As I watched the news of a young man who opened fire and took the lives of 9 individuals at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I was saddened by what I saw. For as far as we’ve come, we still haven’t come far enough. And as I read more about Dylann Roof, the thing that stuck out to me were the images of him with the confederate flag.
See, I’m not proud to admit it, but I used to wear shirts with the confederate flag. Not for the purpose of racism, but more so for fitting in. Cause when you’re a kid, no one tells you the meaning behind the clothing you wear; you wear it cause your friends wear it, and at that age, all you want is acceptance from your peers.
How did I arrive at this conclusion of wearing a shirt with the confederate flag, a symbol of the states who seceded from the United States? It really comes down to me being born in the South, and growing up in an environment that was heavily influenced by such a culture that is often, in my opinion, taught the wrong meaning behind its symbol and history.
My parents came to the United States in 1986. My father went to Tuskegee University; a private, historically black university established by Booker T. Washington in the state of Alabama. My mother followed along, and I was born two years later.
My father never finished college but focused on taking care of his family when my brother was born two years after me. Instead, we moved almost every year to two as my father focused on where work was available.
New surroundings, new homes, new friends. Never one place I could really call my own. And as my family moved from Alabama to Georgia, we were never in a place with a diverse culture. It was always somewhere out in the rural country. And as an Asian kid (back then I never recognized myself as Asian American), all I ever wanted to do was fit in and have friends who I could fit in with, I did what most people would do. I adopted everything and anything that made me one of them.
I used to tell people I am as Southern as it comes. I grew up on fried chicken, baked potatoes, and okra. I listened to the country vocals of Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, and Faith Hill. I rose early in the morning to go hunting and drank beer in the back of a truck next to a bonfire in the evening. I rode ATVs, watched football religiously, and went to church on Sundays. I wore carpenter jeans, one of those camouflage jackets, and a pair of cowboy boots. And yes, I wore shirts with confederate flags on them. Because let’s be honest, all I ever wanted to do was fit in with my friends, who for them, their family was deep rooted in the South and its history.
The last time my family had really moved was to a small town in Georgia. The town had a population of about 1600 and one traffic light. The closest Walmart, McDonald’s, and local movie theater was about a 40-minute drive. This was the place I would spend the next six years of my life.
I remember seeing my fellow classmates – a sea of white and black faces – stare at me as the teacher introduced who I was. I noticed a common white shirt worn by most of the white kids, usually with some intricate image of either hunting dogs, deer, horses, trucks, or some other stereotypical play on the South along with the common Confederate Flag. The brand was called “Dixie Outfitters”. Their motto “preserving southern heritage since 1861”.
Funny. 1861, the year the civil war started. The year seven states decided to secede and form the Confederate States of America to preserve a nation they believed depended on slavery and white supremacy.
But when you’re a kid in a new town, in a foreign place, and you’re well aware how much different your skin color compares to your peers, you don’t think about that kind of historical context. You just wanted to blend in and be accepted. That’s all I wanted, acceptance.
I was 11 when my parents took me to the annual fall carnival. Seas of local booths where people were selling things like jars of jelly to saddles for their horses to rocking chairs to anything else that made you feel like you were in the South.
And as I ran, laughed, and played games, just being a boy; I came across one particular booth. There was a sturdy elderly man with a crisp gray beard and a dark brown cowboy hat, who smiled at me as I admired the various designs of shirts that covered his booth and welcomed me in. Shirts that exemplified what it meant to grow up in the South laid across the walls. Shirts that could classify every rural activity from horse riding to hunting were all there. Never have I been so enthralled in admiration as I wanted to collect each and every one.
My parents eventually found me, and I glared them with eyes that knew this was something I had to have. I asked my mother and father for several shirts. They said I could have one. Fair enough. At last, I could wear something all my other friends wore. I could wear something that made me fit in with the crowd and spur up conversations with over lunch. I remember specifically choosing a shirt with a colorful design of an ATV flying high across a dirt mound with the confederate flag waving brilliantly in the air. At that time in my youth, I was also interested in the mechanical off-road vehicles that most of my peers had been riding since they were 5. My father even had an interest and bought one which I had the chance to sit on when he took it out.
My father paid the gentleman as I already started placing the shirt over my head. YESSSS, I thought to myself. Finally, here I was to show off my new Dixie Outfitters shirt. I could already imagine the conversations I would have with my friends. Oh, you have a new one too? Check mine out, look how high the ATV is flying in the air with the flag?
The following week at school, I wore my new shirt. I can’t remember whether or not I had a huge response of approval, but I did feel more accepted. I felt more confident because I was wearing something they made me belong. Something that wouldn’t make me feel like an outsider. Something that people would recognize that I was finally one of their own.
That was me over 16 years ago. Since then I have probably worn about several more shirts with the confederate flag before I left for college. Did I know better? No. I didn’t really have a true understanding of the symbolism behind the confederacy and what it was trying to stand for. Do I think most of my friends understood what it meant to wear something like that? Probably not for the most of them.
Do I wear confederate flag shirts today? No. I think the older I got, the more I realized who I was versus who I wanted to be because of my peers. And honestly, I believe it is because I have had the opportunity to venture forth from beyond my one traffic light town I grew up in that not many do. I have had the privilege of meeting various people across the nation, even the world, who have opened my mind through dialog and conversation. I have learned a little bit more about who I am, and the history of America that makes me an Asian American. I have heard the teaching of many renowned people who have given me a fresh perspective that there are things wrong with our system on how we educate our students, and how easily it can be one-sided from an individual perspective. I have had the opportunity to fight as an activist and to promote and advocate for a more socially just world that my younger self would never have thought about.
See, here’s the thing. For most of my friends including myself, growing up in the wide fields and one traffic light town doesn’t mean you’re entrenched in the history of racism and white supremacy. In fact, you’re just being a kid growing up, trying to learn right from wrong, and seeking acceptance. You grow up in a place where everyone knows you by your first name. You see the same smiling faces at the football game, the local pizza place, and even at church. I was surrounded by people who cherished a rich history of traditions that can be comparable to my own Chinese heritage.
For most of the people I grew up with, yeah we wore confederate flag t-shirts as kids. It was a heritage, that said “I grew up in the South” and that was it. There was no further explanation. No one had the dialogue that made you really think about what wearing that symbol really meant. If anything, it meant you loved the slow and subtle, drinking sweet tea on the porch, eating family dinners, and laying in a field watching the star filled sky kind of life.
No one talks about the white supremacy that wanted to preserve slavery in the confederacy. No one mentioned that by wearing such a symbol, you’re emphasizing a time when people enslaved others, and time when hatred was at its highest point in American history. No one tells the kids that by upholding this Southern icon, you’re believing in what their ancestors firmly believed over a hundred years ago.
As a kid, you’re wearing it because your peers wore it, and their family wore it. It is seen as a tradition, a misinterpreted tradition, but a tradition nonetheless. And for me that was it. I wanted acceptance. My parents, not from America who knew very little of American history, but knew their son wanted acceptance saw that. Saw that their son just wanted to belong.
So yes, people wear the confederate flag. It is seen hanging on the porches of their homes, the roofs of their trucks, and on the back of their shirts. Often, we might judge them for believing in a time where they think racism and slavery were okay, but that’s not truly the case. More times than not, it is because they wear it as a reminder they are from the South, a gentle place of warm hospitality. And that lies the misinterpretation we all too get lost in.
So, let’s start the dialog today, let’s educate our peers why it’s offensive. Why it is reminding those of color of a difficult time in America’s history. Let’s have a conversation over a warm meal and glass of sweet tea, breaking the perpetual cycle of misrepresentation of a symbol that many people debate over. Let’s find another way to show people who are from the South. Let’s show the world, we can overcome our history, and that one person’s actions and beliefs does not reflect us as a whole. Let’s start today and just remind each other how far we can come and continue to grow from who we were yesterday. Let’s educate and provide resources from all perspectives. Let’s start seeing into one another’s hearts with open eyes and open minds.