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The other day in section, (if I had a nickel in BoardPlus for every boring story I’ve heard with that beginning, I could buy out the Barker Cafe) one of my classmates made a comment about an antiquated law or some other asinine turmoil in some Southern state or the other. My recollection is vague because the statement was vague. But regardless, the room erupted in laughter, not really paying attention to the content of the statement—the past fifteen minutes had been that trademark section midway lull; until this point all eyes had been glazed over. The room responded to the simple “laugh-here” punchline the student provided, that punchline being: “The South.”
The South. Cue laughter. Oh, but he was from the South. Cue laughter. You know, the South. Cue laughter.
By this point I’ve learned that this is not an unusual handling of the topic of the modern American South. Sure, I spent a lot of the first eighteen years of my Georgia upbringing complaining about it. Complaining is what high school is for, I’m pretty sure. But still, something about this bothered me. At first I figured it was something like that odd complex that sitcoms often taught me big brothers have, an innate (and creepy and territorial) possession and protection of their little sisters. I imagine some dude on the TV in a jersey and a backwards baseball cap, holding a football in one of his giant, giant hands, thumbing himself in the chest with the other, “The only one who can pick on the little twerp is me.”
I figured that was how I felt about the entire South. Me, the South’s jersey-clad older brother: “I’m the only one who gets to call you stupid!” I say, giving the South a noogie and a wet willy, running off to the arcade with my older buddies.
The whole section laughed. The section leader laughed. And I look around, smiling this one smile I have that makes me feel and look like I’m suffering some kind of machinery meltdown, or like I’m a Mrs. Potato Head doll and I chose the wrong plastic mouth and then put it in the face-hole a little askew.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be laughing at the joke, whatever the joke was, which I’m pretty sure had nothing to do with feeling like the South’s big brother, an easy but unlikely explanation. More likely, unfortunately, is that when a dozen Harvard students gather around a table and laugh at the South, shrug it off as the unrelated and unfortunate growth attached to their endlessly more scholarly and charming Northeast, there is power and presumption at play that I don’t think I am intended to be a part of, and that I’m not sure I’d like to be. Another club I can’t join.
A lot of racist shit happens down South. It is excellent and warranted and exciting when people thoughtfully consider that, questioning what unique Southern history is at play, considering what role education inequity plays in the situation and how racism plays into that, analyzing how history bleeds into the present.
More often though, the conversation doesn’t quite go like that. The conversation goes, “LOL, the South!” And then the conversation is over. And suddenly it’s not a conversation at all. It is a hilarious device, a dark and farcical tale against which it's authors apotheosize themselves.
Growing up, there were people who talked about the North like it was the Promised Land. Here, I’m beginning to hear people talk about the South like it is actual Hell. By substituting laughter for any possible constructive conversation that could take place about what is actually at play and what is actually at stake when it comes to the American South, there becomes a sense of irresponsibility. Oh no, we would never do anything like that. And if we would, at least we’re not the South.
A lot of racist shit happens in the Northeast. But hey, let’s make it personal. A lot of racist shit happens at Harvard. (Its not just about race, its about ableism and sexism and homophobia and all kinds of prejudice.) It is rare and excellent and warranted when people thoughtfully consider what history is at play here, what education inequity is at play when a Harvard student wearing their new academic privilege like an uncomfortable but expensive sweater vest (or, more likely, like yet another shiny badge on a very old and familiar sweater vest) chuckles and guffaws at all the Southern plebeians.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars of slavery money in the Harvard endowment. Cue laughter. That anti-affirmative action Crimson article. Cue laughter. That Harvard building named after that slave owner. Cue laughter. Oh and that one, and that one, and that one. What a riot. Cue laughter.
The South can be hilarious. The South can be terribly, terribly racist. And so can the rest of the country. Harvard gets away with passing as a perfectly progressive institution when it simply is not, laughing at those idiotic and shameful “others” all the while. And sometimes that sneaky prejudice and covert oppression hurts more than its outright counterpart. At least those confederate flags waving proudly on pickup trucks back home are obvious. Let’s talk about systems and ideas that transcend borders before we laugh off half of the country as hilariously “other.” You're no angel either, baby.
The energy put into simplifying the modern American South into an easy punchline could be redirected to instead promote what ought to be an essential human practice: Checketh thyself before you wrecketh thyself.
Madison E. Johnson ’18 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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