Our Shameful White Ancestors

One of the most challenging phenomena I experience is when my fellow white people don't know how to handle their ancestors. Here are real things I have heard:

MY family never owned slaves! We only just got here in the past 100 years!

We were poor immigrants, no one did US any favors. We had to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

I heard that we were the ones who the Native Americans trusted and even though I can't really claim it, I know I'm part Indian.

My family DID have slaves, and I feel really ashamed of it. I hate being a white person, but I can't help it. I was born this way.

I just don't even work with my ancestors. I don't feel like they represent me. I'm more like Marie Laveau than I am like my own ancestors.

Don't we all just originally come from Africa anyway? I basically only honor that. I'm actually more like a Black person than a white person.

There are evident truths and deeper truths that get kicked under the rug when we say things like this, when we attempt to deny what is at the heart of the matter via technicalities or back-pedaling. When we banish the truth, we banish the truth, and then we are severely curtailed in our ability to learn, connect, and grow together. And that will not do. I am going to address these representative statements here, and invite comment on any others that I have missed.

MY family never owned slaves! We only just got here in the past 100 years!

Whether your ancestors participated in the slave trade or not, and whether your family arrived here lately or sooner, the fact is that this country that you now enjoy living in, and where your skin color affords you certain privileges based on a longstanding war of power fought using the bodies of humanity as weapons and collateral, was built in part by people who did not have a say in their lives whatsoever and underwent untold horrors in the process. Are you really so lacking in compassion that you do not care to be part of rectifying and helping to heal that which was done to these people, on a mere technicality? Ok, so you are telling me that you would also steal candy from a baby and kick an old woman down the stairs. Got it.

We were poor immigrants, no one did US any favors. We had to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

This is a sheer matter of access. It is little known that before World War II, Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants were not considered "white." The actions of soliders from these immigrant populations during the war "earned" them access to the "right to be white." Let that sink in. "White" comes along with "rights" which is why it is considered desirable. It's not cuz we're pretty, honey! It's because we HAVE POWER that is equated with our skin tone. We had the right, as immigrants, to have bootstraps in the first place, long before Black people were even legally allowed to have anything resembling bootstraps, such as education, literacy, the vote, money of their own, or land ownership. The bootstraps argument presumes boots. Slaves had their shoes taken away so they could not run to escape. Think hard about this.

I heard that we were the ones who the Native Americans trusted and even though I can't really claim it, I know I'm part Indian. Like, somewhere, somebody fell in love with a Native American princess but they couldn't be together because of the times.

While I am a big fan of family lore, and come from a family that has at least 4 races represented within our past 2 generations and a bunch of lore, I am wary of stories of Indian grandmothers, because they are often used as a way to legitimize cultural appropriation. I think that if you want to be close to Native American culture, it is paramount to find a Native American teacher who is ethical within their own community, supported by the wider Native American community, and willing to teach you. Then, in time, you may grow close to that culture and it might be a good fit. NotE; there will be teachers who will say NO to you. That's ok. They should, if they want to. But then there are those who will say yes to you, and you can grow with them. But if you don't actually want to take the steps to learn the real culture, instead substituting your hazy interpretations of fact and lore, you are participating in cultural appropriation. And if you don't actually really care about authentic, current Native American welfare and culture, and you are just saying this to be interesting, you might want to find some new hobbies and get really good at them instead. That will be far more interesting than cultural appropriation.

My family DID have slaves, and I feel really ashamed of it. I hate being a white person, but I can't help it. I was born this way.

Whiteness, like Blackness, does not wash off. It cannot be hidden. One thing we know is that it gets seen, and how it is seen yields resultant actions and consequences. You cannot any more hide the privileges your enjoy because of your skin color as a white person than you can hide your whiteness. Pretending that your family doesn't exist, who on purpose did some really awful things, is like pretending that the Earth is flat. The truth WILL come out about it sooner or later. HOW the truth of that comes out is actually up to you: it can be evident in your conscious and/or your unconscious actions. If you are consciously engaging your ancestry, faults and all, you are more likely to intentionally seek ways to avoid their lesser qualities.

Ancestor reverence is not about wholesale approval- it's about taking the time to contemplate, to listen, and to learn from what arises, including things you find unsavory or disturbing. If you choose not to address this head-on, it will arise in ways that are unconscious, and likely invisible to you. For instance, you might make the assumption that you do not have to be careful with how your enact your privilege or presumed/unconscious sense of authority while around people of color simply because you see yourself as "one of the team." But the only way to really be "one of the team" is to acknowledge that you have cookies when the other team members don't, and to share them. THAT makes you "one of the team." Born this way is one thing, but holding it up this way uncritically is another. Don't be ashamed of how you were born. But acknowledge, at the same time, that we should ALL feel offended by what has happened and still happens to people of color in the US, and seek to correct it.

I just don't even work with my ancestors. I don't feel like they represent me. I'm more like Marie Laveau than I am like my own ancestors.

If you banish some part of yourself to the basement of your consciousness, refuse to feed it, engage with it, tend it, or care for it, it grows to be an angry, hateful, feral thing that lashes out and creates chaos when you least expect it. Mark my words. Marie Laveau knew which demons she was working with. That was her power. Do you? Are you sure? Because the little goblin in your lap is nothing compared to that big ugly thing looming over your shoulder. Marie Laveau knew that every single white politician in New Orleans had something to hide, and she used that knowledge to make the world a better place. How might you take your shame at being white, the demons of your own feelings of guilt or ineffectiveness, and use them to make the world a better place? Then, Marie Laveau might deal with you.

Don't we all just originally come from Africa anyway? I basically only honor that. I'm actually more like a Black person than a white person.

Nope. Full stop. (insert sneeze-cough fit of Nope-ing here.) None of us gets to erase history. We all wish slavery hadn't happened, the Holocaust hadn't happened, the witch burnings hadn't happened. But if we try to wash them away from our memories because they make us feel uncomfortable, we are doomed to having to learn those same lessons over and over again. In fact, I'm not convinced that we AREN'T doomed to learn these lessons over and over again, as a species, through space and time.

However, in the Now, we have the power to learn from the past and to stop these things from happening right this minute, which is not insignificant. No one gets to hopscotch over hundreds of years of history to get back to something about which we have so little knowledge that we can feel free to paint it with an idealized brush. If you were plucked up and dropped into the midst of the REAL "ancient times in Africa" right now you would FAIL TO SURVIVE MISERABLY. You would. It's just the truth. So, since that ancient time in Africa is not the heavenly past you might wish it would be, and a lot has happened since then, it's best to engage the reality and create restoration where possible, prevent replication where possible, and seek to make heaven RIGHT NOW, FOR ALL.

So then, how can we work with white ancestors, who might be wonderful and/or awful, and who were certainly human and subject to human flaws, and do it well?

That is another topic for another blog.

 

Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland CA

Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland CA