October 8 , 2019
It’s Personal: Changing How White People Think About Racism
By Marcia Ely
Welcoming audiences to our evening programs is one of my tasks at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS). In my words of greeting, I often try to dispel the associations many have of historical societies as dusty places of White perspectives, telling one-sided histories. “Brooklyn Historical Society is not like that,” I say, with urgency. I really want people to get that. I know that distrusting institutions of historical authority is entirely reasonable. Especially in matters of race.
I’ve watched the movement to take history textbooks to task for their alarming kid gloves treatment of slavery. I shook my head following last year’s story about Texas finally updating its public school curriculum to teach the truth that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. And I celebrate the signs of change, including Bryan Stevenson’s new National Memorial for Truth and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to truth-telling about the history of racial lynching in the US, and the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. They’re examples of moving the ball forward.
Correcting the record is a first step. This is the work of historians, academics, and scholars. It’s the work of those trained to dig and analyze, to look at primary documents and piece together untold stories by reading between the lines and searching with a fine-toothed comb, because the record we have is left by those whose narratives reflect self-interest and a one-sided past.
But discussions and talks that are an institution’s public programs also play an important role. They bring people together in conversation and give voice to marginalized perspectives.
By amplifying the conversation about our centuries of racial discrimination, they help to hold a mirror up to society and show with honesty, without mincing words, who we are.
When I learned of the movement to acknowledge the year 2019 as the anniversary of 400 years since the first Africans were sold into bondage in Jamestown, Virginia, I saw a chance to focus programs at BHS on our nation’s history of racism. Along with other institutions, like The New York Times’s and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ brilliant 1619 Project, and The New School’s 400 Years of Inequality, I wanted to shine a spotlight on the issues that keep our country in a state of racialized injustice. I wanted programs that laid bare how White people can trust institutions, and Black people cannot. Banks. Police. Our health system. Schools. I wanted to probe these unequal systems, in the hope that audience members have “ah-ha” moments that might shift, in tiny but explosive ways, their day-to-day awareness.
The result is an ambitious series, titled 400 Years of Inequality: Slavery, Race, and Our Unresolved History. It takes place this month and features many extraordinary speakers.
Author and theologian Michael Eric Dyson will discuss White supremacy and racism today.
Former New York City Commissioner of Health Dr. Mary Travis Bassett and Harriet Washington, author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, will talk about race-based disparities in health care.
Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, will look at redlining and its repercussions.
Scholar and author Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who wrote The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America, will focus on our unjust criminal justice system.
Historian Edward Baptist will review the slave economy and the North’s involvement in it.
Other upcoming programs will look at coming to terms with the heritage of having slave-trading ancestors, and offer a Sunday morning family-friendly performance about Brooklyn’s abolitionist legacy by the Irondale Ensemble Project.
BHS public program audiences are often multiracial. Part of what happens in them is the all-too-rare act of racially mixed audiences learning and sharing together. Will these programs feel uncomfortable to White people? Maybe. Will they make them confused? Perhaps. Will they shift White hearts or minds to face the role we play in perpetuating society’s imbalances? I hope the answer is “yes.” Because prompting true, deep, societal change requires White people to claim a difficult history, and moving to transformation is a process that happens one person at a time.
In her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo lays bare how little it takes to upset White people racially. White people, she explains, were not raised to see themselves in racial terms. My time at BHS has changed my own way of thinking about race, racism, privilege, and skin color. As a non-historian and a generalist, I have found myself on a personal journey of eye-opening. Recognizing the differences between White America and Black America is a continuing personal process. My hope is that my work at BHS helps to bring sight to others living in comfortable colorblindness, to get other White people to see their color.
When I make introductory remarks at our public programs, I also explain that BHS does not shy away from hard conversations. I sometimes tease the audience. “We like to make people squirm,” I say. I believe that squirming White people is just what our country needs. Only then will we connect knowledge to change, and change to realizing a truly just and equal future.