Ildi Tillmann, at The Equiano Project, brings a fresh perspective on the question of historical erasure and asks what is lost when race becomes ‘a means to power’:
In his recent documentary, What Killed Michael Brown, the author and narrator, Shelby Steele, makes various observations about American history, of which two particularly caught my attention. “We are much more a human story than a racial story,” Steele says, then he goes on to argue that the original sin of America, if there can be such a thing when talking about a nation, is not slavery or white supremacy per se, rather, it is “using race as a means to power”.
Despite the depth in his observations, Steele’s message has, since the documentary premiered, gone largely unnoticed, or at least undiscussed in the mainstream media.
Steele’s argument about the primacy of the human aspect of our stories mirrors all that I have learned living and working in various geographical and racial contexts, such as Hungary, Israel, the United States and Haiti. It is also a welcome shift from what appears to have become a fundamental marker of anti-racist activism in North America: the notion that there is an unsurpassable boundary between the way ‘White people’ and ‘People of Color’ view and understand the world.
As claimed by many apparently diversity-minded-anti-racist activists, ‘whites’, as a unified group and by the nature of their being white, cannot possibly understand the lived experience of what oppression means. The claim goes further, saying that ‘white people’, or, Europeans, as a single, undifferentiated mass, are collectively complicit and mainly responsible for the conquest and subjugation of other human groups, particularly of ‘People of Color.’ A consequence of this situation is stated to be that ‘white history’, in its entirety and with all the conclusions that can be drawn from it, have already been taught and are widely known in the US, while ‘other histories’ have been conspicuously absent.
While there are elements of truth in some of these statements, I cannot help but wonder about the meaning of ‘white history’ and ‘other histories’, and about the claim that conclusions to be drawn from such histories have been largely agreed upon and are common knowledge. Coming from a Jewish family in Eastern Europe, a part of the world which has, along the course of its history, repeatedly been on the receiving end of conquest and political oppression by various power players of a variety of skin colors (Mongols, Ottoman Empire, Habsburg Empire before 1867, Soviet Union), I am somewhat confused to see how the story of my region and of millions of people who have immigrated to the US from that area over the past hundred years, and now form an integral part of the wider American community, seems to have been forgotten. Or, perhaps more importantly, some important conclusions to be drawn from that history are being dangerously ignored.
I always thought that it would be stating the obvious to want to talk about the fact that along the twentieth century, people in my part of the world lived lives in which persecution, political oppression, generalized fear and collective punishments, aimed at various and changing social groups, were routine realities. Over the past year, I started feeling that it is necessary to start talking about it, that perhaps these facts and their ramifications are not at all that obvious.
In Eastern Europe, politics structured around group identities, frequently accompanied by claims of justice for the disenfranchised or the victim, were the norm during my childhood, or that of my parents’ and my grandparents’. The categories of the accused and punished varied, shifting from Jews or communists in the earlier part of the era; then kulaks (peasants considered to be well-off), ‘enemies of communism’ or ‘paid hirelings of the rotting West’, in the latter years. Generalizations and group labels defined the contours of our political realities, and when applied, had dire individual consequences. A very real fear of state authority figures, such as the police or gun-wielding border guards, were a part of life we all had to calculate and successfully cope with.
Two salient examples: following the Second World War, individuals belonging to ethnic groups deemed collectively guilty of genocide were relocated en masse, forced to leave their homes, and deprived of citizenship in countries where they were born and had been living up until that point. During the Soviet era, people were deprived of all their property and deported, forced to leave their homes behind and relocate, based on alleged group affiliations or sympathies. As oppressive regimes came and went, people fled, risking their life for freedom, for a chance to find financial stability. Among them was my uncle, who left swimming across the Adriatic from a small village in former Yugoslavia towards Italy, in the middle of the night. He started off with two other young men, one of whom, his best friend, drowned on the way: People with white skin, but not ‘white’ in the political sense of the word in North America today.
Twenty years ago, I moved to the United States. I obtained an MA in Africana Studies, then went on to work on a documentary project in Haiti. What I have seen in Haiti not only mirrors many of the experiences lived by my own family, but also fully aligns with Shelby Steeles’s message: our story is primarily a human story.
Before my first trip to Haiti, I had been warned many times that I was going to a place not much short of the belly of the beast and that, particularly in my quality “as a white person”, I would likely be shocked to see the realities on the ground. While daily life in Haiti is undeniably very demanding both physically and emotionally for most people living there, my emotional reaction to what I saw was not bewilderment or the activation of the ‘savior instinct’ expected of me, rather, it was a vague feeling that, after almost two decades of living abroad, I was finally at home. Not in the geographical sense, clearly, but in the sense that I recognized the way individual people reacted to daily conditions in which they could only rely on their own ingenuity. I felt at home in the car repair place located in the neighbor’s dusty yard, and I felt at home in situations where things routinely simply did not work. Where service, as such, was not something people are entitled to, but it was something that one received if the person in charge of giving it was in the mood to give it to you. I felt at home in the small stores where the shelves were either empty or carried prepackaged and wilting products that had clearly seen better days. Despite all the apparent, but in the end, superficial differences, such as language and skin color, I instinctively knew how to work and live within that system more than I knew how to operate comfortably or efficiently within the highly regulated system of the United States when I first arrived here.
This is not to say that when I am in Haiti, I would be unaware of the regional context and of the very real meaning of my skin color in it, or of the position it assigns to me whether I like it or not. Of a certain amount of privilege, to put it in a fashionable way. It does, however, mean that the position I enjoy in that context has neither been a constant in my life, nor has it defined my lived experiences, my identity, the contours of understanding I have of individual Haitians, or of the context they live in.
Whenever I am in Haiti, I am one of the people who, at the end of their stay, can take a plane and leave. To not have to stay is a privilege in and of itself, regardless of skin color. In fact, most of my fellow travelers on the plane are dark skinned Haitians. The privilege of being able to choose where one goes is something that I am acutely aware of, perhaps exactly because growing up in Hungary we were so grounded in a reality from which one could not simply decide to leave. My past and my white history do not limit my understanding of Haiti, in fact, they add to it.
In order to move towards a society where diversity and inclusion truly thrive, where those words mean what they claim to mean, it might be worthwhile to consider what Shelby Steele said and to ask ourselves how to get to a place where race is no longer used as a means to power. My fear is that, as long as public discussion and our civil institutions elevate ideologies that promote the primacy of group identity, victimhood and blame, rather than prioritize stories that highlight our common human fate, we are going to have a difficult time finding that place.