This week Ben Affleck released a thoughtful statement on Facebook regretting his decision to omit a slave-owning ancestor from PBS series Finding Your Roots. Thousands of shares later, internet commenters are doing what many internet commenters on race-related topics do best - missing the point. Flailing wildly against any perceived shame, blame, or guilt, they might feel, this specific group of commenters typically yells down any conversation that makes them feel uncomfortable, all while not being part of any group that was ever truly inconvenienced by whatever racial issue is being discussed.
From my vantage point, hiding your slave-owning ancestor from a giant national, educational platform like "Finding Your Roots" is a missed opportunity. It feeds into the myth that anyone with a relative who landed on Ellis Island in their family tree, or whose last name starts with Mc or Mac or ends in ___ski, ___sky or __stein never benefited from slavery, and by extension white privilege.
In recent years racism has become a magical unicorn that only leaves the enchanted forest to stand by the expressway and be petted by a virgin if someone is screaming the ‘n word’ and wearing a sign that says “I hate black people” (**without rap music playing because then it’s ok. And rappers calling each other the ‘n word’ is actually how racism began, obviously). Similarly, slavery too is now treated as some obscure event that only benefited Scarlett O'Hara and the people on that Bravo show Southern Comfort.
Unfortunately, this is not true. Maybe if people were better educated about whose unpaid labor built Wall Street, which is decidedly in the North, there would be no embarrassing articles from Princeton students about how white privilege doesn't benefit them because their grandparents were white refugees who emigrated to America, slid into a racial hierarchy that benefited those with their complexion, (even if they were not number 1 on the totem pole) and thereafter worked hard to change their lives and give a better future to their children.
In 2015 we have an American born black President whose citizenship is routinely, sincerely questioned by people who watch FOX news in states I will never voluntarily spend a lot of time. So no matter when or from what country in Europe your ancestors came over here, being white helped them gain the benefits of full citizenship, like voting and stuff, before all of the descendants of the slaves who may’ve worked for Affleck’s ancestor. Erasing the historical roots of this stark reality is rewriting American history into a cuter, more comfortable narrative. Many of us don’t have that luxury.
I enjoy Ben Affleck and unlike lots of aspiring living room casting directors, aka haters, can’t wait to see him as Batman. His personal discomfort with this discovery is understandable, as was his reaction. But now that he’s reflected on why it may have been better handled, what’s with all the defensiveness of people posting comments? For once in this turbulent year of legalized police street executions, I’d like to see the psychological cushiness of people who can select to hide a slave owner grandpa placed below people who can’t select to hide the complexion they inherited from their slave grandpa. My phenotypic reality is that I was mistaken for a homeless person in Lululemon workout gear twice in one week, and literally just now someone followed me around this stupid hipster store that was selling mustache wax and icky mini mustache combs. Like right now, right before I sat down at this café to write. I almost bought a lot of jewelry to prove I could afford it but it was ugly and overpriced. I’m grateful I could walk away from these microaggressions with a story to tell, because lots of young black men and women perceived as somehow suspicious in other circumstances this year are now dead.
If everyone fought as violently against institutional racism, discriminatory policing and housing practices, and a better shopping and walking around experience for me as they do their right to not talk about things that make them feel icky, maybe we would live in the racial utopia that so many pretend we do. But until that day I hope people rip off the bandaid to listen and learn.