Monday, November 16, 2015

Question 4: "Why Do I Get Blamed For Things My Grandparents Did?"

Here's another really simple thing that every one of us completely whiffs on every time it comes up.

There is a difference between being "to blame" for something and being "responsible" for it. It's easy to see the difference in some situations (i.e., you're not to blame for the snow, but you are responsible for shoveling your driveway), but not in others. For instance, if you tell one of my fellow white people that we're responsible for helping fix social justice issues, they'll say, "But I've never discriminated against anyone!" And they'll mean it.

This is confusing because, as kids, we were taught that you clean up your own messes, and it's easy to accidentally expand that to: "You only clean up your own messes." It then becomes natural to say things such as "Why are you talking to me about racism when I've never owned slaves?" or "Why are you yammering endlessly about sexism when every day at school I get laughed at, while cheerleaders are worshiped as idols?"

Now, we circle back to the idea I introduced at the start -- you, hypothetical white male reader, didn't own slaves or systematically shut black people out of the economy for 150 years after. But, you are part of a greater whole, and, thus, you reaped some of the benefits. In theory, we should all have learned this in history class -- not just that slavery happened, but that we were all born at a certain level because we were boosted there by a complicated set of systems developed to reserve the best jobs, schools, neighborhoods, and social systems for people who look like us.

If they try to teach this in the classroom, critics will scream that they're making white kids "feel guilty for being white." But, there's that confusion again -- telling those kids they're guilty (that is, "to blame") for being white would be wrong. Telling those kids that, as white people, they are responsible for fixing inequality is just a statement of fact. The entire concept of civilization is that things are supposed to always be getting better -- each link in the chain is hopefully a little smarter, richer, and healthier than the one before. That's why the average American today dies at about 79, but the average ancient Roman died in their late 40s (even excluding those who died in childhood). But, improving means fixing things that are broken. That is, things that other people broke.

A helpful way to look at it is to view all of human history as a Dude, Where's My Car? situation. You wake up one day and find that you did all sorts of shit -- good and bad -- that you have no memory of. And it doesn't matter because it was still you. And I'm saying, it was literally you -- if put in the same situation, you would have done the same thing your forefathers did. The only reason you've escaped guilt, and the only reason you're able to watch old Bugs Bunny cartoons and cringe at how racist they were, is because you were born in an era after other people had already done a lot of the hard work rooting out that shit. You know what your great-grandparents didn't.

 You have to keep doing that work because there are still all sorts of imbalances that need correcting. Right now, there's some toddler with a brain capable of curing cancer, and we're never going to know because he was born in inner-city Detroit, and he's going to go to a bullshit school and grow up with no positive role models. And the moment he commits a misdemeanor as a teenager, society is going to declare him a lost cause and flush him away. The process intended to discover his talent, cultivate it, and get him into a lab curing your cancer is still in shambles. Please note that it's just as tragic if, instead of curing cancer, his best-case scenario is to grow up to be a good friend and father while doing oil changes at Jiffy Lube.

Helping to rectify that situation is one of the many, many things you're tasked with due to having been born in a fairly high place in the world. It's not "fair," but that's a meaningless word when referencing things you have no control over. You didn't ask to be born half-way up a mountain, but you were, and I need you to look down and realize that mountain is really a pile of bones.

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