One of the most painful aspects of studying history is that it often forces us to face ugly truths about our pasts. How we react to those truths says a lot about our cultures and what we have learned from our history (or refused to learn). Our responses indicate our denials, acceptances, repudiations, and other feelings about the stories of our pasts. Leaving aside issues about how we create those stories, the truths we construct and our reactions to them are complicated insights into who we are and how our history has shaped us to this point.
Sometimes, our responses are ludicrous and telling about our absolute inability to grasp the obvious. Again, using the example of the recent Arizona legislation regarding the teaching of ethnic studies is illustrative. Proponents of the law say teaching the history of an ethnic group (or, presumably groups together) is acceptable; what is not is using that history to promote ethnic solidarity or resentment. There really isn’t any way to strip the story of slavery in the U.S. from its offensiveness. It isn’t possible that the story could not cause resentment to black citizens, and it is beyond naïve and moronic to believe that it wouldn’t. Whites who don’t want to face their culpability here may try to soft-pedal it, but the only persons they are fooling in doing so is themselves. It isn’t possible to honestly present things like the Zoot Suit Riot, Chinese Exclusion Act, slavery, and Indian removal without causing resentment or building a sense of community among the descendents of those wronged. Chinese-Americans recognize that it was their participation in that group — and that alone — that made them unwelcome in the U.S. They weren’t barred because Americans came to hate the lot of them individually for personal failings. The hatred was directed toward them as a racial group. How that is not supposed to cause them anger toward white Americans, I do not know, but it’s sheer idiocy to think that you can spin that inoffensively.
At some point, whites and minorities have to face one another, acknowledging the truth of the past. Forcing legislation that minimizes the repercussions and resentments toward the oppressing class does nothing to acknowledge that truth or heal past hurts. Contrast the law in Arizona with those in Germany making it a crime to deny the Holocaust. No flinching, no falsification there. Until we can look unblinkingly at our past without attempting to rationalize or minimize it, we will not have truly learned the lessons of our history — which is why we still struggle with it. These are not easy lessons to learn. It’s uncomfortable at the least and haunting at worst. We can’t resolve these issues and truly make peace with one another until we do though.
The key to this is that we learn to face our history — and more importantly, that white citizens can face the mirror and what they see there. You are the product of white supremacy, racial terrorism, and discriminatory benefits. You still profit from this in many ways. It’s an ugly image. It’s sickening to accept. But, when whites can face this, they can face their fellow Americans of other races with honesty and respect. They can accept the consequences and repercussions of their ancestors’ actions and participate in true reconciliation. When we can face ourselves and others, then — and only then — can we begin to leave behind the burden of our past (although we will never not live with the legacy). We have much history to learn before that happens though, and we have not yet come to the point where we can even do that, as the situation in the Southwest demonstrates.