Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ben Affleck and the Shame of Slavery

I've always liked Ben Affleck, and even though I'm not convinced he'll make a great Batman, I'm willing to reserve judgement and give him a chance. Today Ben made it into the news for a different reason. He's admitted to lobbying the producers of the PBS show "Finding Your Roots" to leave out an embarrassing detail of his heritage - one of his ancestors was a slave owner.

My first thought about this was, "Huh?" Why would a person living in 2015 feel embarrassed about something a distant relative did over a hundred years ago? I know, Ben is a megastar and has an image to protect, but still, he certainly had no control over events that took place long before he was born. However, if we look at this from a theoretical perspective, Ben's response makes a lot of sense. For the last several decades scholars have proposed that people go through stages in their racial identity development. I'm not saying that I buy into the idea that all people go through predictable life stages in any area, but I do think some of the stuff in these theories can helpful in figuring out why people believe and behave as they do.

So, one theory about the way white people like Ben and me develop racial identity says that once we become aware of the reality of racism we may try to deny its existence because we feel shame or guilt. Sometimes we do this by denying our whiteness - for example, when I was young I remember thinking, "I'm not really white, I'm Italian." Seems ridiculous now, but I do remember thinking that way. I've heard others deny their whiteness in other ways - "I'm white, but my babysitter was black." "I'm white, but I went to school with all black kids."

Ben Affleck acted on his shame in a different way. He tried to keep the secret of his slave-owning heritage, even though he must have known that no one would hold him personally responsible for the racism of an ancestor. I guess shame makes people do strange things.

The good news for Ben and for me is that we don't have to get stuck in a place where shame rules our feelings about race. We can own our whiteness by admitting our privilege and working to speak and write and act in anti-racist ways. Ben Affleck is in a prime position to do this - his celebrity gives him voice and power. The question is, what will Ben do from here? Instead of trying to cover up his racist heritage because of embarrassment and shame, will Ben find ways to counter the effects of racism in the present day?

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