Tonight, after my ire and despair buttons were poked hard by yet another painful GOP debate (this time coming from South Carolina), I remembered something I hadn't thought about in a long time. It was something a friend said -- a friend I really liked, a very bright, funny, loyal guy. He had grown up in Georgia, moved to the West to go to school, and stayed out West to build his professional career and raise a family. I found out that he held some markedly different viewpoints than I did on the topic of Black Americans, which I found very puzzling and very, very disappointing. He didn't at first elaborate much when asked directly about justifying racism. He just said this, and I have never forgotten it:

"You can't understand. It's different down there. The culture, everything...you'd have to have lived there to know what I'm talking about."

My immediate reaction was defensive, although not out-and-out combative, not wanting to have some kind of stupid fight with him over my kitchen table on a relaxed and sunny Sunday afternoon. But how dare he say I couldn't understand, and worse, implied that if I had ever lived in Georgia, I would agree with him! Me, a born (Midwest) Northerner and Western transplant! A liberal, even! Not very likely, pal.

"It's different down there."

Well...sure it is, of course. Everyone knows that the Civil War still seems to be going on in many of our Southern states, the effects of hundreds of years of slavery and slave ownership deeply rooted. But...why? My friend seemed to be saying that the "culture" of the Southern Black was to blame, not the bitter Mr. White Water Cannon. He didn't have any problems at all with the black people out West, he said, as I struggled to hold back comments that would have wiped away his wide, friendly grin. His take on the general interests, habits, and activities of Southern Blacks were a litany of racial stereotypes, offered with no smugness, no searing hatred, and with some amount of self-aware embarrassment, but offered nonetheless.

It was hard to sit there, because I knew I could never really see my friend in the same way again. My anger slowly filtered down to a resigned, final sadness, nothing that could be seen by him from my smile as we changed the topic and I brought him a cold Bass beer from the kitchen.

What do I know about the South, really? Personally? Nothing. I've spent very little time in any of our Southern states, other than multiple vacations in suburban-y Sarasota, Florida, which of course doesn't count as "the real Southern experience," a few days running up and down Texas, a day trip to Lake of the Ozarks, and time so briefly spent on roads and hotel rooms in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia as to offer no memorable "culture" moments at all. What do I know about Southern Black Culture? What the hell is Southern Black Culture? I don't know. Does it exist, and if it does, whose version of it should I believe? Can I understand, or can I never understand what it is like to be anything other than I am, or be able to intake the complexities of having been raised in a place that once sold humans like farm animals?

In 2012, I hear men running for United States President use barely-concealed racist code words in their speeches, to cheers and claps from their audience members in South Carolina. I remember my friend and his words, and my heart breaks a bit, again.