The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

August 23, 2015

The Stepford Sorority of Alpha Phi and Their Right to Freedom of Expression

When the University of Alabama recently banned a recruiting video http://youtu.be/UnKexlL2Mcw for the sorority Alpha Phi, they did not do it on the grounds of obscenity; it was no more obscene than the movie it seemed to gently mimic, Legally Blonde.  They did not ban it because of explicit language.  Indeed, the women in the video were all mute.  The banned it because it demonstrates a truth about southern fraternity and sorority culture, a truth that did not make the university appear erudite or even remotely academic.  If all I knew about the University of Alabama came from that video, here is what I would glean:

  • That for some reason at this institution, white women like to wear white outfits and sit on beige couches in a big living room, laughing.
  • That for perhaps the same unknown reason, they need to blow glitter into the air when they get together.
  • That they have one black friend, and he’s on the football team.
  • That no one who has joined the sorority Alpha Phi has any cellulite.
  • That everyone in that sorority got the same spray-on tan to dance around on the football field.
  • That it’s hot in Alabama. Nobody wears very much clothing.
  • That students in Alpha Phi seem to have no textbooks or concern about study.
  • That the women of Alpha Phi seem eager to dance and hug.  They blow kisses as well as glitter, leaving one to wonder if they blow anything else.
  • The sorority has money.

white women in white laughing for no reason

Fraternities have gotten scrutinized lately for promoting a culture of rape. Rightly, there are cries of outrage against chants of, “no means yes, and yes means anal,” and against repeated cases of assault and rape taking place at frat parties.  If the white men (for they are overwhelmingly white men) of this so-called Greek system have absorbed an idea that sexual aggression is acceptable, in this video, we see the yang to that rape-culture yin.  Women in sororities have internalized the idea that they are rightly considered objects, that appearances matter much, much more than ideas, and that “pretty” is the highest aspiration of a young woman’s college career.  From this Greek factory of wild oats sown, one still sees a huge number of traditional outcomes, meaning those rapists marry the girls without cellulite or expressed ideas before grad school.  But the amount of sex, consensual or not, and the amount of sexual objectification would probably shock sweethearts of sigma chi of yore. Women on the campus of Ole Miss have had, I know personally, meetings where they have expressed uneasiness at the pressure they feel in sororities to “put out,” but to my knowledge, they haven’t organized any revolt against this pressure. Part of the problem is that sororities do things, almost everything, together, and this seems to imply that sexual consent feels within the walls of the sorority house like a group decision.

I submit that the University of Alabama had no reason to insist that the sorority Alpha Phi pull the video. It shows the truth. It is an honest expression of what these young women feel about themselves. They value looks over all.  They have no black female friends or friends who are white but somehow ethnic-looking. They don’t read books. They don’t have deep discussions. They are like Elle Woods’ sorority sisters: neither introspective nor troubled by world events.  They see themselves as characters rendered two-dimensionally. They are things, pretty things to adorn the world, in their own view.  If the university is upset by this, then they need to shut down fraternity and sorority row, not censor a non-obscene video that accurately depicts the worldview of many of their students and of many of their alumni donors. If they don’t like what the drone overhead shots reveal about the school, they need to shut down the football program and host poets influenced by Sylvia Plath, teach gender studies as a requirement, and raise expectations all around. These laughing Alpha Phi women with whitened smiles, they are not the problem, though they might diagnose the problem. The video is cute. They are cute. What is not cute is that some universities are more football rooters clubs than temples to learning.

June 25, 2015

Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful — and Why Taking Down the Confederate Flag Constitutes Substantive Change

Southerners have so much about which they might be proud.  I adore the South, truly, and I appreciate Southerners.

I started this blog having moved from Brooklyn to marry my husband in Mississippi.  We consummated our marriage on a bed that was slept in by Ulysses S. Grant in his antebellum mansion headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  That means our wedding night was practically a historical reenactment of a Confederate surge against Yankee defenses.  So with a sense of Southern heritage, my sojourn here began, and with respect for Southern traditions, my sojourn continues.

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

But what Southern traditions do today’s Southerners really want to embrace?  Is the average Southerner thinking that slave auctions ought to be brought back?  Do today’s Southerners believe in lynchings?  No!  The vast majority of Southerners are against what William T. Thompson, the creator of the Confederate Battle Flag, said about his stars and bars, namely, that his flag represents the struggle to “maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”  The majority of Southerners have intellectually accepted the idea of equality for all races under the law, and as for heaven, I am fond of the words that one Southern preacher, Kenneth Copeland, said: “If someone says he loves the Lord but hates another race, question his salvation, as the Word says he who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”  Southerners are capable of prejudice and of racial bias, but intellectually, the vast majority of Southerners don’t want institutionalized racism and violence.  They want things to be fair, though i wonder how clearly they imagine an equitable South.

When I talk to many white people here in the South, I sense they are hesitant to talk about race because it feels like a topic off-limits, though the racists in their midst are not at all timid.  Most white people I meet are not ugly racists, though their contact with people of color is limited by a de facto system of segregation that persists in many parts of America, even though the de jure system is officially abolished.  However, they all have at least one racist relative.  They often love that racist relative.  And in the South, it is considered very, very rude to contradict someone over the Thanksgiving turkey, especially if that someone is older than you are.

That said, it needs to be done. White Northerners are more likely, I think, to tell that racist relative that his or her comments are offensive.  I am definitely going to open my mouth when such a thing happens.  In fact, here’s a story of how I did one afternoon, and it will demonstrate how I have come to certain views about the quiet beliefs of Southern white people on the whole:

****

I had backed my car into a pole in the Ole Miss stadium parking lot, and I needed a new bumper.  I found myself an exceedingly honest auto body shop, Kenny’s auto body shop on University Avenue on the outskirts of Oxford, Mississippi.  Kenny told me I could wait while the work on my car was done by him and his several junior mechanics.  His is the kind of shop that attracts a number of middle-aged or older men who hang around and comment on the work being done, give unsolicited advice, or on the day I was there, stare at a Yankee woman’s chest and try to flirt with her in unctuous and illiterate ways.

The older man kept staring at my chest as he told me about how big his car was, and I ignored him as best I could until he told me in some manner I only half remember that he was better than those “n” -s (not using the word he used because it is so offensive.)

That’s when I turned to him and asked him how he knew I wasn’t an “N.”  He looked a little surprised.  He said, “With yer blonde hair and blue eyes, you caint be one.”

I told him I was a white “n,” and so was my husband — he, too, is a white “n,” and I told him that we liked souped up cadillacs, watermelon and fried chicken, and he’d better stop using that “n” word to stereotype us and insult us.

“Hey!” He protested, “I didn’t say all that!”

“Sure you did,” I said, “What else could you have meant by using a disgusting word like the N-word?  You brought it up, so let’s talk about it!”

He felt challenged in a way he was clearly unused to, and he left in a huff.

As the door shut behind him, I realized that all work by the men in this body shop had stopped some time ago.  All these guys were white, looking more than a little like Larry the Cable Guy, the kind of guys who chew tobacco and hunt on weekends, all Southerners, all white — and I admit I wasn’t sure what would happen next.  Would they send me away?  How would I get back to campus without my car?  Was I potentially in danger?

After a moment where you could have heard a Teitlist cap fall to the ground out of a blue jumpsuit back pocket, they came up one by one and shook my hand, congratulating me on finally serving up what this creepy man had been dishing out in their presence for many years, while they had stood silently and put up with what they, too, found offensive language.

“Why didn’t anybody say anything to this guy before, if everybody seems to feel the same way about him?” I asked.

They didn’t have a clear answer.  The man wasn’t a customer in their shop, just a guy who came to hang around and talk like that, they said, so it wasn’t exactly about customer service.

One finally offered, “Well, it’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody else, and nobody wants to be rude, because it will stick around as a story forever.”

This may be so, but the story that wasn’t sticking around forever was that this guy was a massive racist creep who deserved to be shunned.

Southern manners seems to allow the few truly rude Southerners to stay rude.  Southerners might live happier lives if they decided to stand up to jerks more often.

*****

So finally, Governor Bentley of Alabama decided to quietly take down the flag without a debate, and everybody is still who they were before — or are they?  Is this a cosmetic change?  Or is this a change that materially changes the discourse of the South?

The reasoning behind the decision to take down the flag is perhaps best expressed by AL.com writer Kyle Whitmire, who writes, explaining to other Southerners, “For the South, the Confederate flag has been what a face tattoo in a job interview is for everybody else. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what it meant for us if it scared the hell out of everybody else.”

A lot of people in the South will tell Northerners and each other that the Confederate flag only represents pride in one’s heritage — but this symbol got hung over State capitols again during the period of the inception of the civil rights movement, some time shortly after Brown v. Board of Education in most instances. The pride expressed was in a segregated South.  The symbol has been used as recently as last year in the lynching of the statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.  Meredith, who was the first African-American admitted to the university, whose presence caused a race riot at the time instigated by white supremacists, had his image defaced last year by some racist frat boys who left a noose around his neck with a Stars-and-Bars-emblazoned flag hanging from it.  What was the nature of the pride expressed there?  And more importantly, do most Southern white people want a share of that pride?

While writers like Nicholas Kristof of The New York TImes are right to exhort the South to make material changes, it is easy for outsiders to the South and its manners to miss the enormity of this change.  Maybe the Southerners haven’t told their racist grandmothers to stop insulting people of other races at Christmas dinner yet, but this gesture is a step in that direction.  It says that Southerners realize that wrongs have been done recently using a symbol of the past, and the South most Southerners want to live in isn’t violent toward people of color, and it’s fair, though the parameters of that fairness have yet to be defined by most people.

So I rejoice at this news.  When I heard that Governor Bentley had taken down that hate flag, I turned on the Lynard Skynard and danced, thinking about where the skies are blue, singing songs about the Southland — and does your conscience bother you?  If you are from Alabama, your state has taken a weight off its collective conscience.  Congratulations, Alabama!  I agree with your sign — Alabama is the beautiful, and your banner is one of United States, not divided states and divided people.

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