Friday, September 11, 2009

Racial Matters--Black and White: An Introduction to Southern Culture for International Students

Mississippi: Black and White
Although the State of Mississippi began with a White majority (English and French settlers) and a Black minority (slaves from Africa), today, many areas of the state are predominantly Black. Some sections of the state have large concentrations of Native Americans (Choctaw Indians).
Historically, Whites in Mississippi were farmers and Blacks were slaves imported from Africa to work in the cotton fields. Whites were free and Blacks were treated as property with no rights or freedoms under the law.
During the first 100 years of the American experiment in democracy, "government of the people, by the people, and for the people," some states (the South) depended on slavery for their agricultural economy, and slavery was legal. Other states, (the North) opposed slavery.
Civil War
Less than 100 years after the Declaration of Independence (from England), the various states were divided over many issues, notably, the right of states to make their own laws (on issues like slavery) vs. states following the laws of the Federated Union of States, i.e., the United States. Thirteen states (the South) voted to secede from the Union and joined together to form the Confederate States of America. The northern states opposed this division of the United States, and war was declared, the North vs. the South.
It was a bitter war, often dividing families who fought against each other, and it involved many casualties. The North won, and forced the southern states to rejoin the union. To this day, there are influences of this division between Yankees (North) and Rebels (South).
Remnants of the War
After the Civil War, all slaves were given their freedom. Unfortunately, most of them were ill-prepared for the responsibilities of freedom, and their former masters, struggling to regain their own economic strength without the workers who were taken from them by force, were not able to assist the former slaves in their quest for freedom and the American dream, even if they had a desire to do so.
As a result, White and Black Southerners have separate identities and allegiances, even though they have shared the same region for two hundred years. The South developed into a divided culture focused on resentment.
The Whites resented the North for forcing them to accept a federal government, and for taking their livelihood from them. They resented their former slaves for lack of loyalty to them. The Blacks resented their former Masters for their years of Slavery. The result was a segregated society.
The Civil Rights Act
Almost 100 years after the Civil War began, Blacks in the United States began to make public protests over the inequalities that a segregated South perpetuated. Under the "Separate but Equal" moniker, the South had developed a culture of duplication (and duplicity). There were separate entrances to public places for Blacks and Whites, separate sections of public transportation, and separate school systems for Blacks and Whites, even separate water fountains and restrooms! The Black schools and facilities were notably worse than their White counterparts.
In the early 1960's, the US Government responded to the situation with new laws giving Blacks real equality with Whites. Naturally, Whites in the South resented more Federal intervention into their way of life, but the Civil Rights Act has been enforced and the South now embraces Integration and Diversity, for the most part.
Public vs. Private
The public life in the South is one of diversity, but, in their private lives, both Blacks and Whites voluntarily practice segregation, as most people do. People tend to group themselves with others who are similar to them.
Most of you in my audience, as Chinese students, do not look like most of us (Southerners). You will find there is no discrimination against you because of your skin color or national origin. Americans will be friendly and accepting of you in all public arenas. But you must take the initiative to desegregate yourselves; i.e., you must intentionally get out of your “comfort zone." You must make concerted efforts to speak English and to spend time with Americans. You must avoid spending large amounts of time with others of your same nationality and language.