Thursday, April 23, 2015

Denial as Privilege

Leaked emails from the world of entertainment have opened up a can of worms that sheds some light on an issue that's a whole lot more important than the movie business. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few days, you've heard about how actor Ben Affleck participated in a PBS show in which celebrities, with the help of genealogy experts, explore their ancestry and family history.  Evidently, during the course of this exploration, one of the pieces of information which was unearthed was the fact that one of Affleck's ancestors was a wealthy slave owner. It's not exactly shocking for a white man in America to have ancestry that connects, on some level, to the institution of slavery. What's shocking - or at least newsworthy, anyhow - is that Affleck made a concerted effort to have this piece of his family history edited out of the program. Affleck has since admitted that he is embarrassed by this piece of family history, and that he did not want a television program which focused on his family to include it.

Stew on that for a second. He went on a television show (on PBS, no less) to trace his roots and discuss where and who he came from and, once he found out he was descended from a slave owner, asked that such an unsavory piece of of his family history be edited out when the show aired. 

Ben Affleck is a jerk. 

Not because he is a descendant of slave owners - lots of people are. He's a jerk because he, and a lot of other people, fail to see that the very act of editing one's family history in this way is nothing more than an incredible example of white privilege in action.

I've heard defenders of Affleck's actions state that he should not be held accountable for his ancestors' practices, that this could shed a bad light on him and his present-day family, that he has a right to privacy. 

I don't hold anyone alive today accountable for the behavior of their ancestors. I do, however, think the biggest thing keeping racial harmony from being a reality in this country is a failure on the part of white America to own up to the fact that it has benefitted from systemic racism of all kinds. The institution of slavery was almost certainly the biggest piece of the systemic racism pie that this country has known, and the sweetness of that slice of pie still lingers on the tongues of white Americans' today. They need to own up to this, or nothing will ever get better. 

With regards to this bit of news shedding a harsh light on his family, today? I highly doubt this will pose any real problem. Other celebrities have appeared on this very same program, found out about their slave-owning ancestors, and suffered no repercussions. 

As for Affleck's privacy? If he had no desire to delve into difficult and even painful areas in his family's past, perhaps going on a genealogy hunt on national television was not the wisest of choices. 

But, now...about that white privilege thing. Some people might think I'm being a little harsh when I use that term in this context. I'm not. You see, it must be awfully nice to know one can make a few calls, send a few emails, and - BAM - be done with one's family history. And Affleck almost pulled it off. You know who can't pull that off? Who can NEVER pull it off? A black American. 

Descendants of slaves don't have the luxury of being able to erase their family histories. That, Ben Affleck, is one of the many fringe benefits of being white in America. And yes, you came this close to pulling it off. If not for that pesky email leak, you'd be that bright, shiny, superhero-playing, politically-correct actor/director whose family line is filled with industrious hard workers, fun characters, and even civil rights activists, just the way you like it. Instead, I look at you and see White Privilege Ken Doll: Denial Edition. I don't have bad feelings about you because your ancestor owned slaves. I have bad feelings about you because you tried to cover up this truth. You tried to rewrite history. And this particular history isn't just yours: it belongs to the slaves your ancestors owned. 

Here's the thing: Ben Affleck's great great great grandfather owned slaves. My great great great grandfather, Manuel, WAS a slave. If every white person erased what his or her great great great grandfather did, they'd also be erasing what was done to my ancestor. And to every slave in America. And that just won't do. 


If Ben Affleck is worried that finding out their ancestor owned slaves will be upsetting to his children, he might want to consider how upsetting it is for the millions of people in this country who, if they trace their roots back just a few generations, find that their ancestors aren't listed as residents of a house, but as property of a household. And, no, none of this is Ben Affleck's fault but, as a wealthy, white, American man, Affleck has an enormous amount of power. Using this power to cover up a piece of history that is inconvenient for him is inexcusable. 



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