Introduction to this group of posts is here.
I would be interested in hearing how white people process the emotional baggage of what their ancestors did. I would be interested in trying to understand what it did to white families. How much silence did white people have to cope with? How did white people build a shield around themselves to be able to deal with the system in which whiteness operated all these years?
–South african poet Lebo Mashile (also quoted in the intro).
I don’t think I am processing it all that well. I think it is a great source of anger for me; there is one kind of anger of oppression and knowing my own powerlessness, but there is another kind about hating things that work for me, hating aspects of me, people I love dearly and people I owe things too. People could dismiss this feeling as “white guilt” and I can analyze it all day but the point is, for me it’s mostly anger. The desire to fix it combined with knowing how little reward we’ll see but we must keep struggling and building.
I think racism operates as just such a shield; when you have a cognitive dissonance of knowing that you’re well off and other people aren’t, you can become uncomfortable with yourself or you can just decide they deserve it. More on that later, I think. But erasure, especially, is a shield like that. It’s easier to think less about people of color’s lives, and (especially when thinking of Native Americans) pushing injustice always into the past so that you have a supposed “clean slate” to operate from. Like in the US when I was growing up, I was naive, and absorbed ideas of race from white people around me who might have known better in fact, but what I got was what they said when they hedged and didn’t want to say things. That Black people, that immigrants and people of color had faced historical injustice, but that stuff ended and now they are moving up just as “everyone else” did–meaning immigrants who whitened, whichever Asian immigrant groups could be used to support the model minority myth. (And Native Americans were just fine on their reservations.) So basically we didn’t owe people of color anything. This is the thing about being “not responsible for your ancestors”: it means whatever white people do for people of color is a favor or a gift. A gift (in my culture) is something you can give and expect it to be accepted politely. You can justifiably be offended if it doesn’t seem to be used and appreciated; moral debts are things people can ask for, on their terms, and if you’re a decent person you’ll do whatever you can.
What did it do to my family? My mon’s side has so much silence in general, being a Catholic and military family that loves to joke and compete but are not very connected to emotions, that it’s hard to sort through that silence. I do know that I have had some serious conflicts with my extended family as I have become more aware of the racism that a lot of them have and are pretty close to explicit about. An aunt who says “welfare queens”. A grandmother who I always looked up to as a wonderful person, but who thinks it’s too bad that in “such a PC society” it’s not okay for an old white man to be terrified that his nurse will be a “big black woman”. (The same grandmother has met one of the best people I’ve ever known, who also is a well-built Black woman. She wanted to be a nurse for a long time and may yet seek it again; she would be a fantastic and gentle nurse, she seems to have endless wells of kindness and understanding without sacrificing any of her sarcastic and fun-loving personality.) And then there’s my grandparents on my dad’s side side, who have two Black women (sisters) taking turns caring for them, and who years ago hired a Black nanny to raise their kids. Yet my grandfather–as my mom says, he’s classist–treats them like servants, and my grandmother thought it was okay to talk loudly in passing about the life expectancies of Black people. There is silence there because I don’t know how to begin to talk to either of them about racism, to bring up the exploitation of nannies of color without seeming to disrespect their affections for the woman who (I hear) told tiny me “I’m your Black grandmother”.
I guess what I am thinking is, we all know how White people’s feelings get in the way of talks about racism. So when that’s your own family, then not only are you probably placing higher value on those feelings, but you are experts at deflecting and avoiding each other’s critique. Some might question me “where did these ideas come from?” (I hear people of color have that experience with White family.) One or two would agree with me but silence me, or even agree and know what little change can be wrought. But I think that silence is a silence about morals, and it invades our lives. My mom’s family especially has a lot of emphasis on values, and purports to teach me those–so if we can’t always talk about values, right and wrong, where does that leave us?