This is a guest post by Nikki, who blogs at Irene's Daughters, along with Kate and Cayce. This post is part of their series on common white "derailment" tactics. Nikki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The majority of white Americans believe that black people were mistreated horribly; we’re willing to admit that. But we aren’t willing to pay for it for the rest of human history. We don’t want to believe in the curse of the sins of the fathers. And so people like me, who do believe that black people were wronged, also wish we could say, “If you don’t get over it, you’ll always languish like this. You have to work for what you want, like the rest of us do. Don’t expect anyone to give you the leg up.”
I’m not trying to ignore history; I’m trying to get beyond it.
An acquaintance wrote the above words to me in early 2008. She was a Christian and a Democrat who enthusiastically supported and voted for President Obama that same year. I have no idea if she still feels this way; I haven’t asked her lately.
derailment [n]: a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo
“I never owned slaves.”
“No one in my family ever owned slaves.”
“Our family didn’t come to America until well after slavery.” [Note: Up until recently, this was my own white family’s favorite line.]
“The past has already happened; we can’t change it.”
(That last pass-the-buck statement is my favorite, I think. Really, you don’t have the power to change the past? You mean to tell me you’ve never tried to build a time machine? My God, how do you live with yourself?)
Usually when I hear these sorts of lines from white people, they are offered in explanation of why they vehemently oppose affirmative action, or any other race-based help/“handouts” for people of color. Their justification, in most cases, is this insistence on their own helplessness to change history, and their unwillingness to “pay” or be “held responsible” for it.
The way they tell it, they, too, are victims of unjust, ignorant, and/or racist white ancestors — because they, white Americans living today, are the unfortunate ones who must deal with affirmative action, “reverse racism,” and angry, greedy people of color. Sure, black people suffered tremendously under slavery, but many white people now feel that they are the oppressed ones, paying unfairly for “the sins of the fathers.”
In his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva refutes this notion of institutionalized racism and ensuing white privilege as a thing of the distant past, far removed from white people living in the U.S. today:
[W]hites interpreted the past as slavery…. Since Jim Crow died slowly in the country (1960s to 1970s), their constant reference to a remote past distorts the fact about how recent overt forms of racial oppression impeded black progress. This also means that most whites are still connected to parents and grandparents who participated in Jim Crow in some fashion… [B]elieving discrimination is a thing of the past helps whites reinforce their staunch opposition to all race-based compensatory programs. This story line, then, is used to deny the enduring effects of historic discrimination as well as to deny the significance of contemporary discrimination…
It is a fact that most whites did not participate directly in slavery or came to the country years after slavery had ended. However, this…ignores the fact that pro-white policies (“preferential treatment”) in jobs, housing, elections, and access to social space…have had (and continue to have) a positive multiplier effect for all those deemed “white.” … Although specific whites may not have participated directly in the overt discriminatory practices that injured blacks and other minorities in the past, they have all received unearned privileges by virtue of being regarded as “white” and have benefited from the various incarnations of white supremacy in the United States.
An American who exonerates himself because “that’s someone else’s history, not mine” makes the conversation all about him and his own defensiveness, his feelings of helplessness. It is not wrong to feel frustrated or helpless in the face of racism, prejudice, and unearned white privilege — but it is wrong to give yourself a free pass to ignore it, to walk away, to do nothing to challenge or change it.
The determination of many white people to excuse themselves not just from any wrongdoing, but from taking any positive action to fight (or, in some cases, even acknowledge) racism as it persists today, seriously handicaps all Americans in our struggle to overcome our collective racist history. To echo Cayce’s Derailment Monday post of last week, conversations with white people about race often get sidelined by the white person saying, “You just want me to feel guilty!” But, as Cayce pointed out, no reasonable anti-racist wants white people to feel guilty for either past or current wrongs — instead, we want them “to feel engaged, empathetic, righteously indignant even, over the injustices in our society.” These are feelings we can take to the bank; these are feelings that aid us in the fight against racism. Guilt, helplessness, and especially defensiveness changes nothing.
There is one other point I want to make about the fallacy of this “historical” excuse, or “the past is the past” argument (to again quote Professor Bonilla-Silva). Yes, the past is the past, and one cannot in fairness blame a white descendant of slaveowners for the sins of her forebears. But it is ignorant and irresponsible to assume that a grievous sin such as racism, institutionalized and promoted as it was by slavery and Jim Crow — and the genocide against America’s indigenous peoples, and the persecution of immigrants, and the Japanese-American internment, to name only a few examples — can remain isolated in the past, without creating a blight on future generations as well. We are not so easily separated from what our countrymen did just a few generations ago, no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from the past and claim innocence.
We reap what others have sown before us, and that includes deep mistrust, prejudice, and racism. And we do bear the burden, as their descendants — and the only people with the power to change anything now — to try to right at least some of the wrongs. It’s time to challenge all the people of our generation who want to simply wash their hands of history. Why should we expect to be excused from addressing this injustice, and working to eradicate it, even if we are not the ones “directly responsible” for it?