Columbia, only a short hour and a half drive from Charlotte, is making national news this week. Unfortunately, the circumstances are less than ideal. A week after the tragic shooting in Charleston, SC, the state is debating whether or not to remove the Confederate flag from its spot at the South Carolina State House. On Monday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the flag to be removed, and on Tuesday the South Carolina legislature voted overwhelmingly that they will debate the issue at a later session, although nothing has been decided yet.
While Charlotte is my first home, Columbia is my second one. I grew up in Charlotte but spent a lot of my childhood in South Carolina, visiting relatives, eating pot roast, and playing hundreds of hours of dominoes with my Nana. As a senior in high school, I followed what can only be described as a “gut feeling” and decided to go to the University of South Carolina for college, almost without a moment’s hesitation (strange for me, as the chronically indecisive, neurotic person that I am).
The USC campus is just a few steps away from the South Carolina State House in Columbia, where the Confederate flag hung during my four years of college. I thought about it occasionally, but mostly ignored it. I was too caught up in tailgates and Everclear slushies (scary) and secretly believing I was enlightened because I “really understood” The Great Gatsby now.
When I looked around my college campus and the city of Columbia in general, I didn’t think I saw much racism. I mostly believed the Confederate flag, and the ideology it represents, was largely a symbol of the past – a point of shame from decades ago. (Of course, this does NOT mean there wasn’t racism, and even blatant discrimination, going on around me – it just means I was ignorant to it.)
Whenever I did notice the flag, flying “proudly” in a city I loved so much, I always thought two things:
(1) This is embarrassing.
(2) This will never change.
I believed the flag would never come down for many political reasons, but for one reason most of all: pride. Even with all of the bloodshed and hatred that the flag inarguably symbolizes, I knew too many people who said they saw something different in the flag: Southern pride, regional pride, state pride.
Pride is a strange thing, because we say we value humility, but we also value taking “pride” in things – our work, our kids, our sports teams, our cities, our heritage, our political opinions, our religions, our flags. We believe in standing “proud and strong.” We believe in proudly defending “what we believe in” – even to the death.
But what happens when the thing we believe in hurts innocent others? What about nationalism in Nazi Germany, terrorist attacks driven by religious extremism, slavery and a long-standing plague of discrimination in the American South – just to name a few instances where our intention to “stand up for what we believe in” has gone awry?
I could go on and on writing about my opinions on the flag – how much I believe the symbol detracts from the hospitality and kindness our state could be known for instead. There are so many other things we can be prideful about – SEC football, warm weather, HUSH PUPPIES for crying out loud, but not discrimination and hate.
But, I’ll stop now. I wrote this article mostly just to say that I was wrong. Wrong about two things.
(1) The flag didn’t used to be a symbol of suffering. Racism, and even blatant hatred, are alive and well – as demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt by the Charleston shooting (and sadly, by so much more).
(2) Maybe someday soon we’ll be willing to see past our pride, and admit that the symbol hurts others. It would be a small (and wildly overdue step, in my opinion) but it would be a step. Maybe we’ll finally Take It Down.