Wednesday, July 8, 2015

On Having Ancestors That Have Done Bad Things

Some of you may have noticed that I've been sharing stronger opinions about political issues lately. The thing is, a few years back, after becoming more aware of social justice issues--particularly those regarding racial and immigration issues through personal relationships--I went back to check to double-check that there were no slaveowners in my family.

Sure enough, no slaveowners back there--BUT, in addition to the first cousin 9 times removed my grandma touted (a Revolutionary war general), I also discovered that we had a guy on the wrong side of the Salem witch trials (oops!). Sure, he had a better reputation than some of the other witch accusers, but that doesn't mean he did right because we can understand his motives. As a writer of historical fiction, I feel empathy for all of my characters, even the villains--but that doesn't mean I can in good conscience endorse their bad behavior.

The thing is that yup, like all of us, I have ancestors who did good things purposely, and ancestors that did bad things purposely, and ancestors that did terrible things out of the right motives. I'm proud of my heritage, yes, but that doesn't mean I have to claim those bad parts of the history as good. And I find the attitude that says we need to do just that--especially about questions of race and immigration--is causing a lot of real pain to large groups of people. And I've noticed that some of the more powerful voices are telling those in pain to sit down and shut up about their pain rather than giving their legitimate needs and emotions a legitimate space in the dialogue. So I've realized it's time that I stand up and say, in a respectful manner, that kind of thing's not okay.

It's not just others that have done this, and are doing it--I've realized I've been complicit in this attitude too, many times, in lots of little ways. So I'm working on it myself as well. I'm working to acknowledge the bad parts of my ancestors' behavior, fight the ways I find myself having inherited their attitudes (including, yes, racism--I feel white supremacy inside myself despite that lack of slaveowners in my past), and speak up about the injustices I see having stemmed from their behavior.

Some examples of the issues I see: that whole business of the slaughtering of the people who were here first on this land, from which I benefit. The idea that any vestiges of slavery might be somehow worth hanging onto, including hanging a flag out in public that the KKK has regrettably used for lynchings. Also the exploitation of workers to make me cheap goods. Oh, and the idea that I might viscerally feel unsafe in a neighborhood with people who look different from me, or go along with the popular idea that white crime is somehow a youthful indiscretion whereas others are the "real criminals," whether because of their skin color or because they're not from here.

I'm trying not to be self-righteous about any of this as I do it--or to justify the bad behavior that anyone does, including in heritages and groups that are different from my own--but I can no longer feel comfortable with myself if I ignore the presence of ugliness in my own group, or create a space that makes others in my own in-groups feel comfortable with hyperboles about the bad stuff in others to make themselves feel better about themselves.

If I don't do these things, I feel I too become complicit in not learning from the lessons of my heritage. That creates a moral problem for me. So yeah, I'm working on it, and that's just going to come out in my use of my online presence as well as the other things I say offline. This may cause some of my audience discomfort, but to be honest, I don't think that's such a bad thing--a lot of comfortable things are terribly bad for us.

Please know that if I post a response to something you say with which I disagree, or even saying I think one of your beliefs or attitudes is wrong, I'm not trying to attack your self-concept in any way. I think we're all valuable people that could be even more wonderful if we didn't avoid the unpleasant parts of life to make ourselves feel better, but instead put our effort toward working on the issues and listening better to each other even when it's hard. This is just me, a recovering conflict avoider who's studied and taught quite a bit about communication and conflict and rhetoric, saying that I don't accept the concept of injustices being swept under the rug, and I won't be a part of it.

tl;dr: All of our ancestors have done bad things; mine too. We don't have to sweep that under the rug to be proud of them--and if we don't acknowledge and fight the problems they created, we're complicit in continuing hurts they've caused. I'm working on this personally, and it will likely come out in stuff I say online and in conversations with you these days. Bear with me, and as you can, please join me in the hard work of honestly facing these thorny issues and trying to move toward collaborative solutions for them.