Memoir of a Race Traitor

Fighting Racism in the American South

“I have written this treatise on the souls of white folks with an urgency that it be exemplary, a template into which white readers can read themselves,” begins Mab Segrest, in a book that is as much an excavation of racism in America as it is the memoir of a white lesbian determined to unravel that racism. Over decades spent advocating for (and accomplishing a great deal of) change, Segrest chronicles her own life and that of her life’s work, the latter as part of a multi-racial queer community of social justice activists. She is as unsparing of the violent racists she pursues as she is of her own family and their complicity, both active and otherwise. In her stated goal, I believe she succeeds: her life is a model for how to interrogate the racist systems she was born into, and to disown the inheritance they provide—not through abandonment, but by building a more just world in its stead.

Reading notes

Expendable

On the neglect that occurred in an earlier pandemic:

I do not believe that the medical and scientific establishments would have responded so disastrously slowly to AIDS in gay men and intravenous drug users if racist ideology had not already permeated those institutions, engendering thought processes and bureaucratic procedures that allowed whole groups to become expendable.

Segrest, Memoir of a Race Traitor, page 70

It is distressing—but not surprising—to understand how well this statement could be applied today.

An urgent job to be done

In 1987, three men were murdered in an adult bookstore in Shelby, North Carolina. Despite efforts by Mab Segrest and others, the three Neo-Nazi men accused of the murders were declared not guilty by a jury. Segrest writes:

A few days later, the editor of the Shelby Star ran “An Open Letter to Mab Segrest,” responding to my critical comments in the press. It articulated the unstated assumptions we had battled in trying to elicit a public response. Tom O’Neal, the Star’s editor, felt that I had linked the murder to “some inherent hate and prejudice” within the Shelby community. He protested that the kind of violence at the Shelby III was alien to the community. But people carried their beliefs “deep within”and did not need to go on record with them, any more than they needed to “proclaim our belief in the goodness of spring rains.”

Segrest, Memoir of a Race Traitor, page 171

In response, Segrest wrote a letter of her own:

The reason you do not have an active White Patriot Party in Shelby now is that many people across the state, myself included, worked very hard for much of this decade to bring that activity to an end. We did not stand around explaining we weren’t complicit in that hatred—we weren’t. We just saw an urgent job that needed to be done, and we set to work to do it. We have learned in this work that ignoring the Klan and Nazi groups (as you seem to suggest), that a cold shoulder, is not enough. Many members of hate groups hurt people thinking that they have the approval of the general public and of their communities. Silence, to them, implies consent.

Segrest, Memoir of a Race Traitor, page 171

This is a familiar note: in response to evidence that a community includes people who espouse a white supremacist ideology, white people will often tear themselves in knots claiming they cannot or should not be accountable for their neighbor’s beliefs. This notion presumes that ideas are but gossamer, unpleasant perhaps but unable to cause any harm. But violent beliefs beget violence in more than word. Too often white people are more concerned with seeming to be just and good than with doing the work to create the conditions for that justice.