Am I part of the problem? Part 2: The Problem With The “Heritage Not Hate” Defense

Workers prepare to take down the statue of former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which stands over 100 feet tall, in Lee Circle in New Orleans. The city of Baltimore removed confederate statues early this morning by order of the mayor. Gerald Herbert | AP

I’m extremely fascinated by a psuedo-scientific theory called “multi-generational sensory memory.” It’s a probably not real concept that says human beings can sometimes access memories from their ancestors when they experience some kind of sensory trigger. For example, although I’ve never had children and have done relatively very little manual labor in my life, sometimes if I rest a hamper on my hip, the feeling seems so…nostalgic. I feel like my hip has been supporting children, baskets, and wash basins for generations, and I somehow feel connected to the women of my past.

Of course, that’s irrational. Imaginary. There’s no reasonable way that I would be able to feel the same sensations that generations of women who came before me felt. There’s no science to support this feeling, and yet, I feel it.

Equally irrationally, I’m pretty fascinated by the concept of reincarnation — despite my Christian upbringing — because I find it very romantic and exciting to think that my interests or parts of my personality might offer hints as to my previous identities or lives. For example, I have a really aggressive resting bitch face when I’m walking down the street (even though I’m a very friendly person to talk to), and so I like to think that in a past life I must have lived in New York City, where everyone is stereotypically rude to each other on the sidewalk.

Like I said, equally irrational. But equally comforting.

As a white, American woman who knows very little about my ancestry, these are a few of many ways I have attempted to feel connected to my heritage, family members I’ve never known, a culture I’ve never identified with, and a people that I’ve never belonged to.

While these bizarre interests may be unique to my own search for identity, I know that many white Americans struggle with a feeling that we lack a shared heritage, a culture, or an ethnic community. This is, of course, in contrast to racial minorities, who we (white people) often see as synonymous with their heritage, their cultural practices or racial histories.

For example, we (white people) often associate Middle Eastern-looking people with the religion of Islam, and the wearing of headscarfs and veils, despite the fact that both religion and clothing norms vary WIDELY across south Asia and Northern Africa, based on cultural, regional, and personal preferences. We also assume that all Asian parents are strict, Latino families are large, and Black churches are energetic and musical.

This feeling that white people have been robbed of their heritage, or “white culture,” is one of the main motivators for people like Richard Spencer, the new-age Nazi mouthpiece who advocates for an all-white ethno-state. This thinking is what motivates questions like “Why isn’t there a white history month,” “Why can’t I say ‘white power,’” and so on.

And while I am willing to admit that I have felt disconnected from my own heritage, many white Americans have simply invented or adopted a heritage for themselves that based in fact or history. This study from Slate found that hundreds of thousands of white Americans claim and believe that they have Native American (specifically Cherokee) ancestry, when they undeniably do not. Another 25 percent of Americans are convinced that their ancestors were among the first American settlers, even going so far as to say they had family on the Mayflower — which is statistically impossible.

These popular delusions are evidence that white Americans are willing to ignore facts, history, and statistics in order to belong to a heritage that we can be proud of.

The fact is, fellow white people, you’re far more likely to be the descendant of a plantation owner, a conquerer, a person that has personally committed atrocities against another people.

America has seen a lot of atrocities in it’s short existence of 270 years. Not the least of which was the Civil War.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, before I attempt to convince you that Confederate statues have no place in American parks and streets: American historians have stopped denying that the Civil War was mainly about slavery. If you are tempted to argue that the Civil War was about some other issue, more than it was about the legal, profitable enslavement of human beings, you simply have not done your research. Now, onward.

The succession of the Confederate States should not be a point of historic pride. Confederate generals should not be considered war heroes. Their cause was not just. The Confederates turned on their countrymen, their neighbors and family members, and fought to continue treating human beings like livestock.

Of course, they had contextual justifications. Economics, the science of their time, and many other factors lead them to do it. They were, in every way, a result of their time. But that does not mean that their actions, their beliefs, and their cause, were not evil.

The Confederate memorial in St. Louis’ Forest Park was spray-painted with anti-racism messages early Tuesday — about a week after it was vandalized with similar graffiti. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

None of this is to say that we should not be learning about the Civil War. Americans need to know this history in order to prevent it from repeating. However, Confederate generals and similarly racist icons belong in our history books, our museums, our memories, not honored and memorialized in stone.

(This is a good spot to mention that most statues of Confederate generals were not erected immediately after the Civil War. Most were installed during the Jim Crow era (another classic American atrocity), to intimidate Black Americans and as a flex of power over minority groups. You can read more about this factoid here.)

Now, this is important:

The problem with the “Heritage Not Hate” defense is that heritage can be hateful. Heritage is not always a point of pride and patriotism. American heritage as it relates to the Civil War is hateful, racist, and shameful.

I know how tempting it is to cling to any inkling of heritage and culture that we can find. I really do.

But this is not the way.

Insisting that statues of Robert E. Lee are a proud part of American heritage is to say that we should be proud of the history of domination and racism that allowed Robert E. Lee to come to power.

My pointing to America’s mistakes and the atrocities of white people from the past, I’m not trying to say that white people TODAY are responsible or at fault for those injustices. I’m merely encouraging introspection. White Americans can (and must) acknowledge the past, and learn from the past, in order to move forward, and holding on to our Confederate statues will not help.

Brass bricks known as Stolperstein, or “stumbling stones,” in front of a home in Raesfeld, Germany, where five members of a single family were forcibly removed by the Nazis. Across Germany, the stones commemorate the millions of victims of the Nazi regime. Jeffrey Katz/NPR

Take for example, Germany. Germany — arguably — has a worse history with human rights violations than we do. The Holocaust is part of their heritage. It is part of their history. And yet, you will not find a single statue of Hitler in a public park, or anywhere else in Germany. The events leading up to the rise of the Third Reich are HEAVILY integrated into all levels of schooling in Germany, and yet, there are no monuments depicting any WW2 generals or SS officers. Instead, they have monuments honoring their victims. The history not forgotten or erased, and yet, it does not honor those who were in the wrong (and who ultimately lost to the badass Americans, but I digress).

And for those of you who are like me, and struggle with the feeling of a lack of heritage or cultural identity, I encourage you to interview your elders, and do your best to learn about your family. If you’re able, I highly recommend DNA analysis services like Ancestry.com and 23andme.com, (I have done both) that will help you find cultural connections to other parts of the world, and will open the door for you to begin research on your own real heritage. This could mean rediscovering old family ties, discovering your ancestors’ actual immigration stories, and other exciting histories that might be too old for any of your living relatives to remember.

Heritage is more than skin color.