Saturday, July 21, 2012

Owning Our Past

I just got back from a fabulous vacation in The Netherlands, where I visited my longtime friend, Judy Mensch.  Judy and I have been friends for 39 years!  We like to say that we met in a playpen when we were both two years old.  (We like to say it, but it isn't true.)  Anyway, making the trip even more fun was the fact that I got to take my daughter, Meredith, with me.

Zaanse Schans, Zaandam (The Windmill Park)

A highlight of the trip was our visit to the Corrie Ten Boom Museum in Haarlem, where Judy volunteers as a tour guide.  Some of you may know the story of the Ten Boom family from the book or movie, The Hiding Place.  The Ten Booms were a Christian family who felt compelled to live their faith by helping Jews to escape the Nazis during WW II.  Here's a link if you want to find out more about their story -- Virtual tour of Ten Boom Museum.

The hiding place, in Corrie's bedroom
The Ten Boom family worked with the Dutch resistance to house and feed hundreds of Jewish people, ultimately helping them escape to safety. They constructed a place for people to hide, should the Nazis find out what they were doing.  If you look closely you'll see three plaques inside this hiding place, presented to the Ten Boom Museum by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary about 30 years after the end of the war.  The plaques say the following in German, Dutch, and English:

"May this plaque be an expression of our shame and grief over the serious crime that our German people committed against Holland during World War II. May it also be a token of love and gratitude to the Dutch people who assisted the Jews while they were being persecuted, and who responded to the injustices of our German nation by showing goodness to God's Chosen People.  God bless Holland!"

Of all the things we saw on that tour, I found this to be the most poignant.  The humility with which this group of people admitted responsibility and asked forgiveness touched me, and because I study race in the U.S., I couldn't help but think about our own situation regarding past racism and its present legacy. Sadly, much of the discourse I and others who study race have heard from whites of various ages and backgrounds sounds more like this:

"I never enslaved anyone, so I'm not to blame."
"That all happened a long time ago, so why do we have to keep talking about it?"
"Talking about it just makes it worse.  We need to move on."
"My ancestors worked hard to get to where we are today, and no one is stopping others from doing the same."

And, most incredibly:

"Whites are victims of racism, too. I know someone who didn't get a job/scholarship/whatever because a black person got it instead."

Am I saying that all Europeans have adopted the stance expressed by the Evangelical Sisterhood on this plaque, or that all Dutch people actively resisted the Nazis the way the Ten Boom family did?  Of course not.  I was only in Europe for 10 days, and since I'm not a Holocaust scholar I would never presume to make judgments of that nature. And, of course, although research shows that the white discourses mentioned above are quite prevalent, there were and continue to be many white allies who work for racial justice in our country.  I hope that I am one of them.  My point is that I think we whites can learn something from the humility behind the words of this plaque.  How do we respond when we are confronted with the past and present injustices of our white dominated nation?  As I tell my students, it's not about guilt or blame, but it is about ownership and responsibility.  We don't live in a time vacuum.  Our present is directly linked to our past, and ignoring past and present injustice in our own country doesn't make any more sense than it would in Europe or anywhere else.

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