A Note on the Implied Whiteness of Southern Identity

The African American Intellectual History Society has a thought-provoking piece from sociologist Jennifer Patrice Sims on imaginary and implied whiteness in literature, theater, and film that is worth a read by Civil War historians. I’ll explain.

Sims points out numerous instances in recent memory when black actors were cast for presumably white roles in films like Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter, and how a good number of whites reacted with “incredulity” at these casting decisions. She argues that such reactions occur because book readers and performing arts viewers often assume that the characters in the performance will be white. Whiteness is the default setting. Writers must use explicit language to express to readers that the character is a racial minority, something that does not need to be done for a white character.

It strikes me that I often see a somewhat similar pattern of thinking when studying the Civil War and Southern identity during the nineteenth century. Part of the problem is that many history textbooks and public history sites talk about the Civil War as a fight between Northerners and Southerners instead of a fight between the United States and the Confederacy. The terms are not synonymous. White Southerners in every state except South Carolina formed regiments in the U.S. military during the Civil War, nearly two-hundred thousand blacks–many of whom were born in the South–served in United States Colored Troops regiments, and states generally accepted to be at least partly “Southern” in nature, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, stayed in the Union during the war. The other equally important factor is that blacks born in the South are sometimes not considered “Southern.” As historian Kevin Gannon points out, decades of historical scholarship on the Civil War era has defaulted to whiteness when explaining political and social thought in the South:

Black southerners were not in the front ranks of Manifest Destiny’s advocates, nor did they turn to a states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution in the wake of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. And I would bet that most black southerners saw Lincoln’s election as something other than [a] “catastrophe[.]” Yet, when historians-and by extension, much of the general public-discuss the sectional divide as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, they overwhelmingly deploy the identifier “southern” in the “we-really-mean-white-people-but-you-already-know-that” sense of the term . . . “Southerners rejected the aims of the abolitionist movement, since they threatened the basic principles that defined their society.” Well, again, this is true for many white southerners; for black southerners, not so much.

Indeed, words matter a great deal. Explaining how “Southerners” react to events necessitates further word qualifications such as “black,” “white,” “upper-region,” “Appalachian,” etc., since an entire region of people could never completely agree on a uniform mode of social and political thought.

Confederate veteran and Southern-born George W. Cable offered his own intriguing theory in an 1886 Memorial Day speech in Massachusetts for explaining the relationship between whiteness, Southern identity, and who gets to call themselves a Southerner. He suggested that “Southerner” referred less to the geographical location where one was born and instead reflected a particular way of thinking about the world:

You hear the phrase “true Southerner,” “true South.” . . . where a man or woman is born is no matter. A colored man is never esteemed a Southerner. And there are hundreds of men now in the South of any one of whom you may hear it said at any time, “Why, he is Northern born, but he is a good Southerner.” It is a matter of belief in a social order . . . the white [Southerner] for an arbitrary supremacy, confessedly inconsistent with American liberty, but in his sincere conviction essential to social order and his self-preservation . . . It believes that the preservation of society requires the domination of a fixed privileged class over a lower; that the white constitute this privileged class, and that the blacks do, and must, and shall comprise the lower.

I think there are many other ways–and many of them more positive than Cable’s assessment–to identify oneself as “Southern,” but he offers us some interesting food for thought with this speech.



4 thoughts on “A Note on the Implied Whiteness of Southern Identity

  1. I admit that being of mixed ethnicity; I tend to search out articles such as this one and the well written commentary by Jennifer Patrice Sims. I was rewarded by both reads.

    I am not sure if it is a common experience generally speaking, to have near-complete strangers ask “What are you?” early on in a conversation, as if they will not be at ease, unless they insert you comfortably into a category. In the old days, I would answer conveniently: if I were in Spanish Harlem: I was Puerto Rican, if I were in Oklahoma: I was Indian (part correct) and so forth. After a while, I began suffering a cultural meltdown, because I no longer identified with anything, I began turning the question back on the interrogator “Why does it matter ‘what I am’?” More discomfort, but this time it was not my own, rather, it was laid on the person who asked.

    Who are we?

    It was not until I was visiting a playmate when I got the startling news that I was not “white”. We set up to play Barbies, and I reached for the usual blond haired blue-eyed beauty that I had assumed myself to become, and surprisingly, the girl shook her head “no”, and offered me her sister’s collector edition “Cher” doll, instead. Reality check: indeed, it was a perfect mirror image right down to the waist-length hair. Christie Brinkley I was not (or ever going to be). I never quite saw myself the same after that.

    I believe that we are taught to categorize ourselves, and the community that we live in early on. Rather than celebrate similarities, we immediately dwell on the differences, which offers both comfort and discomfort, interchangeably. These boundaries were set early on in the South, as socio-racial stratification rendered a large part of the population as invisible. Art, Literature, & Academia continued to reinforce this invisibility. Post Civil War history was owned by Jubal Early and his merry band of Causers, and so the status quo was maintained. Dunning School picked up the mantle and carried this view of the South far into the 20th century, leaving us only a mere 40-50 years to unravel this mess of mono-cultural perception.

    As I continue my stroll around the Blogo-cum-Twittersphere, I am continually inspired by the new, hip crowd of historians who have a Technicolor view on who we were as a people of the Civil War: Be it the Immigrants & African Americans who fought for the North, the predominantly white population who made up the Confederate army, and the 4 million slaves who populated the South. I am confident that our story of this country is in good hands, and I believe that the diversity of the yesterday’s and today’s population is beginning to be embraced. It’s about time.

    (oops. A bit of a ramble here — sorry for the length)

  2. Speaking from the perspective of South Texas, I venture to say that Tejanas and Tejanos would appreciate your extension of Sims’ argument to history. The fact that implied whiteness excludes Mexican-Americans is particularly ironic given that their legal racial designation mid-19C was “white.” (…and thanks to Devin Hunter for acquainting me with your work.)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Teresa. Devin’s a good guy! I wholeheartedly agree that many non-white people born and raised in the South (or at least what we define–through geography and culture–as the South) are easily marginalized when who counts as a Southerner is narrowly defined through the veil of whiteness or, in some cases, identification with the Confederacy.

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