As a Canadian who grew up in the United States, Confederate flag sightings bordered on banal. You'd find them plastered to the odd pick-up truck bumper, maybe on a T-shirt accompanied by a tough-lookin' dog and a slogan along the lines of "the strong survive" or "man up." If you were really lucky, you'd see it tattooed on the back of some guy's neck. If you weren't, you might see it flying over a government building.
After I moved back to Canada, let's just say the scenery didn't deviate too much from Michigan's. Sure, the flag's appearance was a lot more uncommon, but not by much. Take a quick glance at recent headlines and you'll see some schmuck mugging next to a Confederate flag at a Hamilton, Ont. construction site "for shits and giggles," as if he gets to decide its meaning. And take a quick drive down a road in nearby Grimsby, like my father-in-law did, and you'll see one hung up on some guy's porch.
— CBC Hamilton (@CBCHamilton) August 22, 2017
Hearing about that last one was particularly troubling. In my experience, whether you're in Michigan or Ontario, it's always the people who choose to hang the "Southern Cross" on their porch that take it and its only meaning as one of racial oppression the most seriously — not unlike, I'm sure, a bunch of the alt-right, neo-Nazi and white supremacist adherents you'd have found marching under its banner at the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally that turned deadly less than two weeks ago.
The flag has many different meanings to as many different people, but its boosters will always find that common ground. Not that any of them would admit it. Instead, they'll likely fall back on the same litany of tired excuses now being offered up to argue for things like preserving statues of Confederate leaders.
There's simply no way to divorce it from the racism that will forever stain its crooked red, white and blue.
For one, there's the idea that Confederate symbols are a shout-out to Southern pride and culture — the modern one, of course, and not all that racist junk that once came along with it. Yes, symbols change meaning over time, but only if society changes first. This thinking is predicated on the ignorant belief that somehow, the American South — or America at large, or even North America, for that matter — has successfully managed to get over racism, allowing for the symbol of America's slaveholding tradition to quietly move on to stand for more wholesome ideas, like state sovereignty and individual rights.
Then there's the notion that the Confederate symbol marks a moment in history, and nothing more. That a flag is just a flag. Never mind that Confederates wanted to live in a world where people could be bought and sold owing to the colour of their skin, and that symbols have destructive power. Never mind that it's easy to see a flag as just a flag if its existence didn't serve to oppress you.
And then there's the concept that the Confederate flag is simply a tradition in the South — which can't be further from the truth. The Confederate flag achieved its contemporary meaning during a modern revival that took place rather conveniently at the height of the civil rights movement, when it could serve a dual purpose as a symbol for racists to mob around and as a tool to intimidate those fighting for racial equality.
None of this should come as news — plenty of digital ink has already been spilled dismantling these excuses and more. There's simply no justifying flying the Confederate flag, in the States or elsewhere, and no way to divorce it from the racism that will forever stain its crooked red, white and blue.
Here we are, in Southern Ontario, where some construction worker and a Grimberian simply don't have the same excuses to offer.
But at least in the U.S., some racist can point to the flag's heritage as a misguided excuse for flying these hateful colours. They can shout themselves hoarse about remembering a historical moment, no matter how ashamed the rest of their country is of it. They can talk about tradition, not realizing that it sounds an awful lot like they wished they lived in a different, more hateful era.
But here we are, in southern Ontario, where some construction worker and a Grimbarian simply don't have the same excuses to offer. There's no convenient context to fall back on. There's only one thing flying a Confederate flag can possibly mean in Canada.
"I am racist."
And there's no room for such bigotry here.
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