I've lived in Missouri my entire, life, being born and raised here. People would fly Confederate flags from the back of their pickup trucks and sport that same flag on their camouflaged hats. It wasn't an unfamiliar sight to me, because this wasn't something rare. One day in high school, even, a kid actually draped that flag around his body as he walked through the halls.
You see where I'm going with this.
Although it was a familiar sight in my small town, I knew it was wrong. I knew what that flag stood for, and I knew it wasn't just "southern pride." Missouri isn't even in the south, technically, and we sure as hell didn't secede from the Union. I knew that flag stood for racism. I knew racism was bad, but I really didn't know much about it other than what we were taught in school.
That sounds kind of dumb to say, but it's true. I didn't know what racism really was, not until I grew older and left my hometown. Even writing this, I know that because I'm white, I'll never really learn what racism is. But I learned that even I, the girl who knew racism was wrong, was racist herself.
I noticed it in my former self in the subtlest ways. I never noticed the internalized racism I held, the racism in the back of my subconscious that crept in when I'd walk past a black man on the sidewalk, or in the fact that I thought it was okay to say the "soft 'n'" in rap music.
I never noticed these things when I was younger because it was normal to me. It was normal in my small town that was, as of the last census, 94.1% white. It wouldn't even stick out to me as something to be ashamed of thinking or saying. It's embarrassing, honestly. I'm ashamed of who I once was.
The purpose of me outing these awful actions and thoughts I used to hold internally isn't to just speak them into existence, while doing so does clear my conscience a little bit. The purpose of bringing these things to light is so that others can see the internalized racism they themselves may have and not even know it until someone addresses it, like me.
While my college town isn't an outrageously large city, it is significantly larger than my hometown. And while it still isn't much more diverse than my hometown, it is a little bit. The people I've met here, however, are much different than the people I grew up with. They've taught me how to be cultural competent. They've taught me what even the subtlest injustices and racist actions look like. They've taught me to use my white privilege to fight for those who need my voice.
I regret who I used to be, but I'm proud of who I've become. I'm proud of who I continue to become through personal growth and education. I look for the signs of internalized racism in others and seek to correct them. I no longer just accept blatant flag-waving racism just because that's the normal of where I'm from.
Getting out of my hometown was hands down the best decision I've ever made. Not because it was a terrible place, but because it allowed me to experience so much growth. I'm not who I was before, and that might piss some people off, but I'm damn proud of it. I can't wait to see who I become.