The weight of history

Dear President Biden,

Do you know what “the weight of history” means? I thought it was a super common idiom that must have a fleshy backstory, but Googling it didn’t yield much of anything. Maybe it’s too basic for anyone to bother unpacking, but it’s been bugging me. I can only speak from my position as an economically comfortable, reasonably well educated White woman, but I keep toggling back and forth between my sense that I’ve gotten to skate through much of my life quite unburdened by our country’s history (and present) of systemic racism and what this obliviousness means about the weight of that history on BIPOC. To distill it down, my sense is that the extent of White people’s ignorance (willful or otherwise) about our history and our concerted disconnect from it are directly proportional to the heaviness of that history on Black, Indigenous, and people of color. (The same could be said of men’s ignorance/ disconnect and women’s burdens.)

Obviously this is an oversimplification of reality – there have been, and are, millions of White people who actively claim and promote the idea of racial superiority (and millions of men who espouse male superiority), who don’t hide it behind gauzy “we’re all one great Nation” rhetoric and never have. But still, as I read more and listen to more BIPOC stories of their lives and generally talk with more BIPOC about race, the more I realize how controlled and contrived the history lessons I was fed were. And not just a little controlled and contrived.

Starting 50-ish years ago, I was a kid who actively sought out the biographies of people like George Washington Carver and Elizabeth Blackwell and the stories about the Nez Perce and Sioux, but none of those books meaningfully contextualized these people’s lives. The individual biographies made it seem like if you did the meritocracy deal well enough, you personally, could beat the odds and rise above your station and up and out of the narrow lane that you were expected to happily, contentedly inhabit for the duration. The stories about Indigenous peoples were generally romanticized and if any of the harsh, genocidal realities of small pox and purposeful starvation were conveyed, they were White-washed in brief “oh bummer, but this was inevitable” passages.

And here we are. Still.

We are a flipping mess.

We don’t have strong, righteous retorts to China’s accusations calling out our horrible human rights record because rampant police brutality against BIPOC and mind-blowing degrees of income inequality between Whites and Black people are our realities, realities that are logical extensions of 400 years of systemic racism.

The litany of failures and injustices could go on for close to forever and still couldn’t capture them all. And the litany will continue for the foreseeable future until White people do what we need to do and fully reckon with our whole history and with our real places in it. We have to own it and then we have to formally, fully apologize for both our overt actions and for all the times we shucked off the weight and failed to stand up against injustice. Then, we need to make practical, respectful, material amends in the form of reparations. If we don’t do these things – if White people don’t listen to BIPOC and face what we need to face – we’ll continue to circle the drain until we are flushed away.

May we be safe from willful ignorance.
May those of us who have been shirking, be willing to bear the weight of history.
May we stand up and insist on the truth for all our sakes.
May we accept that ours is a history that does not bear repeating.

Tracy Simpson

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