White America and the Burden of SlaveryRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: slavery, 12 Years a Slave
For as long as I can remember, whenever the issue of race arises, many whites respond with the same phrase: "We need to have a conversation." With the success of 12 Years a Slave, activism against "stop-and-frisk" and "stand your ground," and the revelation that some black members of the Miami Dolphins consider Richie Incognito "honorary," the conversation many have routinely called for appears to have finally arrived. Of course, the reality is that examining slavery and racism is the last topic many whites want to discuss.
Recently, Margaret Wrinkle, author of Wash, made the argument that African Americans should not be the only ones carrying the burden of slavery, and called for an end to "white innocence." Analyzing this issue, I immediately thought of the popular phase, "Denial is not just a river in Egypt." For many whites, the comfortable position is to deny their ancestors' role in slavery and the benefits they have received as a result of the slave system. This denial is the heart of the problem for whites viewing 12 Years a Slave.
Contrary to those who argue whites enjoy watching African Americans be subjugated, a majority of whites would much prefer to watch The Help, Freedom Writers, Dangerous Minds or any other film that includes a white savior. With The Help, whites can identify with "Skeeter," give themselves credit for watching a film on the black freedom struggle, and still go to bed guilt free for their role in slavery. Indeed, one can conclude, Disney made The Help primarily for a white audience. As Melissa Harris-Perry has pointed out, black women were props in the film. "Skeeter" was the protagonist.
If whites really want to see what black women endured in this country, they could watch Edwin Epps' treatment of Patsy in 12 Years a Slave. But many whites cannot stomach the fact that Epps is their ancestor or that they financially benefited from his actions. Epps cannot be the norm for whites. He must be the exception. To that extent, many whites refuse to admit that major U.S. corporations, banks, and universities made their fortunes off slavery. They cannot come to terms with the fact that whites have gotten a 400-year head start and are now trying to dismantle some of the only policies in place to level the playing field. For if they admitted these realities, guilt would surely follow.
For many whites, denial then turns to anger. The worst thing one can call a white person today is racist. Whites routinely respond with "I have black friends" and "I listen to hip-hop." Bring up slavery and you are sure to hear from many whites, "I did not enslave anyone," "We have a black president," "Enough about slavery," or "My ancestors also faced discrimination." Like many other whites, my ancestors also emigrated from Europe, Italy to be exact. And yes, Italians and Irish faced discrimination. Of course, this was never close to the level of African Americans. Moreover, they recognized the key to equality was to assimilate and become American. In short, become white, which was easy to do if you were Italian or Irish... not so much if you were African American, Hispanic, or Asian.
Much of this conversation has played out over the semester in my course on slavery. With the recent controversy regarding the Miami Dolphins, my black students asked, "Professor, would you ever use the n-word or consider yourself honorary? My response of course was "no and no." Then I continued: "No matter how many degrees I have earned, books I write, or classes I teach, I will never know what it is like to be black. I will never walk into an elevator and have a woman clutch her purse a little bit tighter. I will never walk down the street and have someone cross to the other side because of my skin color. Someone will never drive into my neighborhood and unconsciously lock their doors. I will never walk the streets of New York City in fear of being stopped and frisked. I will never worry about wearing a hoody and being killed for my appearance. Or as W.E.B. Du Bois succinctly put it: I will never know what it feels like to be a problem."
It is long overdue that whites, collectively, acknowledge, apologize, and condemn slavery, while working every day to end racism in their own communities, families, churches, and schools. Whites need to stop running from slavery, and pretending it was a brief anomaly in our history. Until we do this, and join in the burden of slavery, we will never begin to truly right the biggest wrong in our history.
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