This is not a funny jokey ha-ha lol-times post, and I am not apologizing for it. It’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to. Kthanksbye.
I just finished watching this week’s episode of Finding Your Roots and I have a lot of feels. I’m a genealogy nerd and a sucker for life stories so the show tends to be my jam anyway…but the episodes where he traces the family trees of African Americans always really get to me. It’s a similar story almost every time: the tree gets to a certain point and then just stops because you inevitably get to a time when this person’s ancestors were no longer recorded in census data because they were basically considered livestock.
If you’re white, REALLY think about that for a minute. Think about what it might feel like to be told that your great-great-great grandparents were owned by someone else. OWNED. Someone looked at a fellow human being, passed judgement on their worth, placed a price on them, and exchanged them for currency. Imagine looking at another living, breathing, feeling, human being…and somehow constructing the belief in your head that you are so superior to them that you could BUY and SELL them, let alone force them to do your bidding, rape them, beat them, and keep them in appalling conditions. And this was the norm for centuries.
It’s deeply uncomfortable to think about these things, and that’s why so many people just…don’t. Being uncomfortable isn’t fun. It doesn’t give you a good story to tell, a cute meme, or a nice photo for Instagram. But discomfort is an excellent teacher. Lessons learned through a filter of discomfort are often the most impactful ones.
My ancestors were very likely not slave owners. I could tell myself a nice story about how it’s because they were all good people who knew right from wrong and valued every human life…but the hard truth is that likely a lot of it was down to the fact that most of them were dirt poor their whole lives themselves and buying slaves for their farms just plain wasn’t an option available to them. Even so, I have internalized racial biases inherited simply by so many generations of my ancestors being white. Even as a dirt-farmer in rural Vermont in the 1800’s, being white was still a shit-load easier than being anything other than white, and I have directly benefited from that privilege. I continue to benefit on a daily basis from a system filled with those same internalized racial biases. Life is just plain easier in many countries in this world if your skin is white.
I’m not waxing about any of this to earn any sort of credit or prove any self-righteous point. It just struck me how uncomfortable and ashamed I felt while hearing the stories of these peoples’ enslaved ancestors, and rather than run away from the discomfort, I decided to sit with it, to turn it over and look underneath it for a bit. Acknowledging to myself that I have and will continue to benefit from white privilege isn’t that difficult for me – I’ve felt it since long before I had the catch-phrase to define it. What is more difficult for me, and what I find myself subsequently leaning into tonight as I write this; is admitting it, fully and without couching, to anyone who chooses to read it. But I refuse to keep choosing my own comfort, and the comfort of those who I know don’t understand or agree with me, over the truth. This is the VERY least I can do as a white person in this fractured, racist world…but it’s all I’ve got for tonight.