“You aren’t actually Southern though, right?”
The first time a new acquaintance asked this question, I was baffled. But by the tenth time, I got it: for those not from the South, being actually Southern meant I was lacking a discernible drawling accent or that I wasn’t openly spouting racist or homophobic talking points.
“You know, we aren’t all backwards and racist, right?” It wasn’t until I left my home state of North Carolina in 2007 that I had to start arguing for my own authenticity as a Southerner. Living in D.C. (which is technically still below the Mason-Dixon line and, arguably, still a culturally Southern city) meant my social and professional circles were full of people from the Northeast, the West Coast and the Midwest. When I found fellow Southern progressives, we forged an immediate bond: the rest of y’all just don’t get it – or us.
The ex-pat identity I forged outside of the South became a source of pride. I loved explaining my hometown of Asheville, NC – a small progressive enclave in the mountains of western North Carolina that defied stereotypes of Appalachia. But the distance also created space to examine the parts of my home state and region that I was always much more hesitant to claim: the entrenched segregation, the undercurrent of homophobia parading as Christian values and the willingness to abide these ugly stains so as to keep conversation “polite.” Some of this hit pretty close to home, especially as a white Southerner.
I lived outside of North Carolina for nearly a decade. But the South always felt close to my heart. I wept when Amendment 1 – a constitutional amendment that barred same-sex marriage in N.C. – was passed. I raged when I saw the N.C. Legislature gut the public education system that made me who I am, and I wished I could hurl my heart through time and space to be here for each and every single Moral Monday protest I eagerly watched from behind my laptop screen.
I never gave up on North Carolina. I moved back to Asheville last fall from D.C., in part because I couldn’t keep wringing my hands and declaring what a disaster my home had become, while enjoying my tidy, progressive organizer bubble from hundreds of miles away. I am home to do the messy, exhausting and never-ending work of movement building.
During my years in D.C., I listened in on one too many national progressive panel conversations about “Organizing the South” as people who had never spent time in my home state talked about how to shift a culture they didn’t understand. And now I’m watching as some of those same players announce personal and professional boycotts of N.C. without thinking of the implications those boycotts might have on the “organizing” they were claiming to champion. If you really want to organize the South, you need to actually be in the South.
I understand why boycotts are effective tools — but they are also blunt tools and thus inflict collateral damage. I understand that it is easy to say, “well that’s just the South.” I even understand why my well-meaning liberal peers in places like Asheville and Chapel Hill feel smug superiority that we are not like the rest of this state. But in each instance, the analysis misses the mark — about the South, yes, but also, frankly, about who we are as a nation.
Despite the sentiment behind the #wearenotthis hashtag that North Carolinians started using to decry HB2: We are this. We are a place that is complex and has a long and winding historical arc toward justice. We are hypocrites. We are racially segregated. We are full of transphobic and homophobic and misogynistic “good ole boys.” But we are also ground zero for some of the most important and necessary organizing happening in the country.
We are problematic at best. But I’m never going to not claim us and I’m always going to fight for us. That’s why I’ll be in Raleigh when the North Carolina General Assembly reconvenes in Raleigh on Monday May 16. I’ll be in the streets with thousands of others who are actually Southern. We are this but we can be so much more.
Rachel LaBruyere grew up in Asheville, N.C., and has spent the last nine years living and working in D.C. Last fall she quit her job as the deputy director of digital strategies at the AFL-CIO in D.C. and moved back to N.C. to organize in her home state.