Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Making Meaning

One day I was walking towards the Howard Street El platform in Chicago, headed home, when a Black woman of about my own age approached me and offered me literature for a job training program. When I told her that I wasn't interested, she became insistent, and it wasn't until I showed her my company-issued ID card that she would leave me alone.

While annoying, the young recruiter's actions were not unexpected. I was a Black male in my twenties, walking along in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, dressed casually and not obviously a student. To her, this marked me as very likely unemployed, even though, as it turned out, I was on my way home from work. But what's important in this circumstance is that she wasn't acting on any sort of personal understanding, but a shared one. My appearance had entered the public lexicon as indicative of an unemployed young adult. And even though that wasn't the only reasonable assumption, it was likely one that would enter most people's minds.

Similarly, "the Dixie flag" (otherwise known as the battle standard of the Armies of Northern Virginia and Tennessee, or with slightly different shades of color as  the Confederate Navy Ensign), has entered the public lexicon as a symbol of white supremacy and racism. And while those are not the only reasonable definitions of that flag, they are effectively universally understood. While any given person can claim that white supremacy and racism are not parts of their personal definition of the flag, the fact remains that just about everyone who has even a passing familiarity with it knows that broader definition.

And while one can argue the appropriateness of being defined by the public lexicon in a way that one finds personally unflattering or inaccurate, it's harder to argue that a given definition is singularly inappropriate. The adult who wears a Dixie flag on their shirt may be expressing a desire to return to only the broadly acceptable parts of a bygone (and likely fictional) past, but unless they were raised under a rock by wolves, they also know that they are risking presenting themselves as a wannabe Confederate, white supremacist or other disreputable character. This isn't to say that they want people to make that particular inference - only that it's hard to argue ignorance of the fact that it comes with the territory and that there are other symbols that lack all of the same baggage.

Perhaps it's fitting that supporters of the Dixie flag have taken on another Lost Cause - that of convincing the populace at large that the public lexicon shouldn't apply to them in the same way that it applies to everyone else in the country. The fact that something has a particular meaning for us does not mean that everyone else is obligated to subscribe to that same meaning. But the fact that the public lexicon attaches a given meaning to something does obligate us, as individuals, to engage with that meaning, whether we wish it or not.

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