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Posts Tagged ‘white privilege’

My cousin Tom DeWolf is going to be on CSPAN2 this weekend, at 1:00 on both Saturday and Sunday, reading from his book Inheriting the Trade. The reading was recorded earlier this week in Bristol, Rhode Island at Linden Place, which is the only mansion left standing that was built with DeWolf slave trade money. It’s now a historic site and museum.

One of my worries about Katrina’s film and Tom’s book, which both cover the deep involvement of our forebears in the slave trade, is that the DeWolfs will be perceived as a bunch of rich people, not like you and me. If that happens, the central points of the book and movie will be lost. For one thing, even though the DeWolfs were the ones who owned the ships and moved humans like cargo, everyone in Bristol benefited. Many small investors helped keep the ships going. Many people in town sold goods to be carried on the sea voyages. (One of Mark Antony DeWolf’s sons went on one voyage and refused to go again. But he was a farmer who then supplied the ships with onions.) So when I tell people about my family background, generally the first reaction is shocked silence, the second is reassurance (“Well, you shouldn’t feel guilty for what your ancestors did. You can’t be blamed”), and the third is a personal disclaimer (“My family was a bunch of nobodies.”). This disclaimer is a way of saying “And I’m not responsible either.”

In fact, white people in this country are all responsible for at the very least being aware of the systemic racism that pervades our culture. We receive enormous unearned privilege by virtue of being white. I never have to worry about being mistaken for the maid. I can always expect to see people of my race represented publicly, such as on TV or in politics. I do not expect my behavior to be viewed as representative of the behavior of my entire race (“oh yeah, that’s what white people do”). My husband can walk down the street and not have a woman coming the other direction shift her purse tightly under her arm and step to the outside of the sidewalk. (These ideas come from the writing of Peggy McIntosh, PhD. Here’s one of the many places you can read an excerpt of her paper “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”)

My hope is that people seeing Traces of the Trade and/or reading Inheriting the Trade will see themselves in it, not some remote Eastern elite family, and seeing themselves will become alert to the way white privilege is central to our culture’s systemic racism.

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