by Shane Thomas

 

In case you missed it, Ben Affleck was in the news recently. No, not because of the Batman vs. Superman trailer[1]. It was revealed that while being featured on the PBS programme Finding Your Roots (a show similar to the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?), Affleck requested the show omit mention that one of his ancestors (Benjamin Cole) owned slaves. The programme’s presenter and executive producer, Henry Louis Gates Jr, acquiesced to this request.

The subsequent public disclosure has led to something of a PR embarrassment for Affleck, leading him to address the issue on his Facebook page.

Truth be told, I found it odd that some have used Affleck’s ancestors as a figurative stick to beat him with. Likewise, it seems curious that he would be surprised by his bloodline. Any honest look at history indicates that if you’re white, go back far enough and you’ll find some pretty egregious behaviour.

Personally, Affleck hasn’t gone down in my estimation for being the distant relative of a slaveholder. The same goes for Benedict Cumberbatch or David Cameron[2]. But when one actively tries to obfuscate their past, such actions should be called into question.

Why would Affleck take such steps to prevent the conduct of Cole becoming public knowledge? It’s not as if he will lose the privileges of being a wealthy, white, cisgender, able-bodied male, and he’s hardly going to lose his role as Batman[3].

Sometimes the choices made by an individual are symptoms of wider societal structures, and the attempt of any white person to conceal a horrific past ties into how white people mediate with race.

While our focus should always be on people of colour, how white people deal with race also matters. For clarity’s sake, this isn’t to centre whiteness, or to put PoC in a position where we’re obligated to be their teachers. But if white supremacy is to be expunged, white people need to accept that they have a collective responsibility to heal the hurt caused by those who came before them.

The last thing any white person should be doing is removing themselves from scrutiny. While saying, “I didn’t own any slaves! Don’t blame me!” misses the point, it’s a reaction as telling as is it commonplace. Because far too many are willing to unpack oppressive structures, until it comes time to analyse oneself[4].

Racial equity will only get so far if whites refuse to acknowledge the foundations that led to white supremacy. Understanding that if the history of the world was a sporting contest, you may have “won”, but you only won by cheating.

An accusatory rejoinder to this assertion is that PoC are simply trying to make white people feel guilty, and pontificating about the past only prevents progress in the present. Not only is such a mindset ahistorical, it avoids the crux of the problem.

The problem isn’t white guilt. It’s white absolution.

That’s the endgame — whether it’s Ben Affleck trying to obscure his family’s past, whites opining that being accused of racism is worse than actual racism, or stating that a black American President proves that racism is no longer an issue.

It’s been particularly piquant during the uprising in Baltimore. When whites misuse the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, impugn us as “thugs”, criticise our music, slang, hair, and even our names, its provenance is an inner compulsion for them to hear racism isn’t their fault.

High unemployment among PoC? Not my fault. The school to prison pipeline? Not my fault. Feminism that marginalises women of colour? Not my fault.

If whites are absolved from the consequences of racial inequity, then they are also absolved from having to do anything about it, leaving PoC on their own to clean up the mess.

Now I’m not naive. You only need to look at last night’s election results to know that if this piece ends up with below the line comments, it will likely be filled with desperate attempts from people to prove that they’re not racist. That they’re free of blame. That they’re decent people who live good lives, how they feel hurt by such aspersions, and maybe even how I’m “the real racist”.

All this does is turn the spotlight away from themselves. Focusing on avoidance and distraction, rather than introspection, and not thinking about the unintentional ways one may have reinforced racism on a structural level. Handling race in a childish way, as if it’s a game of hide and seek.

But that hiding has an expiration date — whether it’s laughing at the racist joke told by a co-worker in the office, when one has no compunction about mispronouncing their friend’s name because it’s Bangladeshi, or wearing a bindi at that summer music festival.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. Bill Paxton is an actor who showed that one can confront the actions of his ancestors with a degree of maturity, while this from @ibex67 is required reading for whites on reconciling with the raw truth about how racist thoughts can be a part of everyday life.

What happened in the past may not have been your individual fault. But what happens now collectively is.

In his song Maangamizi Akala raps: “When the truth is told; and there is the dignity to remember the dead; Because as long as they are distorting the past; it means they have the intention of doing it again.”

 

 

[1] – Although I welcome your thoughts on that in the comments.

[2] – I have plenty of other issues with him, though.

[3] – I mean, when open Zionism doesn’t get one removed from the cast of Batman vs. Superman, I think Affleck’s safe.

[4] – The same applies to any privileged group.

 

 

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TWOWEEKSNOTICE “Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing Pop culture to sport, and back again”

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

 

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10 thoughts on “Racism? Apparently, it’s not their fault

  1. “The problem isn’t white guilt. It’s white absolution.”
    Indeed

    In German “guilt” and “debt” are related words: “Schuld” and “Schulden”. While the former you can not inherit, guilt is limited to perpetrators and approving bystanders, debts you do inherit. Of course – you can reject your inheritance, but that means alongside the debts you don’t inherit the wealth. As long as and to the extent that the crimes of our ancestors (colonialism, slavery, and in my case also antisemitic genocide) translate into our privileges and prosperity, we are obliged to acknowledge those crimes and to repay by addressing the issue of inequality resulting from history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know that. That’s a very interesting way to look at it. It shows a maturity that’s often lacking from these discussions. We can’t institute anything transformative without it.

      Oddly enough, your comment reminded me of speaking with a friend of a friend a few years ago. He’s a German guy who lives in England, and we were discussing football. He was oddly complimentary about the England team, even compared to the German side, which seemed absurd as Germany have had superior players for years.

      It wasn’t the first time he’d said something positive about England.to me, which to be honest, I found quite odd. It was only later than the penny dropped, Given his upbringing, he’s be part of a nation who’s not only had such a horrid past, but are pretty honest about confronting (some of) it. When you think about what it must be like for German children, learning about the past of their nation, it’s not surprising some have a pretty kind disposition towards this country.

      I was in Berlin last summer, and went on one of those walking tours around the city, which was enlightening for someone like myself who knew little of the history. I’m not for a second saying Germany are flawless (Ella Achola speaks well about the issues of being black and German – https://mediadiversified.org/2014/08/15/no-i-meant-where-are-you-really-from-on-being-black-and-german/), but they do seem to have taken some necessary steps re WWII that benefit the country as a whole.

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      1. The problem is, Germany pretty much just acknowledges the Holocaust and sweeps other atrocities under the carpet. During their colonial rule in Namibia (not taught in German schools) Germany committed a genocide against the Nama and the Herero. They have yet to acknowledge it as a genocide. It’s painful as a black person to see your country recognise certain genocides but ignore others. German people generally do not know this even happened. That’s why Germany does not do as well in tackling racism as it should.

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        1. Totally agree. I hope my earlier comment didn’t sound like I said Germany were a flawless template to follow. You may already have read Ella’s piece on this – (https://mediadiversified.org/2014/08/15/no-i-meant-where-are-you-really-from-on-being-black-and-german/) but if not, she breaks it down well, as she (like yourself, I assume) has the lived experience of being black and German, which I don’t have.

          Can’t remember where I saw it, but I once read somewhere (think it was on Tumblr) that part of why it’s easier for the world – including Germany – to accept and confront the Holocaust is because it happened to a group of people who – in today’s society – are a lot closer to whiteness than black people. Of course, Jewish people weren’t the only targets of the Third Reich, but were the most prominent ones.

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          1. Yeah admittedly, I get a bit defensive about these things, and it’s good that you understand my point. That point about the Holocaust is probably true, it’s certainly very controversial to utter it. But it can be seen immediately in the fact that the Roma and the Sinti, for example, are often forgotten in discourse around the Holocaust. In this often terrible world, some people find it easier to sympathise with those that look like them. But thankfully, there are exceptions!

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            1. I think it’s perceived as controversial as it’s all too common for people to look at axes of oppression as a zero-sum game – what happened to my group matters more than what happened to yours. While Jewish people are closer to whiteness, that doesn’t diminish what they went through. Any fair minded and informed person would acknowledge Jewish people’s place in our racialised world while also recognising the horrors of the Holocaust, and wanting to rid the world of anti-semitism that exists today.

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        2. Absolutely – yes. German colonialism was particularly vicious and genocidal. And it is nearly completely forgotten/supressed. There was a spell of remembrance sometime in the 80s, but that didn’t lead to anything and soon faded away again. There are some more recent reminders, but they don’t find much attention. And I do agree that this is one of the reasons for the persistence of racism in German discourse and practice (including black-facing on prime time TV)

          So to clarify – my point about the German notion of “Schuld” and “Schulden” was a purely linguistic one to establish a semantic link between guilt and debt, and not to imply that Germans are somehow better at dealing with the implications of that link…

          (and if you translate my notion of ancestral guilt as inheritable debt back into German you get “Erbschuld” – a notion that most Germans would vehemently reject, even with reference to the Holocaust)

          Liked by 1 person

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