Since the international protests over the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, white people have gone out of our way to demonstrate that we aren’t racist.
This was perhaps best demonstrated by a cringe-worthy public service announcement in which white celebrities like Kristen Bell, Aaron Paul, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sarah Paulson, Stanley Tucci, and a slate of other A-list celebrities appeared on black and white video staring dramatically at the camera and saying correct but pretentious-sounding things about snuffing out racism. It felt like virtue signaling, inserting themselves into a legitimate and important discussion with an air of self-importance.
Maybe there’s just been too much seriousness in 2020. And maybe black people don’t need rich white people groveling to them. It just feels like they should stay in their mansions and remain silent about their privilege rather than trying to define a movement. Let the voices of actual black people be heard, not some white actor lecturing us on why they are better than the rest of us.
This week, prompted by the massive demonstrations in the streets, NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag at events, stating that no one should feel uncomfortable attending a race. It’s fairly well documented that racist white people use the flag to intimidate African-Americans.
Some deem the display of the flag as a glorification of racism, slavery, segregation and white supremacy. These associations took shape in popular culture with the revival of this widely recognized symbol to counter growing public support for racial equality in the 1950s and 60s. The association that has become linked to the symbol, makes it problematic at best.
Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to racist ends are certainly questionable choices to memorialize in our parks.
I’ve never felt a particularly deep connection to the Confederate flag, monuments, etc.; they’ve just always been around me as a Southerner. For others, the symbols and iconography hold deep significance, representing Southern heritage, states’ rights and historical commemoration of the Civil War. To question their right to display such icons constitutes “fightin’ words” for some.
Symbols that people revere can often become hijacked and distorted, just like ideologies.
Several years ago, an eccentric old guy painted a swastika on the tin roof of his junk shop off Interstate 59. I asked about the symbol, presuming he might be some sort of white nationalist. I pre-judged him as such based on what I saw and how I interpreted it. This is human nature, a shorthand defense mechanism to size up threats around us.
The old man surprised me by saying that the symbol showing a cross with the arms bent to the right at 90-degree angles clockwise was actually an ancient Hindu symbol expressing the sun, prosperity and good luck. Investigating further, I learned that the symbol had indeed appeared throughout various cultures in art and artifacts with positive connotations. Yet, it was forever corrupted by its use in one cultural context: Nazi Germany.
By adopting the swastika as a German national symbol and as the central element in the party flag of the National Socialist Party, the symbol took on associations to brutality, fascism and genocide.
Thus, he could argue his intentions were to promote the former, but there was no escaping the negative connotations of the later. In a similar way, the modern display of the Confederate battle flag is controversial because it represents different things to different people.
Will there be a backlash to the backlash?
To be honest, I am a white dude, so I can’t fully grasp how the existence of statues to celebrate Confederate military figures makes African Americans feel anymore than I can articulate the hardships that women face. I’m on the outside looking in, just desperately trying to be one of the good guys.
I can imagine that driving past those statues feels like a deliberate snub, a reminder of the bad ole days. I can also speculate about the vicious backlash that could be provoked by taking away these monuments and banning the Confederate battle flag from NASCAR in the same week.
White dudes are already feeling persecuted and increasingly denied of their racial and gender supremacy by birthright. Cry me a river, right?
I’m just thinking – hear me out – that it can potentially feel like “piling on” to those Caucasian hearts and minds who are finally coming around to supporting the notion that maybe black people shouldn’t be hunted down, harassed and killed by bad, racist cops.
Maybe we can put off until next week the ripping down of statues and banning of a flag? These things distract from what originally outraged us – the callous video-recorded murders of unarmed black men – and potentially shifts this movement into territory that some won’t understand, and thus, cannot embrace.
There’s no defending videos like Floyd’s murder, although some will try to insinuate that he wouldn’t have been antagonized by the police if he had not been doing something criminal. No amount of whataboutisms can excuse what happen to Mr. Floyd and other black men who have been arrested, imprisoned, and killed in greater numbers because of the color of their skin.
The Power of Iconography in Culture
As a photographer, I recognize the power of iconography, which is the application of signs that communicate symbolic meaning as language expressed as repetitive motifs in art, politics and culture. Social connotations are context-dependent meanings that transcend objective representation.
In other words, two people looking at the same thing and possibly arrive at vastly different interpretations of what it means. Human beings grasp complex meaning through visualizing concepts, even without verbalizing them, and the way we process these sophisticated codes is shaped by our unique life experiences and the way propaganda and our upbringing shapes our interpretations at the subconscious level.
People aren’t born racist, they become that way by mimicking the behavior of their role models.
“Icon” is just another word for branding popular culture symbols with significance. Iconography is particularly important in Christian art, in “reading” imagery that explores social and cultural values, as well as describing the visual language of movies.
One strategic prop integrated into a portrait of someone can add an emotional charge and provoke deeper meaning. Such is the case when a high schooler from some small backwoods town asks to incorporate the Confederate battle flag into her senior pictures. Who I am to tell her it looks redneck and racist if her upbringing and her friends suggest otherwise in her headspace?
Most of the folks I’ve been around who’ve flaunted the Confederate Battle Flag have displayed it as a symbolic middle finger to a world trying to control them – or a symbol that some demographics they don’t care to know better.
This renders it the equivalent of, say, putting revolutionary Che Guevara’s face on a t-shirt. It is highly doubtful that the youths wearing fashion portraying the cultural icon are even aware of how this romanticizes a controversial figure who was accused of using violence as a means to achieve political objectives in Cuba. To them, it is likely just a subtle fashion statement against conformity (which, ironically, happens when they jointly adopt such shared symbols).
Some have used the “Southern cross” to display their regional pride, occasionally putting a rebel flag sticker next to a USA flag on their truck tailgate. That has always seemed a bit of cognitive dissonance: Showing a proud patriotism to America right next to the symbol of an uprising that sought to overthrow it. That deeper resonance feels lost on the people who practice such a dual display, and they aren’t real keen on anyone insinuating that they are traitors.
The American South is a complicated place. It’s either beautiful or an eyesore. The people express warmth and hospitality, and most are good, God-fearing people who just want to raise their kids to enjoy better lives than they did, the same as any other region of the country. But this stain of prejudice and ignorance persists, passed down from one generation to the next. I am constantly torn between wanting to leave this place and feeling a sadness that nowhere else offers the things that are good about the South in quite the same way.
I also love history, mostly as a means of comparing contemporary things and as a reflection of how patterns repeat across time.
I recently did some genealogy on my family and tracked down the names of my male forefathers . James “Jimmy” Stiefel, Jr., served in the Confederate Army in Company B, 24th Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, Army of Northern Virginia in October 1861 , but feel no great attachment to my great-great grandfather or his military service. He was a second generation American (the USA was still barely a thing), his grandfather, John James Stiefel, having sailed from Plymouth, England to South Carolina in 1765.
While reading Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” for the first time in college, I noted the opening scenes that vividly describe how the jubilant young men, full of energy and testosterone, were just itchin’ to grab their guns and go to war, even though they did not own slaves. To them, it was more about giving a bloody nose to “Yankee” snobs looking down their noses at them. Their story is book-ended by the carnage of that conflict, visually represented in the classic film adaptation in a scene where the flag flutters over a scene of vast carnage.
The U.S. flag holds great importance to many of us who love America, yet some seem to worship the symbol without respecting the values that it is supposed to represent – including the freedom to use it as a tool of criticism and protest. Some feel it should be illegal to burn or desecrate the U.S. flag, but the moment you do that, the symbol takes on new connotations of tyranny and reminds us of countries like North Korea where a person may be literally imprisoned or killed for not displaying proper reverence for the displayed symbols and anthems.
I respect the right of someone to stomp on our flag — as well as the consequence of them getting stomped on themselves by others who don’t like watching it happen. A symbol that can’t take some abuse and scrutiny probably isn’t going to last very long, and Ole Glory is cherished across the world as an icon of hope and liberty. It is something to rally around in hard times, a way of displaying our appreciation for what we have and what must be defended.
Yes, the American flag stirs pride in me and appreciation to the men and women who have fought and died to protect our freedoms. Others feel a similar reverence toward the Confederate Battle Flag for reasons I don’t really understand.
Some argue that a symbol they revere should not be prohibited from public display, but then they turn right around and argue for the extinction of a symbol they detest because they don’t consider it all that meaningful or even offensive.
We should be wary of getting carried away in reacting emotionally to symbols and iconography, lest we become vulnerable to their cynical use in campaign commercials in which candidates wrap themselves in the flag or religious symbolism, eternally touting their wholesome values rather than articulating any actual policy ideas. That’s a good way to elect a bunch of incompetent people who don’t know what they are doing or else use misdirection to distract from nefarious aims.
We’ve elected too many politicians based on the promotion of their supposed “values” before they’re caught with their pants down using taxpayer dollars to pay off mistresses. Iconography can act as a very subtle dog whistle to those who are on the same page, as well as a tool for emotionally provoking those who attach deep resonance to the shared symbols.
Consider the use of violent force against peaceful protesters last week to clear out LaFayette Park in Washington D.C. so the president could pose for a photo op with a Bible at a church that caught fire during the early riots. That stunt backfired spectacularly, tone-deaf, and as preachy as the PSA with all of the celebrities lecturing us about why racism is bad.
We should question why symbols stir the emotional associations they do and not allow them to overwhelm our capacity for critical, objective thought.