February 1, 2016

Being White During Black History Month

In a few days, the season of Lent begins. During this season many people either add or subtract regular practices from their lives as a reminder, a way to focus in on the penitent themes of the season. I've frequently added writing to my schedule, making a more regular practice of blogging or journaling on a particular theme.

Just a few days before Lent begins, today marks the start of Black History Month here in the States. Historian Howard Zinn wrote that it is most often the winners who get to write history. Therefore, without rigor the telling of history is unbalanced, biased. Black History Month has been this country's attempt, if merely in lip service too often, to undo our sins–to undo the unbalanced, biased history that has been told to generations of Americans.

When my daughter–who is now 14–was in 1st grade she went through a transformation (for starters, she had an amazing teacher). During the month of February she learned about the sins of this country against African Americans. She learned of the long and painful journey of people of color to find justice and equity in this country. (In 4th grade, many Californian students experience much of the same thing when learning about the history of their state, its relationship with Mexico, Chinese immigrants during the building of railroads and Native Americans of the region.) These brief moments in education are not enough in and of themselves. But for my child, she began to see a more fuller picture. Knowing this previously unheard history helped her begin to see the world in front of her differently.

I'm going to start one of my Lenten practices this year a bit early. I'm not going to try and tell the story of someone else. I'm going to try and unpack my own. I'm not going to try and explain what it is like to be something other than what I am. I am going to write about being white. I'm going to write about being white in this country. From my perspective. This month and this season seem an appropriate time to do so. An appropriate time for transformation.

"Why this month, Jason? You're not black!"

White as Wonder bread. Let me tell you why: while visiting San Diego over the holidays I started going through some old family documents. My grandparents, all passed away now, had worked hard to collect our family's history and piece together our collective narrative. While flipping through pages, I found this:
My ancestors fought in the Civil War. They were southern Confederates. They owned slaves. They fought and shed blood to defend slavery. They benefited from it. My connection to the degradation of black bodies was no longer abstract. The connection was concrete. There, on those pages, was documentation of my white supremacist heritage. It was an ugly feeling to flip through these pages.

I'm writing because I now know that my story is intertwined with the history of black people in this country. In a deeply unsettling way. I wish I could know the names of those my family enslaved. Unfortunately, as histories go, the stories of those my ancestors enslaved were not as valuable. They are unnamed. My ancestors may have lost a war but those they enslaved were the true losers.

"Why this season, Jason? You didn't do this to black people?"

Andrew and Margaret Crouse
True. My ancestors did. But the last couple of years have made clear that white America does not know what to do with our collective guilt and complicity with the degradation of black bodies, whether in our history or at the hands of police officers today. I want to enter into that conversation as a white man wrestling with this. Lent is about repentance. We white folk need to get a handle on talking about whiteness, privilege, the sins of our ancestors, how to repent and how to forgive ourselves.

I'm convinced that our (speaking of white people in the U.S.) unwillingness–or inability–to grapple with the complete picture of our history makes it incredibly difficult to grapple with what is going on today.

I invite your comments and conversation. But remember this, as I said above, I'm not going to try and tell the story of someone else. I'm not going to try and explain what it is like to be something other than what I am. This subject is easily emotional for us all. If you choose to weigh in, I ask you to be generous and humble. Speak of your own experience. Do not project your experience on others.

Most of the other posts will be shorter than this one. I felt like I needed to do some explaining before we begin. See you soon.

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