A decade or more ago, my brother Ray wrote a short essay providing his personal reflections on race and our family’s history. It’s an essay he has shared before, but in light of the conversation around the horrible act of terrorism in Charleston, and discussions about the Confederate Flag, he decided to repost for friends & family on Facebook. I asked if I could post here for a couple of reasons. He agreed.
Last week was challenging for me. I heard about the shooting last Wednesday night about the time I expect to post this. Early the next morning I shared this photo from a trip to Charleston, a city I love, with a few words. But it was all a struggle…. I struggled hard to comprehend and every time more news came out, it hurt more deeply.
I have written about racism before and I plan to write about it again. One of the biggest fears I have is that we will look at this and make superficial decisions rather than to look more deeply at the cause of this sort of thing, the impacts we can have as individuals, our responsibility to make things right regardless of history and more. I may share more of my thoughts later but for now, I think the words my brother wrote years ago and reshared provide insight on how we have seen our own history, how we thought about the world and how sometimes we may be missing pieces that truly shape the reality we live in.
This essay presents the kind of introspection I think more of us need to have and, quite frankly, I think more need to share it. It’s not comfortable to talk about but it is important. We need more people to be willing to be uncomfortable so we can work through things that need real discussion and action.
Personal Reflections on My Family History and Racism
Although since college I have understood something about white privilege in our society, my family’s story helped distance me some from this reality. I understood that white privilege was real, but at times I could excuse my family because we were mostly “working class.” That is, it appeared that my family profited less from white privilege than wealthier white families. Then, my family story was something like the following:
None of my parents, grandparents, or great grandparents had a college education and none of them had much money. My family had to work hard for what they had, usually involving manual labor such as farming or carpentry.
This story is in fact true. For example, my parents’ generation contains a few male relatives going to college, but they only went to college to become preachers. The rest of the family generally were “working class.”
In March 2000 I started doing some genealogical research on the Internet and quickly learned much about my ancestors. I now know that this “working class” story is only partially true. I have great-great grandfathers who were obviously relatively well off. George Lesly Priddy owned his own store in Henderson, TN. James Sweeney McIntosh attended Cincinnati Medical and Surgical College and was a prominent physician in Tipton County, TN. I also have ancestors in colonial times who owned large plantations, amassed their wealth at the expense of African slaves and indentured servants, and participated in the slaughter of Native Americans. For example, Reuben Holmes of North Carolina owned 32 slaves at his death according to his will and William Tucker participated in a massacre of Native Americans by poisoning them when he was supposedly visiting them for a peace treaty.
This shows how in many ways my story has changed. Now I know with certainly that many of my ancestors profited from the racist ideologies of the past and that as their descendent I continue to profit, often unawares, from their misdeeds. Now white privilege is something that I see more clearly, even though my brothers and sisters of color still know more about the consequences of white privilege in their lives than I can ever understand.
I, therefore, confess the sins of my fathers and mothers and how these very sins continue to live on in the sin-ridden systems of today in the forms of racism, sexism, and classism.
It is totally a common experience for white people to have this privilege without realizing it. Now is the time for people to be introspective, to really challenge our world view, what we think we know and, perhaps most importantly, what we want the world to look like. I feel certain we can do a lot better, my hope AND my actions will be directed at that goal.