|Cemetery at night. Jefferson City, Missouri.|
As a society, we have refused to set aside discomfort so we can really see American slavery and the following generations of systemic racism and centuries-old memes that keep all of us mired in a dysfunctional family quicksand. One way we avoid seeing is to don the "yes, but" mask.
Common "yes, buts":
- Yes, slavery was bad, but Africans kept slaves themselves, so ....
- Yes, slavery was bad, but Africans sold other Africans to the Europeans, so .....
- Yes, slavery was bad, but some African-Americans owned slaves in the South, so ....
- Yes, slavery was bad, but the Irish were virtual slaves when they came to the US, so ....
- Yes, slavery was bad, but look what we did to the Native Americans! If anything, that was worse!
- Yes, slavery was bad, but there is slavery today, so why aren't we talking about that instead of what happened in the past ....
- Yes, slavery was bad, but those were different times then ...
- Yes, slavery was bad, but it would have disappeared eventually, without the Civil War ...
- Yes, slavery was bad, but most slave-owners only had a few slaves ....
- Yes, slavery was bad, but some slave-owners treated their slaves very well ....
- Yes, slavery was bad, but at least they had food and shelter and clothing given to them ...
Some folks think the "yes, buts" are relevant. They aren't.
Systemic mass traumas visited upon a group of people stand alone.
You don't compare them with each other.
You don't diminish a group's experience so you can protect yourself from discomfort.
You don't sneer at a group of people for wanting full acknowledgement of the experience.
"Yes, buts" shut people down.
We don't hear "yes, but's" with these events:
- The Holocaust. We even capitalize the historic event to acknowledge the immensity of its horror. We don't say "yes, but," we say "never again!" We honor the wisdom and insights of those who survived, those who made a poignant mark on others before they died, those who saved Jews and other targets from being transported to the concentration camps. There are those who tirelessly sought individuals who perpetrated crimes against humanity during the Holocaust, and we applaud them for it.
- Native American genocide (and later, cultural oppression) campaigns. We don't say "yes, but," we acknowledge fully the intrinsic wrongness of this ugly history. We lionize the courage and acumen of famous warriors and chieftains. We aspire to Indians' traditional respect for the earth and its inhabitants. We adopt some spiritual Native American traditions and we credit Indians with having created these traditions. (But see note below.)
- Acadian Dérangement. In South Louisiana, the trauma of the Acadian Dérangement is honored in cultural centers, in music, in books, in festivals, in public commemorations. We don't say "yes, but." We embrace the shared hardship of a group of people forcibly removed from their homes, separated from their families, thrust into a foreign climate, where they endured poverty and later, ridicule, as they struggled to maintain their culture and to thrive.
- Japanese concentration camps. Actually, we are virtually silent about this, which is one way to blindfold ourselves about what we did to a group of people during World War II. However, we don't say "yes, but."
And let's consider the "yes, buts" from another angle
You have a partner, a parent, or a boss who's an abuser. Each time you get zapped, you do get an acknowledgement, but ....
- Yes, I did that, but you just make me so mad!
- Yes, I did that, but couldn't you see I was in a bad mood?
- Yes, I did that, but I was drinking, and you know how I get when I'm drinking.
- Yes, I did that, but I'm under a lot of pressure and you're not helping.
- Yes, I did that, but you were asking for it.
- Yes, I did that, but if you'd do it right the first time, I wouldn't have to ..
- Yes, I did that, but if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
- Yes, I did that, but you just can't seem to get it right.
- Yes, I did that, but it seems the only way I can get through your thick head.
These are classic manipulative ploys used by abusers, designed to place blame on the target of the abuse, to intimidate, and silence the target.
How do we take off the mask so we can look at our history and start to move on?
We need to stop making and tolerating from others the "yes, but" statements, for one. Trying to debate any "yes, but" comparison is a waste of time because each is irrelevant. Every historic trauma stands on its own.
I'll repeat what I wrote in The Peculiar Blindness, Part 1: Introduction:
... everything I think I know about individuals, groups, and processes tell me that before we get over it, we must stop our defensive attitudes for a minute and:
- Acknowledge - without any qualifiers - the grotesque enormity of American slavery and its aftermath;
- Express our sorrow and regret for the experience;
- Listen to what the other has to say, without interrupting - and without feeling the need to agree, only to understand; and
- Think and act in new ways to eliminate discrimination in our midst, making it very uncomfortable for Americans to express their prejudices in speech and actions.
In the 12-step world, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, this is called "clearing the wreckage of our past." It is not good enough to just say sorry - we also have to stop doing what was done in the past, and do things differently in the future.
Catholics have the sacrament of confession, whereby one can confess one's sins to another human being, perform an act of penance, and ultimately receive forgiveness.
In my experience as a mediator, in cases where an injustice was done, the power of a sincere apology is huge, as is the willingness to attempt to make things right. An apology does not require groveling or humiliation. It does require humility, sincerity, and accountability. It is the authentic expression of regret that another person experienced a wrong, without any "ifs" or "buts."
How many families suffer decades-long estrangement because one or more family members refuse to acknowledge a wrong? They don't "get over it." We all know this dynamic, but seem unable to apply this knowledge in a societal context.
How many families keep certain things secret from the larger community? We don't like to "air our dirty laundry." It is our nature as humans, perhaps, to want to cover over bad things, whether it's domestic violence, incest, addictions, infidelities, or shady family businesses. The victims within the family are pulled into the little society of secrets and shame, as well.
How many family and larger cultures of those who were victimized quash bad experiences so as to avoid renewed pain and suffering for younger generations? The younger generations never know why their parents and grandparents think and act the way they do. It is common for victims of trauma to feel shame, and that shame can reverberate through generations. If all of our children don't learn how slavery and its aftermath permeated every single aspect of some people's daily lives, from the very tiniest acts of casual contempt to the most egregious acts of violence, it is easy to fall into shame when one's antecedents, living and dead, were the subjects of racism that has been so internalized in our society that it is like the air we breathe.
We know, in theory, how important it is to shine a light on the trespasses we commit in our personal lives. If we really do want to "get over" our shared heritage of American slavery and its aftermath, then we need to bring our dark history into the fullness of light and look at it unblinkingly.
Below is a song by Rhiannon Giddens (one of my favorite artists), called Julie:
*Note about the Native Americans. Our admiration of Indians does not translate into policies and actions that reflect social and economic justice. In other words, we tend to love Indians in the abstract, and not so much in the real.