After a week of avoiding the Internet, I’m back.
If you are not in the United States, it’s hard to describe what this election means to me. The past four years have been bizarre at best and downright frightening at worst. At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, I thought people would realize quickly how xenophobic, racist, and classist his proposed policies were and impeachment was a given. In 2020, I’ve come to the sad realization that those policies are what half of my country truly wanted, because it benefits them. This election doesn’t automatically solve anything. 70 million voters still wanted Trump. We have a long way to go.
Why am I writing about this on a genealogy blog? Because researching my family has been a reckoning with being a white person in America. I grew up in the 1990s, when the lesson about being a white American was, “We fixed it in 1965! Everyone’s cool now!”. The first 25 years of my life was dominated by the belief that only bad people could be racist. I was a good person, from good people, who lived in Northern states. We could not be part of the problem. Genealogy humbled me.
History has always been my jam. I knew, intellectually, about the genocide of Native Americans and the horrors of the American slave trade. But I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel it until I found the will of one of my mom’s ancestors, a tobacco farmer in Virginia at the turn of the 18th century. Among the distributions of his personal property were his slaves. And when I dug deeper into the documents a distant relation had compiled for this man, I found an account of how he brutally punished two slaves who had a relationship because one of them was too close to white. The mother and child were sold. The father was viciously whipped.
I always knew slaveowners were the villains. But it’s starker to know that some of that villain is in you. It knocks you down a few pegs, if you have a conscience. I felt ashamed, not just at the connection to this person, but at my quiet assumption that my family would be exceptions to history. How could I expect doing-alright English colonists to be better than to own slaves? How could I expect Pennsylvania and Kentucky settlers to spare Native Americans? That’s how they could get ahead. That’s how you claimed wealth, land, and power. I’m far removed from my ancestors’ actions, but not their legacy. The choices of every generation deposit upon the last, like strata in the earth. My family’s history of racial violence is crushed and compacted under the surface of our current reality, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, helping to hold us up.
I had to excavate to find these early sins. I indulged the cold comfort of saying we didn’t know because our connections to these people were long forgotten. I didn’t understand how short the memories of white Americans can be until the 2016 election.
My father’s side of the family was always my model of American immigrant pride. My great-grandparents came from Italy and Greece in the first 20 years of the 20th century, fleeing war, poverty, and tiny villages in remote mountains. None of them had much when they arrived. They were tailors, dressmakers, and mill workers. They worked hard. My papou went to college through the G.I. bill and became an engineer. All four of his children have Ivy League degrees. Growing up, I was taught that I should be grateful to the country that let my great-grandparents reach for the lives we now had. I should be proud of my heritage, but even prouder to be American. I never thought that message could turn sour.
Whiteness in America is like being part of a club founded by the original British colonizers. Each subsequent wave of immigrants had to go through a hazing of “nativism” before they could join. And admittance had largely to do with a group arriving who was less Protestant Christian and/or browner than those before. My great-grandparents were not white. Their brand of Christianity was wrong. Their language was gibberish. Their food smelled funny. And their skin was too brown. My grandparents were born in the U.S., but grew up in cultural enclaves because that’s where they were safe and respected. In my grandparents’ lifetimes, they have seen their communities upgraded as immigration shifted to Latin America and Asia. Italians and Greeks looked white enough by comparison.
I assumed my grandparents’ experiences would make them sympathetic to the people desperately trying to come to America now. No one leaves their home when things are going great. No one boards an inflatable raft to sail open water if they’re safe where they are. No one crosses the southern desert on foot if they have other options. My great-grandparents were no different. Instead, I heard that we needed to be protected from “those people”. We were in the club now. Screw everybody else.
I don’t want to forget. I know how long we’ve spent taking and I know how quickly compassion can leave us. I don’t want a country where we’re comfortable with legacies of harm as long as we got ahead. In a few generations, I want a descendant to be able to look back and say they’re a good person, from good people, who knew they wouldn’t lose anything by embracing others.