Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On "separate but equal." Still.

Or, Shouldn't We Be Done With This Already?
Or, I'm Not Racist. Some of My Best Friends Are Black. I Just Don't Want Them Grinding All Up on Me at the Prom.
Or, What, Does No One Watch "Footloose" Anymore?

Okay, so every time this comes up (and it's every year, and it's always the same time of year), I find myself thinking, "Seriously? Really, seriously?" And then I think, "Thank you, southern people, for making sure the South never, ever rises in the estimation of the rest of the country." Then I have another "seriously" moment, and then I thank God my high school never tried anything like this:
About now, high-school seniors everywhere slip into a glorious sort of limbo. Waiting out the final weeks of the school year, they begin rightfully to revel in the shared thrill of moving on. It is no different in south-central Georgia’s Montgomery County, made up of a few small towns set between fields of wire grass and sweet onion. The music is turned up. Homework languishes. The future looms large. But for the 54 students in the class of 2009 at Montgomery County High School, so, too, does the past. On May 1 — a balmy Friday evening — the white students held their senior prom. And the following night — a balmy Saturday — the black students had theirs.

Yup. We swear it's not racist, the parents say. It's just a tradition, they say. But when Morgan Freeman himself offered to personally pay for an integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi, the kids were all for it - and the white parents were against it, thus the "private" all-white prom they held themselves. The school did eventually take him up on his offer. Eleven years later, in 2008.

That prom was the subject of a documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi, that followed students and their parents through preparations for the prom. Many students were surprisingly open-minded about the subject. Many parents were, unsurprisingly, less so.

In Montgomery County, Georgia, the "black-folks" prom does generally welcome students of all races, although white students rarely attend. The "white-folks" prom is understood to be whites-only, and the Times story tells of a group of black students who stood outside the white prom with the white parents and siblings of white students to snap pictures and cheer as their white friends prepared to go into their white prom. Then they were ushered out by the white chaperones so the white students could do their white thing. The black kids had their own prom the following night.

Which is not to say there hasn't been some push from the students to integrate the prom. A white Montgomery County graduate now living with her black boyfriend assigns the blame to the parents, saying that they're not willing to pay for an integrated prom. The black student-body president, however, notes that efforts to work with the administration and with the white prom-planning committee have fallen flat. And then there's the point made by one of the black students shooed away from the white prom.
And finally, more somberly, they questioned their white friends’ professed helplessness in the face of their parents’ prejudice (“You’re 18 years old! You’re old enough to smoke, drive, do whatever else you want to. Why aren’t you able to step up and say, ‘I want to have my senior prom with the people I’m graduating with?’ ”).

I'm going to make a request of all southerners, students and parents, black and white, small town and big city: Cut this shit out. Seriously. Segregated proms. Rebel flags. Anything with nooses. Hell, for that matter, cotillions. You're embarrassing us. It's bad enough that I have to discuss the finer points of the civil-rights movement with every person who finds out I live in Birmingham; don't make me try to explain why you can't let kids who sit together in the lunchroom dance together at the VFW, because I swear to God, I don't understand. Please, join us in the twenty-first century. It's great. We have cable.

And students, this one is for you: Sack the hell up. You say you want to have an integrated prom but boo-hoo, your parents won't let you. You manage to smoke, sneak out of the house, wear hooker makeup, skip school, find someone to buy you alcohol, use a fake ID, and get knocked up, all entirely under the parental radar, but somehow, you can't manage a party for all of your friends? Grow some. You can have the prom of your dreams with a shitty DJ and spiked punch and a gropey date and a poofy princess dress you'll probably never wear again, or you can actually take a stand and have a party and make the statement you claim you want to make, if only your parents weren't standing in your way.

Except oh, wait, it's "tradition."

In other news: Fairfax High elects gay student prom queen.

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