About 10 years ago, a student from the south began his freshman year at Rutgers in New Jersey. Proud of his southern roots, he decided to hang what he saw as the symbol of the south, a Confederate flag, in his doom room window where it was visible to the campus. An African American student was upset by this, and asked him to take it down, informing him of the reminder of slavery it held for her. The student explained he had not known that, apologized, and took the flag down.
That student was a southern gentleman.
This story is deserving of attention for a few reasons. First, it shows how mature adults have a conversation about a sensitive topic. The woman calmly but assertively pointed out the meaning of the flag for African Americans, something that the the southern gentleman, in an age where the internet was still developing, legitimately did not know or consider. The southern gentleman did not respond by attacking her for infringing on his freedom of speech, he did not rant about how it was a case of political correctness, and he did not claim persecution of his cultural identity. Instead he heard the woman, listened to her pain, and showed her respect by taking the flag out of his window,
The another reason this story deserves attention is that the southern gentleman showed a level of personal integrity that is rarely seen today. This southern gentleman found himself in an embarrassing situation of unintended ignorance, a situation where he was legitimately unknowing of the racial connotations of the symbol. But it was in this embarrassing situation that he showed the moral fortitude and integrity that made him a gentleman: he chose to learn rather than remain willfully ignorant. Nobody knows everything. Everyone has ways that they have been lead astray in their lives. We all are unintentionally ignorant about something just by nature that we have not been exposed to everything in the world. But that ignorance is accidental. However, that accidental ignorance can quickly turn to willful and intentional when we choose hold onto it after we have been exposed to where our understandings were in error. This gentleman, however, when exposed to his ignorance decided to grow, shedding his ignorance to become willfully informed.
Finally, this story shows how this man earned his title of southern gentleman by the way he put respect and empathy above ego. For him, the woman in front of him was more important than the flag in his window. He was willing to take down the symbol for the sake of the human in front of him rather than take down a person’s humanity for the sake of a symbol. That demonstrated a level of decency that has been lost today.
So in the conversations you engage in, please keep this story in mind. Please remember this southern gentleman, and ask yourself if you are willing to emulate his maturity, integrity, empathy in how you respond to the challenges offered to you.