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Systems problems and racist ancestors

Why Does the Myth of the Confederate Lost Cause Persist? - The Atlantic:

But so many Americans simply don’t want to hear this, and if they do hear it, they refuse to accept it. After the 2015 massacre of Black churchgoers in Charleston led to renewed questions about the memory and iconography of the Confederacy, Greg Stewart, another member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told The New York Times, “You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters.”

This sort of cross-multigenerational family loyalty seems completely alien to me. I really don’t get it.

If I were to learn that an immediate family member—a parent, or a sibling—had done something terrible, I imagine I might feel betrayed by this person I trusted and thought I knew. I might also worry that, having grown up with this person in my life, some part of whatever horrible thing they had done might have rubbed off on or influenced me. Am I a terrible person because of what they did, or because I lived my whole life up to this point with them around me and either had no idea they had done this terrible thing or hadn’t realized that it was terrible?

These sorts of questions make sense to me in that context.

But if it’s a grandparent, or a great-grandparent, or some bunch of people to whom I am only distantly related, I just can’t see how familial loyalty holds. I have never met them, and they have no meaningful role in my life.

What I am fairly sure that what people like Greg are actually acknowledging (consciously or otherwise) when they raise this sort of objection is that, if they agree that their great-great-grandparents were monsters, then they will have to admit that they themselves are also monsters. They live within and benefit from the same sort of power structure as those ancestors, and they don’t want to think about it or question any of it. They are offended by the mere suggestion of questioning that structure and their place within it.

And to be clear, even if I don’t have an ancestor who fought to defend slavery in the Civil War, or if I do and I feel no loyalty to or need to defend that ancestor, I still live within those same power structures. For people like me—male, white, and having all the relative privilege our culture provides via those categories—I am not sure we are all that much different from Greg.

The way we think about our relationship to and place within existing power structures may be different, but unless we are actively trying to change those structures, that difference is not worth much.

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