All of this suddenly intensified debate reminded me of a conversation I once had with a dear friend. (One of the reasons that I cherish my closest friends is that we can talk about pretty much anything.) I can’t remember exactly when this conversation took place, but it would have been some time in the 90s; we would have been in our 20s then. How we got on the subject escapes me, but we ended up talking about the Confederate flag. The gist of the discussion was that we were mystified as to why anyone, in this day and age, would choose to display it, as we both were well aware of its racist history. My friend made a good point, that being that some people probably don’t know how offensive the flag is, particularly to black people. He told me a story about something that had happened to a co-worker of his. It seems this co-worker had affixed a Confederate flag vanity plate to the front of his car, and one day, upon exiting a store, he was confronted by a black man who wanted to know if the co-worker had a problem with black people. The co-worker, stunned, responded that he didn’t, and was informed by the man that the flag on the front of the car had led him to think that he did. When relating the story to my friend, the co-worker said that he had no idea that the flag could be seen as racist, that he had placed it on his car because he thought it was “cool.” My friend, though surprised by his co-worker’s ignorance, saw no reason not to believe him.
My friend, his co-worker, and I are all roughly the same age, and while I couldn’t speak for them, I know that the first time I can recall being exposed to the Confederate flag was while watching the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard.” I imagine that my friend and his co-worker probably watched the popular show as well. When I was a 10-year-old boy, everything about the General Lee, the iconic car from the show, was “cool,” including the rebel flag emblazoned on the roof. Somewhere along the passage through our teens and into our twenties, my friend and I had somehow managed to glean the flag’s historical significance. My friend’s co-worker simply had not.
The better part of two decades has passed since my dear friend and I had a conversation about a racist flag. I still see the flag around from time to time, usually on vehicles, mostly pick-up trucks (not judging, just saying). When I do see it, I wonder whether the person who made that choice doesn’t know, or just doesn’t care, about the hurt that they are causing; I hope for the former, despair at the latter. In 2015, it’s “a story” when a stores in Canada decide to stop selling the Confederate flag. I think the real story is that, sadly, in 2015, stores in Canada would still choose to sell it, and, sadder still, people would still want to buy it.