In Defense of Phil Robertson (The Right Thing To Do)
I haven't been following the dust-up about Phil Robertson's quotes in GQ magazine as closely as some, and I don't necessarily share the same feelings about them as does my sister, The Writing Diva. I think issues of race and sexual orientation in the South are more complex than those of us raised outside the South understand. When a white Southerner expresses a point of view about sexual orientation or race that isn't in line with moderate America's expectations, we're quick to dismiss that person as an ignorant, backwoods hick.
It's more complicated than that.
Maybe it's because of Nelson Mandela's recent passing that I'm stepping back and taking the longer view on what Phil Robertson said in light of his life experience and mine. Here's my life experience.
I lived in Mississippi for a year. What I learned living there is that even if Southern or rural Southern whites believe that the Bible forbids what you're doing or how you're living, that doesn't necessarily mean that they hate you or that they would mistreat you. My experience is that there is a Southern code of conduct, so to speak; I would call it "The Right Thing To Do": -- No matter what people might think of you or what you do, unless they're rabid racists, they're going to treat you with respect and human kindness just as they would want to be treated. The culture of respect runs deep in Southern culture. My mental litmus test for anyone, including Phil Robertson, is, "Would this person help me if I were stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire?" Trust me, you're more likely to be helped by a Southerner of any race than a Californian. Southerners of any race help strangers simply because it's The Right Thing To Do. I watch "Duck Dynasty," and although I've never met Phil Robertson, I think he would pass my litmus test.
There are a lot of Christians of all races who believe that homosexuality is a sin. That doesn't mean they hate gay people or would harm them. I don't recall there being this much of a dust-up when, on "R&B Divas," the singer Monifah, who came out, asked her daughter if she could support Monifah's union with her partner Terez. Her daughter said, "No, no I can't." It was a matter of faith, not hate, for her. It didn't mean that she loved her mother less; it simply meant that, as a matter of faith, she could not encourage a gay union. Good Christians are perfectly capable of hating the sin (or at least what they consider sin) and loving the sinner. They need to be because we're all sinners.
Finally, I think we have to look at context and life experience when taking the measure of someone. Phil Robertson's remarks about black people were based on his life experience, which I hazard to guess is rather limited. I doubt that black folks picking cotton with him back in the day could tell him how they truly felt about their lives and experiences. Just as we black folks today can't necessarily share all our feelings at work lest we be branded as radical or angry, I'd be willing to bet that the happy temperament of black folks that Phil Robertson experienced while picking cotton with them was the part of their feelings that was safe to share with whites during that time. That is what he experienced. The implication of his statement that this state of black affairs was "pre-welfare" and "pre-entitlement," although misguided and ill-informed, doesn't appear to me to be an expression of hate. Maybe I'm naïve.
I watch "Duck Dynasty," and I think many people who are quick to criticize Phil Robertson have never seen the show. I enjoy the show. The reason I enjoy it is because, like Tyler Perry's "Madea" movies, there's always a moral to each episode. I like that they are family that hasn't let wealth change them, they stick together, and they have all the same characters and problems that all families have: A crazy but loving uncle (Uncle Si); a patriarch (Phil Robertson) who, like many Southern patriarchs, is really ruled by the matriarch of the family (Miss Kay); and adult sibling rivalry (Jase and Willie). They end each episode at the dinner table saying grace and thanking the Lord for their blessings, like many families of all races do daily across the South. They truly appear to love one another, and it's clear that Phil Robertson loves his family deeply. What I don't see on the show, and what I've never seen, is hate.
I have advanced degrees from two Ivy League institutions, and I have lived all around this country. If you asked me to bet whether one of my "to the manor born" white Harvard classmates or white trash (his words) Phil Robertson would be most likely to help me if I were stranded by the side of the road, I'd pick Phil Robertson every time. He'd do it because, as a Southerner, he knows it would be The Right Thing To Do.