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How Should White Americans Deal With Their Ancestors?


Certain phenomena  transcend all cultures and exist independent of contact between them. One of those is admiration of ancestors. In every corner of the globe, people take comfort and inspiration from the generations that came before them. These ties, whether represented in worship or merely remembrance, are an essential part of the human experience.

Today white Americans are being asked, often by other white Americans, to break with this central human tradition and condemn their forefathers. This has come in the form of removing statues, changing history books, and teaching even very young children that their ancestors provided them privileges that are undeserved and wrong.

But what are the implications of teaching young white people their ancestors were awful? If every other racial group in America can draw strength and inspiration from those who came before them, how should young whites consider their own ancestors? Can a balance be achieved where they can respect them, while understanding our country’s history of racism and inequality?

Why Were Whites Dominant?

Everyone can likely agree that in the history of the United States, and beyond that the last thousand or so years, white people have held significant influence in politics, economics, and to a lesser extent culture. But where did this influence come from? In his book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” Jared Diamond does a good job of explaining how this was an accident of history and geography.

Eurasia had a few key advantages over other regions in the world. All but one of the animals larger than 100 pounds that are domesticatable are indigenous to Eurasia. This not only advanced farming, but created immunities to disease. In addition, Eurasia is greater in latitude than longitude. This meant crops could spread widely without weather changes killing the plants, unlike in Africa or the Americas. Put bluntly, geography was the original privilege.

So, understanding that there is nothing special about white people that made them the dominant force of the past millenia, but that they were at least partly the beneficiaries of circumstance, we must ask what our relationship to them should be. Can white kids today take pride in their ancestors, or should they serve penance for them?

The Pendulum Swings, But How Far

There seems to be an idea that history, as currently taught, is a celebration of whiteness. I think this unlikely, but surely was in fact the case for much of American history. The story of America was the white story of America, and probably too much so. But is it possible that in attempting to make the story of minorities more central to that of America we go too far?

This is a difficult question. Most of American history is the history of white people. Also, all of it is infused with questions of how those white people overtook a continent and declared it the font of democracy and freedom, even while subjugating some citizens in brutal ways. There is no responsible understanding of American history that does not take that into account.

But, at the same time, the American experiment not only inspired the world, but was the basis of attacks upon it, like those made by Martin Luther King Jr. who rightfully claimed its protections were not equally provided. Just as King drew upon the unkept promises of the white founding fathers for inspiration and upon closer inspection their failure, cannot white kids walk and chew that gum at the same time? Or must we tear down our white ancestors in penance?

The Problem With Penance

I come in part from the Woody Allen, “My great grandmother was too busy being raped by Cossacks to give gifts,” segment of white Americans, but I understand I still have unfair advantages. I also have Irish ancestors, who fought for the North in the Civil War, but likely thought themselves superior to black people. What do I do about that?

On the plus side; they risked their lives to end slavery, on the other side, they were terrible racists. Do I get credit for the former if I get responsibility for the latter? Is it a wash?

This is the problem with our current view of American white ancestors. They run the natural panoply of good and evil, just as I imagine every group of people’s ancestors did. It’s just that white ancestors’ actions mattered more. On the one hand, that led to a country that has broad prosperity and freedom that millions around the world want to immigrate to. On the other hand, it is arguably built on a foundation of racism.

Power Doesn’t Equal Evil

In criticizing the history of white people in America, we are basically criticizing their outsized power. Yes, it was unfair, but that unfairness was something our white ancestors benefited from, not something they innately deserved. In some cases, the Civil War seems like a big deal. They sacrificed themselves to redress the imbalance. Can white Americans take pride in that?

On the other side, more controversially, Southern Americans have ancestors who fought on the wrong side of that war. But those Americans had their own reasons. Most were not slave owners, but objected to a federal government compelling them to change their ways. We are all glad those ways were changed, but must the children of the white South spit on their fathers’ graves?

Surely, regardless of race, there are good and bad people running around at any point of history. Even people who are oppressed are capable of acting badly. But white Americans are struggling with whether they can still hold dear the memory of their families.

White Americans Should Not Feel Ashamed

I suggest that they still can, and should. The legacy of whiteness, whatever we take that to mean, will always contain slavery and Nazis and brutal imperialism, but it will also contain the Enlightenment and classical music and Impressionism. The interesting thing is that the positive legacy of whiteness belongs to everyone. There is no such thing as cultural appropriation regarding Bach or Gershwin, because the great white artists belong to everyone. That’s a legacy to celebrate.

White Americans should think about what their forbears wrought. Some of it is terrible; much more of it is wonderful. We can consider both in considering the legacy of our ancestors, who are flawed, as we are, but also forward-thinking and more open to accepting others than other country on earth has been.

Part of moving forward, part of making our country a better and more equal place, is understanding that, flaws and all, we as white people  took on this challenge. We haven’t perfected it, but we are willing to. Let’s keep working.