"Our Ancestors Owned Slaves" and Other Awkward Family Conversations We Need to Have

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

At my last family gathering, I was casually discussing movies with Back actors when a family member interrupted to ask, "Did you know that our ancestors owned and sold slaves?"


What do you say after that? "Pass the biscuits, please?" My initial reaction was to be defensive, or to deflect the blame. As a white person myself, I know how easy it is for white people to become uncomfortable when race comes into a discussion, let alone when the conversation reveals your family's ugly history. After all, what do the decisions of white people from hundreds of years ago have to do with me today? We're quick to say, "I wasn't there - that wasn't my fault."

Today is Juneteenth, the Emancipation Day of African Americans. This holiday reminds me that even though slavery was abolished years ago, Black people are far from being "emancipated" here in my country. The effects of what my ancestors started two hundred years ago are still seen today in how our culture treats and interacts with people of color.

The United States is a racially illiterate country. We claim to have "color blindness," and even though this may be said with good intentions, this just serves as an excuse to avoid the topic of race altogether. We proclaim that race is meaningless, a social construct, yet we're deeply divided by race. We as white people rarely realize it - we're so used to the temperature of our cultural water. White people dominate the social hierarchy. Our country has a system of racism embedded within its very foundations. I may be against racism as an individual, but racism is so much more than individual choices. Racism, by definition, is a system, and I still greatly benefit from this system that is controlled by people who think and look like I do. And the fact that my ancestors owned slaves completely reinforces this point: the consequences of their decisions are still very much present today.

The truth is, even though I wasn't there hundreds of years ago, even though I had no say in the horrors my ancestors committed, this history is part of my collective memory and collective identity as a white woman.

It may not be my fault.
But it is my problem.

It's my problem that 54% of white evangelicals feel threatened by our culture's changing ethnic demographics. It's my problem that the election of racist leaders and politicians (one of whom is the president) is largely due to the votes of white Christians. It's my problem that the area in which I live is highly segregated, none more so than the local churches (a symptom of a national problem). It's my problem that my race has a huge sense of entitlement and privilege, and when challenged, falls into patterns of white fragility. It's my problem that Blacks have the highest poverty rate in the country. It's my problem that Black drivers in Missouri are 91% more likely to be pulled over by police than white people (and that's just one state out of 50). It's my problem that Black men like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Grey, Philando Castillo, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Alton Sterling, to name just a few, have been shot and killed by police. It's my problem that Black (and Hispanic) men are over-represented in prison. It's my problem that hate crimes against people of color have been on the rise in the past few years.

It's my problem that people of color have been saying these kinds of things for years, but other white people might actually listen to me because I have "authority" as a white person.

I still have so much to learn in how to own and fix my problems. I have a long way to go in understanding my culture's deep racial divide and the ways that I, as a white woman, have perpetuated and benefited from it. I have so much deep listening to do, and if I said something wrong in this post, I hope that my readers who are people of color will correct me.

Because of the God I believe in, I know that change is possible. Juneteenth gives me hope - change happened 154 years ago. And if we want change to happen today, we need to start having these awkward conversations with both our family members and our friends. We need to enter into the tension.We can't constantly rely on people of color to educate ourselves.

It's OUR problem. Let's own it and do something about it.

For further learning:
Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People About Race (Article)
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Book)
Beyond Color Blind (Book)
Why It's So Hard to Change Our Minds (Webcomic)
Slavery to Mass Incarceration (Video with beautiful art)
Allegories on Race and Racism (TED talk)
Color Blind or Color Brave? (TED talk)
Be the Bridge to Racial Unity Facebook Group

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