrue and (2) it does leave a bit of a bad taste in my mouth when poor young people are paid attention to only to the extent that they piss other people off.

  32. says

    I AM a poor young(ish) white person, motherfucker, so fuck off already. This is my culture too so don’t fucking lecture me about it. It’s plenty racist and sexist. I know because I grew up in it.

  33. Edward Gemmer says

    I AM a poor young(ish) white person, motherfucker, so fuck off already. This is my culture too so don’t fucking lecture me about it. It’s plenty racist and sexist. I know because I grew up in it.

    I’m not lecturing you, I’m saying my experience is different. People having different experiences? What a novel idea.

  34. freemage says

    My usual reaction to this when it comes up in the States (usually in the form of some group trying to claim the flag just expresses “Pride in our Southern heritage” is to ask what there was to be proud about. The dedication to slavery? The treason? The way they lost a fight to a hick lawyer, a drunkard and a violent thug (that’s Lincoln, Grant and Sherman, in order)? The way they brought a saber to a cannon-fight? If the best part of your ‘heritage’ is the time your great-grandpappy decided to prove that he was a racist, an idiot AND a loser all in one fell swoop, maybe it’s time to burn the family tree and start from scratch.

    Which means that this thing that you’re reporting on here just blows my mind. The notion that someone would seek to appropriate the symbols of a bunch of pathetic losers like the Confederate South is downright bizarre.

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