The Personal Struggle

As powerful as these social obstacles are, they are not the heart of the struggle to see. The most powerful obstacles to sight lie instead within ourselves. Indeed, it is fully possible to know the truth about American history, to see the enduring legacy of its violence, and to nonetheless find ourselves indifferent – even hostile – to the repair for which it calls. Many of us resist seeing the truth of American racism not simply for social but for personal reasons as well.

The first of these reasons is that American racial history threatens our personal identity. For many of us, especially if you happen to be White and male, to be an American is to lay claim to a heritage of freedom, equality, and opportunity. This heritage bestows a certain form of civic pride, an awareness that no matter how difficult our individual circumstance, we are part of something larger that is both strong and good. This inheritance and civic pride are an important source of identity for many Americans, a crucial part of who we understand ourselves to be. But if the account of cultural racism is true – that America is about not only liberty but bondage, not only justice but oppression, not only the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of men, women, and children through the swamps and forests of this land – then this identity takes on a different character. No longer may we see ourselves as the benedicted inheritors of a city on a hill. We must also see ourselves as inhabitants of a city that was built on the graves of broken children, and as beneficiaries of that breaking. We must see ourselves not simply as inheritors of history’s nobility but also as ones who are implicated in history’s nightmares. 

Another reason that we refuse to see the truth about race in America is because it complicates our personal histories. The history of American racism complicates our relationship with ourselves and with the people, places, and institutions that frame the story of our lives. Consider an example: Many of us have photographs of people from past generations in frames on our walls and shelves. Some of them are admired historical figures, others are simply grandparents and great-grandparents. When we look at those pictures, we see people who lived, loved, and labored, and through those efforts made our lives possible. We see people who gave us our ideals, our eyes, our names, and our dining room tables. We see them with gratitude. As we should. What we see is real. But what if the history of American racism requires us also to see something else? What if it requires us also to see these people – our people – as members of one of the longest standing racist social orders and beneficiaries of that order? As people who lived in the midst of some of the most terrible racial violence the world has ever seen? When we look at their faces in light of these things, what do we see?

Or another example: Many of us have places to which we like to escape for vacation – a campground, a mountain cabin, a cottage on the beach. These places – their smells, sounds, architectural details, their very landscapes – infuse us with longing. The beauty that they give to us is real. But what happens when we realize that the coastal vista that we cherish or the dunes on which our children play were once the homes of newly emancipated African Americans? When we realize that – despite promises made in the wake of emancipation – this land was stolen from them and given back to the families of those who formerly enslaved them? That it was later sold to White developers for enormous profits to those families? That African Americans were prohibited from buying homes in those areas? That it is no accident that the people walking around us on the shore all are White? That this place of our rest is the site of another’s loss?

One last example: Like many Americans, those of us who are White deeply love the institutions that have shaped our lives. Consider, for example, our colleges, universities, and seminaries. Many of us return to these institutions year after year. We walk the flowered paths, admire the stately buildings, and gather with friends under the ancient trees. We wear hats and sweaters bear witness to the fact that this place is a fundamental part of our history, one of the treasured institutions of our lives. And we should. The gifts that we received from these institutions are of incalculable value. But if our account of American racism is true, then we must also see that many of these places – especially if they are historically significant or culturally prominent – also have very painful racial histories. What if the bricks of the buildings we love were built by the hands of the tortured? What if the gates that open for us onto shaded groves close behind us in the faces of others? What if the place that built our minds was also a place in which others’ bodies were broken? What then?

Finally, we believe there is a third reason that many of us resist seeing the truth about American racism: it questions our personal aspirations. To be White in America is to be the recipient of a powerful cultural inheritance of liberty, equality, and opportunity. Embedded within this inheritance from that past is also a set of aspirations for the future. This inheritance asks us to receive these things and to make the most of them – to benefit from them in our own lives and to bestow them on the lives of our children. Indeed, many of us are taught to avail ourselves of liberty, equality, and opportunity, in the pursuit of happiness. We take these things and from them create lives of incredible education, wealth, experience, and security. Further, we do so with the consoling knowledge that our pursuit of happiness goes with the very grain of the American dream. But what if this is not true? What if the cultural inheritance we have received is not universal but selective and exclusive? What if for every Jacob who revels in the inheritance of his father, there are five Esaus who scrape empty pots? What if, out of no evident fault of our own, our pursuit of happiness entails the sorrow of others? What  happens to our aspirations? What happens to the lives we have imagined for ourselves?

It is difficult to overstate the trauma of these discoveries for White Americans. Embracing these truths requires a profound transformation of one’s identity, history, and aspirations. With this transformation comes an inescapable sense of disorientation and an enduring form of grief. It could not, and ought not, be otherwise. In the face of this, it is extraordinarily tempting for White Americans – in our anger and shame – either to distance ourselves from this history by denying its reality and our role in it or to simply craft lives of oblivion that allow us to entirely ignore these historical realities and the obligations that they entail. Indeed, non-White Americans are susceptible to a similar temptation. We have seen it in men and women around the country. And we have seen it in our own lives – indeed we see it daily.

But we also see these temptations for what they are: temptations to flee from reality. Temptations to blind ourselves to the truth about who we are as a people and a society, and what will finally be required of us if we are to heal. To succumb to this temptation is to undergo a kind of death – the death of ourselves and of our neighbors and the communities we share. To resist these temptations is to embrace freedom, freedom from blind complicity with evil and freedom to rejoice in the possibilities of a world made new. And so, we continue to struggle to answer the call to see. 

From “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair” by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson