Saturday, August 29, 2020

White Privilege: Selective Memories

White privilege is being able to have selective memories about our history.

When I was in high school, I wasn’t taught about the Civil Rights Movement...or at least not much. But in college, a wonderful professor opened up a whole new world to me. He showed clips of Eyes on the Prize in our Social Work Policy class. Real footage...all black and white...of what happened in the 60s. I was shocked...dumbfounded, actually. I knew about Martin Luther King. I knew he had a dream and I knew (or thought I knew) that his dream was fulfilled.

After being introduced to the clips, I begged my professor to borrow his VHS tapes. I needed to know more of the story. He was hesitant. After much begging, however, he conceded.

I watched the entire series that summer and cried my way through. It had never occurred to me that people...White people...could be so evil. I was horrified...and then angry. Why had no one ever told me about what happened during this time period before?? It was a turning point for me.

This new knowledge caused me to start questioning the history I had learned...and led me to discover quite a few disturbing pieces of history that seemed extremely important, but that were left out of my history books. Because the authors of these texts didn’t feel the need to tell me *all* of my history, I wondered what else might have been left out. Here are a few things I’ve found:

  • Homestead Acts of 1862--Gave land grants to White Americans for colleges and farmers needing land. However, grants were not provided for enslaved people...and slaves were not freed until African-Americans were not able to establish the same wealth as White people.

  • Forty Acres and a Mule (1865)--Set up to compensate for the land not given to African-Americans during the Homestead Act. Forty thousand Black people (which wasn’t all of the freed slaves, but it was a start) were given 400,000 acres of land in Georgia and South Carolina...only to be taken back when it was found that confederate planters had previously owned it. President Andrew Johnson reversed Special Field Order No. 15, forced African-Americans off of the land, and returned it to the White men.

  • GI Bill of 1944--Gave out free college and low-interest mortgages...but this didn’t include African Americans, who were prevented from qualifying for home loans, which also prevented them from establishing wealth in the same way White families did. 

It’s not that I wasn’t told about my history. It was that I wasn’t told *all* of my history. The parts where BIPOC (Black, Indiginous and People of Color) were denied those same opportunities were conveniently left out of the explanation or downplayed significantly.

I grew up in what I would consider an upper-middle class family. I grew up on a huge farm. I’ve always admired and respected the way my dad has been smart about his investments. Not long ago, I was asking him about how it all started. I knew our ancestors...had established the area of the Ozarks where I grew up, but I wanted to understand how. That’s when he told me about the Homestead Act.

Our family was given land that they farmed and developed...and passed down through the generations. That opportunity allowed them to have the capital to purchase more land throughout the years and that land has created my inheritance. That same land opportunity, in Missouri or elsewhere, was denied to African-Americans.

Let that sink in. My current wealth, assets, and privileges are directly related to an 1862 Homestead Act that I had nothing to do with. But I benefit. My children will benefit from it and my children’s children will benefit from it. I have always taken that for granted. It never occurred to me that I had advantage...until I realized that in 1862 Black people were not allowed that distribution and now have to work 10 times as hard to make up for over 150 years of accumulation of wealth that they were denied.

I took my history at face value. I celebrated the fact that our country gave out land grants, created education systems, and provided free college and low home loans to veterans. It just never occurred to me that during those time periods when those new opportunities were taking effect, certain individuals...certain racial groups...were excluded from and intentionally denied those opportunities. It never occurred to me that the things that made (and make) America great only made (and make) America great for *some* people.

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