Logged on to my credit union account this morning and was met with a banner announcing their branches would be closed on Juneteenth to “celebrate National Freedom.” Seriously? The first official Juneteenth holiday hasn’t even happened, and it’s already being rebranded to erase the reality of Black struggle against white supremacy. This is exactly why I was not in favor of making this a state or national holiday.
Juneteenth is an African American tradition. It celebrates the day enslaved people of African descent in Texas learned they had been set free two and a half years earlier. They had been lied to for two and a half years by every white person, organization, newspaper, and business in the state. For us who descend from those people, it is a reminder of the additional years of wage theft and loss of economic, educational, physical and psychological self-determination our ancestors endured. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s also a reminder our fate cannot be entrusted to white people. My credit union confirmed the continued verity of that belief.
The idea of white people celebrating Juneteenth offends me to my core. If anything, it should be a day when they contemplate the shame of their biological and social progenitors and learn how those dishonorable acts have reverberated in Black lives throughout the decades since.
In my book, The Truth About White People, I offer an exercise for white people to do just that. I reproduce it here in hopes at least some white people with conscience will take the time and perhaps share it with their friends and family who believe racism has nothing to do with their current place in the world, especially those who believe they are successful based on their merits alone.
Step 1: Create a social history map of your family. Instead of the traditional family tree that tracks lineage via births and deaths, this map will identify significant events that impacted or reflected your family’s change in social status. These events may include significant births, deaths, residential moves, employment opportunities (promotions/demotions), purchase of a house, educational advancement, economic losses, etc. The resulting change in status might be in a positive or negative direction (e.g.: prolonged unemployment, stock market crash).
To give you some ideas, I’ve created an abbreviated social history of my family up to my graduation from high school. There are many significant events that didn’t make my map because they didn’t change the family’s social status. For example, I briefly attended a parochial school in Berkeley, CA. While that had significant impact on me individually, it didn’t change my family’s social status in any way, so it’s not on the map.
As you will see, this is quite different from a family tree. It does take a lot of time to do, maybe several sittings, so relax into it. If you know there was a general status shift, but don’t know specifically what caused it, give it a generally identifying name. For example, if you know that your great- grandmother “came into money” but don’t know whether the source was from an inheritance, sale of property, or backyard moonshine still, just use something generic like “Granny came into money.”
Once you’re satisfied all of the major status shifts in your family have been identified, continue to the next step.
Step 2: Identify those events in your family social history map that required resources and identify those resources. Resources can be education, money or other economic assets, people, knowledge, political connections, etc.
I’ve done this with a segment of my family’s social history as a sample. The status changes that were dependent on resources are in the green boxes on the left. The resources they required are on the right.
After you’ve identified the resources, continue to Step 3.
Step 3: Review the resources you identified. Were they available to everybody, or were there people who were excluded by law, practice or custom? For example, if your great-grandmother started her own business, using funds borrowed from a bank or from other family members, was this possible for everyone? If not, who was excluded? If you don’t know, take time to research and find out.
I’ve done this with an abbreviated segment of my family’s social history as a sample.
So far you’ve (a) identified the key points of your family’s change in social status (b) recognized the resources it took to make those changes, and (c) determined who did or did not have access to those resources.
Now, at each step, imagine what would have happened to your family if they had not had access to those resources. Follow the cascade of events. For example, in my family’s scenario, if my parents didn’t have a relationship to the Ethiopian royal family, my father probably would have died in Ethiopia. We would have never moved to the United States. Like the rest of my mother’s family, we would have been displaced when the royal family was overthrown and probably have ended up in Greece.
If you are white, imagine what the impact would have been on your family if they had been of African, or Asian, Native American, or Latino descent. What if they hadn’t been able to get the bank loan to buy their first home? What if the community they actually moved into had restrictive covenants that didn’t allow anyone who wasn’t white… how would that have impacted the education of future generations? What if the jobs they had were not available to people of color, how would that impact the location of their home, their ability to pursue higher education, access to health care, and overall economic progress?
If you are a person of color, imagine the impact on your family if they had access to resources readily available to whites.
The gap between what was available to white families and was available to those who were in oppressed racial groups is the measure of racism and its outcome: privilege.
It’s obvious that my African American experience is vastly atypical. I confess to great class privilege before arriving in the U.S., and that has translated into much lifelong privilege and much responsibility. I have achieved many things in my life, but none of those would have been possible without the very privileged ladder that was built before my birth. However, much of that early class-based privilege evaporated the moment I set foot on U.S. soil. My African and African-American ancestry overrode my education and economic access. Over time, my light skin color opened doors to opportunities not afforded to people with more brown in their skin pigment. That door shut as soon as I revealed my ancestry, which I have learned to do early in every personal and professional setting.
The mythology of the self-made person is a lie. We make one another. There are people much smarter than I am and much more gifted who are invisible simply because we live in a society that doesn’t allow them to fully develop their gifts, that actively withholds resources from them. Recently I heard Rev. Jesse Jackson say this:
“We never knew how good baseball could be until everyone could play. We never knew how good basketball could be until everyone could play. We never knew how good football could be until everyone could play at every level.”
Millions of babies’ lives have been saved because of the breakthrough surgical techniques developed by African American Dr. Vivien Thomas. How many others could be contributing if only they had the opportunity? Is the cure to breast cancer secreted in the mind of a young African American boy or girl whose curiosity gets them sent to detention instead of college? Is the next breakthrough in environmental sustainability beating in the heart of a young Native American boy or girl who understands the movement of the stars in a way not considered before, but who has no one to mentor and guide them? How much do we lose as a society, and as a species, by putting all of our resources in the hands of one group of people?
If your racial identity has created opportunities for you that weren’t available to others, then you are a racist, a beneficiary of racism. You are the problem.
Now, this Juneteenth, what will you do about it? What will you do to bring this nation, this state, this society back in line with the aspirational vision statement of the preamble to the Constitution? What will you do create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity?”
While some will settle for pecuniary compensation, I will not. Juneteenth is not about individuals. It is about bringing healing to entire communities destroyed by white greed. Help us fix our schools. Train our healthcare professionals. Create workplaces where we can be ourselves and bring our highest skills. Stop interfering in our ability to be housed. Bring healthy drinking water to Flint (and the Navaho nation). Permanently guarantee our right to vote. STOP LETTING POLICE KILL US. Listen to Black organizers in your community and follow their lead.
Otherwise, stop pretending Juneteenth matters to you and give us back our tradition.
Licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND
Welcome! I am an essayist, poet, and facilitator, passionate about social justice and integrity, who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. These observations are based on a lifetime working in the private and non-profit sectors, in a variety of organizational development capacities.