Hey all – I figure it’s about time for my first post. I was writing a comment over at Hugo Schwyzer’s blog, and despite my best efforts it outgrew comment-hood and graduated into post-dom. So I thought I’d just post it over here, for your delectation and discussion.
In the discussion thread, Hugo said this (if you want the full context, you can go read the thread, which is interesting in its own right. And apologies to Hugo for picking on him, he just happened to offer up a softball-sized version of the same diversionary truisms I hear over and over from white people who don’t actually want to think about historical responsibility) :
We need to be honest about the mistakes of our ancestors. We also need to see those mistakes in a historical context, and avoid the tendency to mythologize and glamorize those who were the victims of colonization. Cruelty is a human universal, and sin — at least the capacity for sin — is found in every tribe and nation under the sun. Collectively, some have inflicted both more harm (and perhaps more good) than others.
And I respond:
On the one hand, yes, of course; and on the other hand, no. These are precisely the vacuous truisms that are so tempting to _replace_ substantive reflection on what our collective history means and what it says about us.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard something along the lines of “cruelty is a human universal” from white people as a blanket dismissal of the idea that Euro-American culture might have anything significant to learn from indigenous people. Same goes for the tired bit about “don’t mythologize the victims of colonization.” You don’t have to be a romanticizing, mythologizing, self-hating fool to be willing to simply look at another culture and say, “You know, I value many of the things my ancestors taught me. But I think these folks have some things figured out about how to live on this earth that my ancestors once knew, but lost somewhere along the way.” In my experience, the resistance to this idea is huge – and the cliches in your paragraph are a key piece of that resistance.
By choosing the word “mistakes” to describe the wholesale destruction of peoples, and by emphasizing “cruelty is a human universal”, what you do is close off the possibility of real analysis of the causes of genocide and colonization. You choose to pre-suppose that it was all an accident, a mistake, something that really anyone would have done if they’d been in a similar situation. You a priori eliminate the possibility that there are discernible historical factors in medieval Europe that led to the subsequent colonization of much of the world, and that looking closely at those factors might help us to see parts of our inherited culture that reflect colonizer values rather than values that will help us make this “living on earth” thing work out for everyone.
Many people talk about privilege and “working for a more equitable society” entirely in the present tense, without any reference to the critical role of accepting _real responsibility_ for the sins of our ancestors. Responsibility in this case means recognizing that we benefit from our ancestors’ sins (i.e. owning slaves, stealing land), and then making things right. This choice has very practical implications. Here in South Dakota, there are plenty of well-meaning white folks who will say, “Yes! Let’s work towards a more equitable society!” The unspoken implication is: become a part of my society, on my terms, and I’ll try to help you get your piece of the pie. There are far fewer white people who are willing to hear Lakota people say “We don’t want your society – we want you to give back the Black Hills that you stole, and then leave us alone.” Doing the latter requires an understanding that the theft of the Black Hills is not ancient history, it’s of critical present-day relevance. Same goes for slavery – it ain’t ancient history, folks. We don’t just need “a more equitable society” – we need to make actual, physical reparations! Until there’s been real recompense, the wounds of the past are still open and bleeding – they are, in fact, the continuing wounds of the present.
(One slightly different take is an article I saw years ago – which I can’t find online – on the “Moctezuma Plan” – the New World’s massive loan of precious metals and natural resources to finance the rebuilding of colonial Europe, which the author was suggesting it might be time for the US and Europe to repay to American indigenous people, to the tune of several hundred billion dollars or so). EDIT: Found the article. It’s actually entitled the Marshalltezuma Plan.
For more detailed thoughts on this whole subject (including a bunch of fascinating Bible verses), check out a talk that Karissa and I gave at her home church entitled Sins of the Fathers (yeah, I know that’s sexist. Of course, if we’re talking about colonization and slavery, mostly it is the fathers’ sins we’re referring to).