We are in denial. We don't like to look at the past. The facts of history should be swept under the carpet and we should move on. The 'we' I am referring to is white people. Our lack of historical curiosity is, in my opinion, the main reason why we believe that we deserve our privilege.
Last week at our bible study we began to talk race. My bible study is made up of white people. I love them. It is hard to wrestle with issues of race when you have been conditioned to accept the status quo, and particularly when the status quo favors you. But for some reason they were trying.
After the shooting of black men, and the shooting of police that followed, it seemed as though a moment for serious thinking had arisen. It would have been possible for the participants of that study to say that their presuppositions about race were confirmed by what had happened. They did not.
As I sat and listened I began to see thoughtful individuals open up their hearts and explore ways of looking at race that were insightful. I have heard black commentators articulate them, but these white folks were now doing it. I want to share just one insight from a gentleman who has become increasingly aware of his cultural history. He started talking about the movement from the civil war, through to Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, through to inner cities today. He said that black people were made free, but not given any resources to build their lives after the civil war. White people were able to keep the wealth that they had accumulated through slave ownership and then pass that wealth on to their children. Black people had no inheritance to leave.
He noted that he had benefited from the inheritance received from previous generations, but black people had not. Furthermore, society restricted their access to the economic means they needed. He was making an argument for reparations, although none of us could work out how that should be undertaken.
We were talking about it in ways that left me hopeful though, we were becoming more conscious of the challenges our culture faces and how we were implicated. I have a sense that this is a conversation that is needed and that we have to encourage it to take place. The fact that we didn't finish its a problem, I am glad that we had started.
The conversation we need must not deny the facts of history. It must not say that unpleasant feelings should be avoided because white people are fragile. It should not give us a sense that we have earned what we deserve, but should acknowledge that we have what we do because of a deeply unjust system that existed in the recent past. Slavery is not the ancient history, it just happened yesterday.
Last night I heard Michelle Obama speak. I want to lay aside the fact that she was advocating for a candidate for a moment, and just focus on what she was saying about history.
"That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn."
In her speech she acknowledged her time in the White House and how difficult it has been, and she acknowledged the history of slavery. She also suggested that we are capable of something new.
She has a unique perspective on this, having served as the first African American First Lady and having suffered the insults leveled at her across the last 8 years because of this role. That she was hopeful at all, and that she constructed her argument from the facts of slavery, insult and struggle, was remarkable.
The speech suggested to me that the way through our current cultural difficulties is not by avoiding the past, but through a meaningful exploration of it.
Anyone who knows me will know that I believe in looking into the shadows for resources to help us grow. I have just never managed to do it quite as effectively as Michelle Obama did last night.
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From the UK, Matthew loved US culture from the first time he picked up a Fantastic Four Comic when he was 12.