White People Should Embrace History Rather than Run Away from It

by Anna Gibson

Ben Affleck has been under fire, for actions he took in response to finding out one of his ancestors owned slaves on the PBS show about genealogy and family history, Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates. Upon learning that one of his ancestors was a slave master, he asked the network to remove this segment from the aired version of the show, and they complied. The email in which he made this request was released on WikiLeaks, and many people are furious that he would do something like this.

Their reaction is completely understandable, as white shame is no excuse for erasing the truth about slavery and our nation’s complex history with race. To be honest, it is reminiscent of the age-old preposition for black people to just “forget” about slavery. This issue also shows Affleck’s own self-imposed greed; he would rather keep his reputation clear as opposed to facing the truth about his family head on.

To contrast this self-induced amnesia about the 450+ years of oppression that black people have had to endure, Americans are often told that we should “never forget” the tragedies of 9/11 or the Holocaust.
And yet, we African-Americans should “get over” what happened during slavery because, of course, it isn’t the responsibility of the new generation. White people today didn’t commit these crimes, they often claim, before reminding us that “slavery ended a long time ago.”

On the contrary, both black men and women continue to deal with a system that was set in hundreds of years ago to benefit one race while displacing and disenfranchising another. This pattern repeats itself over and over, even within the proposed “colorblind-ness” that occurs when our well-meaning white brothers and sisters “don’t even see color.”

In her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy DeGruy speculates on the nature of hiding the older “messes” that engendered and maintained the institution of slavery. She states:
We also need to ‘notice’ [race and racism] because so little understanding exists between black and white America. On the face of it we are, at best, civil with each other, but all too often this civility masks unresolved resentments and hatred. African Americans are repeatedly asked to reveal ‘proof’ of the realities of racism to skeptical white people. They [black people] reluctantly explain the countless incidents of discrimination, and even assaults directed at them and those they love… More often than not, the response of the questioner is denial and disbelief. The black person, having reopened wounds, is left frustrated and re-injured.
Slavery as an inhumane institution did not only affect black people (although it did affect us most negatively); it also set up the dynamic for white people to profit generations down the line. According to DeGrue, slavery carries with it an air of shame in the consciousness of white people.

However, this causes many white people to do anything they possibly can to sweep uncomfortable truths under the rug. Unfortunately, attempting to cover up racism and the legacy of trauma it engenders is the equivalent of covering up an unwashed body with deodorant and perfume: It still stinks, and it's still dirty.

Not only does it create an air of distrust, but white people also deny us the closure and healing that will assist us in actually mending relationships with one another. The end result leads to explosive encounters between black and white people, and reinforces the underlying sense of fear that some white people have of black people and black retaliation.

We see this manifested in many ways. We can see the fear everywhere—from the school-to-prison pipeline, to the disproportionate number of black men in prison in contrast to white men. We even see it in police shootings because black men and boys are more likely to be treated as being older and more sadistic than what they actually are. The demonization of black men might be related to the fear of retaliation against black people as a whole, and this can only be healed by approaching it with an open heart and finally making amends for wrongs committed. Whether this occurs through reparations or formal discussions is something that only time will reveal.

Ben Affleck would be better off facing his demons and the uncomfortable reality of his great-great-great-grandfather’s “profession” and role in an ugly part of American history, rather than attempting to hide it. How powerful would it have been for a wealthy, well-respected white celebrity to have done this on a nationally syndicated show? He might have helped others make the same choice.

Addressing crucial racial issues on such a public forum could have gradually created a domino effect that would eventually lead to the healing of people on both sides, and thus help with closing the gap between white and black people in America.

Photo: Featureflash / Shutterstock

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University, Buddhist and journalist who helps create a safe space for people to tell their stories. You can reach her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa or on Facebook where she’s hiding under the name Introspective Inquiries.

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