When is a flag just a flag?

6 Dec

For today’s post, I need your help. It’s interactive, sort of call-and-response. I’ll start by sharing a news story, and then ask you a series of questions. Go at your own speed.



A student at University of South Carolina Beaufort put a Confederate flag up in the window of their dorm room.

What’s your gut response? I mean, the first unfiltered thing that you felt? and thought? It might not be something you’d ever admit to anyone else–and maybe you don’t even have the words for it–but there it is: your gut reaction to a student putting up a Confederate flag. Take a moment to notice it.

So how does the student explain the decision to display the flag?

  • “When I look at this flag, I don’t see racism. I see respect, Southern pride. This flag was seen as a communication symbol [during the Civil War].”
  •  “[I want] people to thoughtfully consider issues of race and not just knee-jerk reactions to such symbols.”
  • “I’ve been getting a lot of support from people. My generation is interested in freedom of speech.”

What’s your gut saying now? Or maybe you’ve moved on to your secondary response: what do you think about the student’s point of view?  

And let’s take a meta-moment here. There’s a good chance that you’ve been filling in some of the details about this student since you started reading: you probably assumed some things about their age, race, sex, politics… Describe the student you’re picturing in your mind. Who is s/he?   

Here’s the headline for the article that ran in The Boston Globe about this controversy: “Black student sparks debate with Confederate flag”  (http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2011/12/01/black_student_sparks_debate_with_confederate_flag/).

Surprised? As the student Byron Thomas has said himself, “I know it’s kind of weird because I’m black.”

In identifying himself, Thomas is acknowledging that race matters: that people can’t help but identify him as a black student tacking up the Confederate flag, and that, therefore, there are inevitable assumptions and questions about what it means for a blackperson to display the flag. (If you’re still not convinced, consider whether you think a white student would have said, “I know it’s kind of weird because I’m white.”)

So what difference does it make to you that Thomas is black (not white–or Asian, Native American, Latino or multiracial)? Notice that I didn’t ask: does it make a difference? Imagine that it was a 90 year old white man hoisting up the southern cross. Different, right? At least on that gut level that kicks in before “knowing better” takes over. So how does Thomas’ race matter to you: does it make his position any less offensive? any more hurtful? any more right–or wrong? If it’s helpful, consider the supportive words of  Thomas’ white roommate Blane Reed: “I think [Thomas has] got a really good point. It’s just a flag, and in and of itself, it doesn’t have any racial meaning. It only has as much meaning as you put into it.”

And what if the flag went up under your watch at your school? How would race influence how you handled this situation, from how you spoke to the student (the questions you would ask, the assumptions you would make) to what discipline/response/action you would take? Consider, of course, how your own racial identity, as well as the student’s, would shape your interaction. How would your attitude and behavior shift if the student were white? black? Latino?

As it turns out, after initially requesting that the flag be taken down, the university decided that because of its “firm belief in the First Amendment and its right of free speech, the University cannot and will not prohibit these flags or other symbols that our students choose to display.” In other words, Thomas can put the flag back up.

Any thoughts?

I have to wonder if the university would have come to this same conclusion if Thomas were white. There’s an argument to be made that it doesn’t matter what race the student is, but there’s that gut reaction we can’t help having. And then there’s history. The flag’s racist symbolism (it was raised above the South Carolina State House in 1962 as a response to the Civil Rights movement) could be ignited like bone-dry kindling if a white student not only hung up the Confederate flag but then received official sanction to do so from a predominantly (76%) white institution. And while the university might still stand by the First Amendment no matter who displayed the flag, I wonder how it would word its position or otherwise handle the situation differently. 

I also wonder how the university would respond if a student exercised their right to free speech with a swastika. Although it is, on one level, just another symbol that “students [might] choose to display,” it’s also not just another symbol. And how does the symbolism change if a young German student were  to display a swastika? or a 40 year old white woman from South Carolina? how about a Native American youth?

Beyond testing the university’s core beliefs and policy on free speech, Thomas has given his school an opportunity to notice how race matters to its governance, public relations (the initial complaints about the flag came from prospective students and parents/guardians on campus tours), community life and individual sense of safety and well-being. And regardless of what the university would do in any of these racial variations on a challenging free speech scenario, I think it’s useful for them and for us to ask how it matters who says what. Because when people and words and symbols aren’t equal themselves, it becomes less clear what, whom and how equal rights protect.

* Thanks to my colleague CS for the article.

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