I want to cover some of the ways slavery persists in the modern cultural shadow. I’m probably going to have to break this down into separate posts about the civil war, Jim Crow, and racial stereotypes, because there’s a lot to say here.
Before I get started, I’m going to wholly admit I’m likely going to get some of this wrong. I’m doing my best to squint through my privilege to wrap words around this along with the other stuff I’m writing about in the Cultural Shadow. I’m stretching my own empathy muscles, and I’m hoping my readers can stretch theirs.
I’ve been going about this all wrong.
This post, and those related, has been plaguing me. I knew there was something wrong with it, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I kept delaying publishing it because of this wrongness. Why wasn’t it working?
I have been focusing on the wrong experience.
I was trying to imagine how it would feel to have a cultural timeline that was broken, and that started with ancestors being owned as property.
I tried to understand what it would mean to have ancestors who were brought to the US because they were agricultural experts, and highly skilled unpaid labor. Not because of the color of their skin, but to have the color of skin determine so much of their lives.
There are not enough studies (though there are some, and hopefully, they will keep coming) showing the lingering mental health effects of slavery on the current African American population. Don’t forget, after slavery, there were lynchings. There were Jim Crow laws. There were ongoing systemic forms of terrorism and tortured designed to keep African Americans feeling self-loathing, fear, and anger.
As Useful as Empathy Is, My Focus Is Wrong
As a white American, I’ve inherited the cultural shadow and history of slavery just as much as my black neighbors. Our inheritance as white people is perhaps even deeper in the shadow, and even less examined, than much of current culture.
I don’t know if my direct ancestors owned any slaves. It doesn’t really matter, because I’ve benefited from the systemic structures put in place during slavery.
- I can walk down the street after dark and no one will call the police because I look suspicious.
- If someone did call the police, the officers would not see me as a threat.
- I can get angry and yell and it will be taken seriously
- No one touches my hair, or asks to touch my hair
- I am more likely to get interviewed / hired because I have a “white” name
- My 14 year old stepson is not seen as suspicious when he walks down the street.
- I can see some variety of depictions of myself reflected in modern media, and I’ve been able to see that for most of my life. (Wonder Woman, Leia, etc)
- I have a recipe that’s been handed down for generations from Germany
- When people see me, they make assumptions about my social class that are relatively accurate
- “flesh tone” band aids and crayons match my skin
There are so many more advantages of whiteness that are borne out of these stereotypes.
One huge one – necessary to point out during Black History Month – is the fact that my history books not only ignored things like genocide and lynchings, but it also ignored the contribution to society made by people who aren’t white men.
We learned the names of perhaps five African Americans, and perhaps one or two Africans through all of my history classes. Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela. Seriously. That’s it.
I grew up in rural Ohio. I could tell you which buildings in our area were part of the Underground Railroad. But I couldn’t have told you where those people were headed to or from.
We had two black kids in my whole high school. When one of them dared to date a white young woman, there was a huge controversy about it. There were two black boys – and were so far out in the country, you pretty much had to date other people in your school, or you’d never see one another. If they wanted to date at all they had to date outside of their race. Why the hell was this a controversy?
Because the racism that hovered beneath the surface in my area was not sure how it felt about those boys dating white daughters. The young man in question had family that had lived and farmed in the community for as many generations as I did. My dad went to high school with his dad. This was not a cultural question of outsiders. They had inherited family farmland. They were a part of the community and regional history. Yet it was still grumbled about and subtly not okay for the young man to date.
This was my whole experience of race before we visited my family in the deep south. Then, I went to school on ground that was once an actual plantation, and did not learn enough about it. Then I moved to Atlanta. (I now live in a city that is 70%+ African American, which is quite a switch.)
Redefining My own Whiteness
I have a relatively new direct report at work, and she’s constantly seeking to put faces with names, and to understand who fits where in the vast social structure of the corporation. When a coworker who I deeply respect came by and asked a question, my new employee asked for clarification as to who was who. I referred to a woman who is my age, and my equal or senior in the company – who has deep technical knowledge and skill – as a “black girl.” I spent an entire evening clenched in knots about it.
The next morning I took my employee aside and apologized and corrected myself. I called out my own speech, and I said that it was wrong, and that it really bothered me. My employee was grateful I’d said something, and I was glad I did it. From now on, I’m going to keep calling myself out on those subconscious things that are not right. I asked her to call me out if she ever spotted it in my speech or action, too.
It’s not okay that I don’t know more about black history. It’s not okay that my favorite museum of antiquities has a great section on every single continent except Africa. It’s not okay that I only know about Egyptian and Yoruban mythologies, and I don’t know much about the other countries and cultures across that vast continent.