Early in my freshman year at Bryn Mawr College, a classmate from Connecticut greeted news of my geographic origin, Memphis, Tenn., with a cheery, "Do you live on a farm?" Because this exchange happened at breakfast, I thought I might have misunderstood. Her view of the South seemed to be of an untouched rural wonderland.
So, I get why two Bryn Mawr students recently felt the need to push back against stereotyped notions of the South as backward, less-than, and shameful. What I don't get is why they chose to do so by hanging a Confederate flag and taping a Mason-Dixon Line in the hallway outside their dorm room.
On a basic level, the flag and line are indeed symbols of "ancestry and heritage," as the students initially contended and as some online commenters have noted.
Placed within a broader historical context, however, the Southern identity associated with both is one defined in opposition not only to external others - Northerners who would presume to tell their Southern compatriots how to live - but also to internal ones, enslaved African Americans on whose uncompensated labor the Southern economy depended. It is an identity that may cherish states' rights and include white Southerners who did not own slaves, but one cannot ignore the fact that two of the most prominent assertions of these rights involved protecting the ownership of human chattel and, later, preventing the desegregation of schools.
To their credit, the Bryn Mawr students in question have since issued an apology that, for once, sounds like an actual apology. Rather than hedging their rhetorical bets, seniors Rachel Hager and Vanessa Felso issued a statement acknowledging that whatever the intent behind them, their actions had real, detrimental consequences: "We apologize for hanging an object seen as a symbol of hate for many and for the subsequent divide and suffering of the Bryn Mawr community."
And although the college administration did not respond as swiftly or decisively as some would have liked, it has since recognized the gravity of the situation and supported the solidarity march calling for a more diverse and inclusive campus.
While the hard work of building such an environment begins rather than ends here, the recent turn of events at Bryn Mawr offers a number of lessons from which we can all learn:
Replace the conditional faux-pology ("We're sorry if . . .") that has become too popular of late with sincere, declarative apologies. Being unaware of the discriminatory or hateful implications of one's behavior does not mean those implications do not exist, and taking responsibility for one's actions is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Relieve victims of the burden of educating others about why what happened to them is harmful, hateful, or just plain wrong. I suspect the Bryn Mawr students who were frustrated with the administration felt that way not because they wished to reject the campus ethos of self-governance, but because they felt that, in this case, the administration's initial neutrality left students on their own in explaining why the Confederate flag was offensive.
Remember the value of engaging in difficult but necessary dialogues. During his early expatriate years in France, writer James Baldwin observed that the problem with American history wasn't that it was "too brief, or too superficial," but that Americans were reluctant to talk about it.
This silence, in turn, has resulted in everything from the persistence of racial stereotypes to the prevalence of edited versions of the nation's past. Now as then, it is only by engaging with history, warts and all, that Americans will be able to stop seeing one another as social types and start recognizing one another as human beings.