American Shame

I wrote recently about how essential it is for white Americans to engage with and understand African-American history. I made the point that until white Americans stop ignoring and trying to bury the sins of our ancestors, we will bear some responsibility for the persistence of racism against our black brothers and sisters in this country.

It is not an easy subject for white people in the United States to discuss. As I wrote the essay, I repeatedly reminded readers not to blame themselves, not to feel attacked or blamed for centuries of slavery and abuse. I felt that was essential; otherwise, many white readers – the ones I most wanted to reach – would get upset and disengage. I have that same concern now as I begin discussing white America’s relationship with shame.

Black people weren’t enslaving themselves for hundreds of years on our shores. Native Americans weren’t committing self-genocide either. Racial prejudices informed our ancestors’ inhumane treatment of these two peoples.

So please, bear with me. Once again, this is not a personal attack or accusation. This is a discussion of our country’s and our ancestors’ history. More to the point, it is a reckoning of what we as a country have done through the centuries and what we as a people need to do to repair our hearts and our minds.

Also, keep in mind that when I mention our “ancestors,” I am referring to both our biological and cultural ancestors. Even if your family didn’t become naturalized Americans until very recently, as an American citizen, you must wrestle with this country’s history as well. If we are to heal the country, every citizen’s understanding matters.

To put it succinctly, Americans – especially those who aren’t black or Native American – don’t do shame. When it comes to our country and its history, most Americans focus on our reputation as the “beacon of global democracy,” the welcomer of the “your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” We celebrate our victories, our accomplishments, our greatness. We rarely ever give penance for our misdeeds or sins, and we almost never talk about them with much honesty.

That I am writing about such things twice in a month might seriously piss off some white Americans. It won’t make me popular.

Yet it is indisputable that our white ancestors are responsible for their shameful acts. Black people weren’t enslaving themselves for hundreds of years on our shores. Native Americans weren’t committing self-genocide either. Racial prejudices informed our ancestors’ inhumane treatment of these two peoples. Our fear of any kind of retribution has informed our general disinclination to openly discuss that in public or private. We leave that to black and Native American historians more often than not, and act as if any public discussion of the atrocities committed is impolite or divisive.

Failure to acknowledge our national shame will ultimately corrupt all of us. A nation of people that reflexively defends the indefensible from its past becomes sociopathic.

Once again, I’m not saying this is true of every single white person in the United States, nor am I saying we instituted this reflexive turning away from history ourselves. We didn’t. Still, how many of us are comfortable having discussions about the millions of black people that were held as slaves in this country? How often do we bring up the tens of millions of Native Americans murdered across the American continent by European settlers, colonial armies and the United States government? How many actually knew that these numbers were so horrifyingly large? Until a few years ago, I had no idea.

When people see the word “millions” in reference to victims of war or colonization, most of us can’t help but think of Nazi Germany, concentration camps, and the horrors of the Holocaust. The German military murdered some 6 million European Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others and to this day there is one country that you can be certain has not forgotten it: Germany.

In Germany, the swastika emblazoned flag of Nazi Germany is largely outlawed. Furthermore, Germany “has laws banning Nazi symbols and what’s called Volksverhetzung – incitement of people, or hate speech. Like more than a dozen European countries, Germany also has a law criminalizing Holocaust denial.”

In contrast, here in the United States the flag of the Confederate states that fought to preserve an economy based on the pervasive use of slave labor can be seen in almost every corner of the country. Some 700 statues and monuments to Confederate soldiers and officers dot public spaces across our nation. A lot of white people get upset – and others physically violent – if anyone suggests that these symbols or monuments represent any kind of racist ideology. Just look at how horribly things went in Charlottesville, VA, in 2017 when that city considered removing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from public space downtown.

Once we are exposed to these things, to the reality of our history, we can behave more appropriately, more wisely.

As for Native Americans, we white Americans know them best – in most cases – through our fetishization of “cowboys and Indians” games in which as children we divide up and play act murdering each other. On movie and t.v. screens we have a long ignoble history of worshipping “heroic cowboys” who shoot and kill “savage Indians” to protect our precious white women and wagon trains of “innocent families” heading West in pursuit of a better life. That our ancestors killed millions of Native Americans is seldom part of that Hollywood narrative, nor part of the lessons we’ve taught our children. It’s certainly not mentioned during our national holiday, Thanksgiving, which offers up a single story of a peaceful coming together of white European colonists and the Wampanoag tribe. The images of Native Americans and Pilgrims are everywhere during the Thanksgiving season. The images of their devastation are almost nonexistent in the American History we are taught in our public and private schools.

Why? Because we don’t know how to process shame here in America. We avoid it. It’s the national mentality.

America is great. America is beautiful. How can it be those things and drenched in blood and hatred at the same time?

Generally, American politicians and American media refuse to temper their bowdlerized version of American history. As a result, we are all raised in a culture that denies its war crimes and genocides. Nor do we care to mention our ancestors’ long nasty record of using the notion of “race” as a reason for mass murder, forced segregation, prejudicial housing, unequal education and disadvantageous economic policies, etc. Instead, we worship our military as if they can do no wrong and never have. Instead, we ignore our blood-soaked history and name sports teams after “Indians” and “Redskins” without a moment’s embarrassment. Instead, we celebrate our American identity as unquestioningly as does our current, very blatantly racist, president.

Monuments and holidays that honor our country’s worst murderers and worst atrocities do not confront shame. They shun it.

Refusal to discuss or study the genocides in our country disaffirms the need to even engage shame.

Blind patriotism and jingoistic ideologies ignore the very possibility of shame.

Yet, these events in our history are shameful. How could they not be? Again, I’m not saying that you or I as individual citizens should be ashamed of things we’ve done reflexively for decades in our lives. How many of us have actually been taught accurate American history? What I am saying is that our leaders, political and social, should be assuring that we appreciate the true origins of our country and that we show respect for the victims of our ancestors’ brutal crimes. Once we are exposed to these things, to the reality of our history, we can behave more appropriately, more wisely.

In our individual lives, only sociopaths live without shame.

Now at this point, I know someone’s going to balk. “How do we tell Americans such a thing? Why use such language, ‘ancestors’ brutal crimes’?”

That is exactly what we have to tell them. How is killing millions or enslaving millions not brutal or criminal? If it happened in any other country, that’s exactly what we would all assert it to be.

In 1994, the Hutu ethnic majority murdered as many as 800,000 Rwandans, mostly of the Tutsi minority. Would we not call that a genocide? In the news, there is no question.

Between 1992 and 1995, Bosnian Serb military forces backed by the Yugoslav army murdered over 100,000, 80% of whom were Bosnian Muslims. Without question, the news media and our history books recount this as a genocide.

The reflexive objection and hesitation we as white Americans feel to characterizing our history as a series of genocides is unconscious. The reluctance to admitting wrongdoing of the people we identify as – our tribe, as it were – elicits an emotional resistance and sometimes anger.

We have to get past that. We have to acknowledge that facts bear out exactly what a violent and troubled history our country has. We simply must acknowledge that our ancestors’ beliefs and actions were profoundly unethical and destructive. This isn’t to say that everything our ancestors believed and did was wrong or awful. It is to say that to the extent that they never questioned animosity towards – or the dehumanizing of – people with different colored skin, they were indeed partially responsible for genocide.

This is not a thought we can easily hold in our heads. But doing so is essential if we are to reclaim our humanity.

Those throughout history who have justified wholesale slaughters of other human beings based on the color of their skin lost their humanity. Who among us would blithely say aloud that any genocide was justified? And racial genocide, because it is based almost entirely on flimsy differences in physical appearance, is even more horrific and inhumane. It literally has no rational explanation except ignorance.

As the descendants – biologically and/or culturally – of those people, we must acknowledge both their mistakes and evaluate how they have influenced our current beliefs. We can’t do that without embracing shame.

In our individual lives, only sociopaths live without shame. All of us have done things we regret, are embarrassed by and are deeply ashamed of. Shame is human. Everyone makes mistakes. When we make particularly unethical or cruel mistakes, that’s when shame helps us learn. It is the very personal pain of our errors made manifest. It makes us stop, look inward, question our motives and beliefs, and try to learn both why and how we can do better going forward.

Shame is also our internalization of other people’s points-of-view. It is how other see us, how we hope that they will see us. When we have behaved dishonorably or indecently, shame is the acknowledgment of that.

If personal shame goads us to be better people to our friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, etc., national shame should be the thing that compels us as a collective people to similarly learn from our mistakes and be better citizens of the world. We should all share the aspiration as a country to not only do good and great things, but to recognize when we fail to do either. If not, what’s to stop us from doing those awful, inhumane things again? Shame instills in us a much needed sense of humility and caution in how we interact with other people, other countries.

Shame, then, is an essential part of every country’s history. How the leaders and the people of those countries own up to their national shame determines the true greatness and goodness of those nations.

Failure to acknowledge our national shame will ultimately corrupt all of us. A nation of people that reflexively defends the indefensible from its past becomes sociopathic. It exudes pride without understanding. It is optimistic without knowledge.

It is a people without humanity.

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