Seeking forgiveness and acting for change
I had the honor of visiting the Slave Market Museum in Charleston, South Carolina a few years ago. Seeing the paintings of how black people were chained into slave boats, lying down, several layers deep, as if they were not even human, and the painting of one slave woman being whipped, and the many other artifacts and writings available there, I broke down. As we left, with me barely able to keep from sobbing, I told the lovely young black woman and a young black man at the front desk that my ancestors had owned slaves, and I was so deeply sorry. And that I only hoped they had been kind. There is no way to know, except for the records we have of Julia and Richard’s treatment of the Union soldiers and of their efforts to assist “their” freed slaves in obtaining property. The gracious young people were embarrassed at my admission and my emotion, and they were very kind in their attitudes. They didn’t say “we forgive you,” and I would not have expected that, but quietly said something like “That’s in the past,” as if to say, “It’s not your fault.”
But I carry it. I do my best not to repeat the mistakes of my ancestors. I live in a fairly white, quiet, slightly upper middle-class neighborhood, due to my husband’s high tech employment for over forty years, and how we have saved for retirement, but we do have people of color, some variety in cultures, and a few gay people, and I am so glad of it. I don’t want to be insulated from culture, though as a handicapped older woman I admit that I am glad to live in a neighborhood mostly free of crime, where you never hear a gun shot, and parties shut down before midnight. And I know this is a privilege that we’ve come to live in a situation like this. Women are still paid less than men for the most part and it would be hard for a single woman to attain a home in this neighborhood unless she were with a highly paid profession. I’m aware of this, and I know that people of color often don’t get the work they need in order to attain this as well, and then they are, as I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, up against discrimination in loaning practices.
I want these opportunities for everyone. Granted, some of it comes down to aptitude for math and science (and in impoverished families, it is a major challenge to get support in doing well in school), but some of it in other professions relates to knowing the right people, or being the right color, unfortunately. As a disabled woman, it is quite difficult for me to march or go to rallies. My husband believes in tithing, in giving back to society ten percent of our income. We contribute to charities that help impoverished people get their own homes, and help young people stay in school, help young girls (and boys) not get pregnant and go to college, or learn a good trade, and assist in other issues of poverty and justice. Does this assuage my white guilt? Not completely. I am still appalled that my family participated in slavery. It makes my heart sick and my stomach turn.
But I at least know that I am making a sincere effort not to be prejudiced. I may be, in some ways that I don’t yet see. I know I may also have biases. I may not embrace all cultural differences as things I wish to participate in (I’m not buying any rap albums, but am happy that whoever loves rap is buying it). And I’m trying to keep watch over myself and my attitudes. It’s time for all of us white or Caucasian or Anglo–or whatever we want to call ourselves–people to pay close attention. Reviewing, revising and re-allocating funds now paid to police departments given to prejudice and violence, and using them for social services, is a good start, but is just one piece of this societal failure we inherited and perpetrated.
We may not need to drop all our biases, or even be capable of doing so, but we sure as shoot can commit to dropping our prejudice and finding it in all the awful hidey holes of our unconscious responses and attitudes. Time to clean the house of our minds.
Well said, Francine. Thank you for your honesty and doing what you can to make amends or give back.