A pet peeve that I never experienced until college: When white people make a big exciting conversation about their ancestry, and the origin of their last name, and who in their family was a settler in the US when and all the piles of land each of those settlers owned…and then the conversation moves awkwardly to the people of color nearby, who are quite likely their first POC friends. Who have no answers and nothing to say. And this could be understandable, if the white people responded with something other than cringing and moving the conversation back onto themselves, or being patronizing.
What I used to see in college was people, for whom I was supposedly their “black friend”, claiming most of the time to be history buffs but then disengaging when I responded that my last name is British, so someone in my family was owned by British people. I mean, for real, let’s talk history!
What I saw today was a much older white man relating all the glorious details of his family’s history settling and governing and owning property (and people?) in the US to a much younger woman of color, where the power dynamic between the two is skewed greatly in his favor. Then after telling her about all these things people in his family did, including the time someone was killed by a native tribe and that death set off a local race war “which pretty much decimated their tribe”, he asked where her family was from, and she told him. And when he asked about her family history, she just shrugged and said she didn’t know. And he started saying, “Well you must know something!”, “Well there’s plenty of history there too!”, “You can find your family’s history, you just have to try!”, “More people would know their history if they cared about it.” And she still just shrugged and looked kind of ashamed. (ETA: The place the woman said her family is from was used as a port for moving slaves around, and that is reflected heavily in the population and history of that place, so her family’s history is quite likely buried. That was the important thing I forgot to mention.)
Half my family was black slaves and indigenous people. What we have for family history goes back far, by our standards—about 4 generations, but it gets shaky toward the end. What we have for heirlooms is a spoon for making chocolate that my grandma found somewhere, that was the only possession a woman back in her family had brought with her when she escaped or was freed from slavery. I don’t even know the story, or who the woman was, only that my grandma had found this spoon and told me about it when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure the woman I saw being lectured has a similar lack of stories; in fact, I’ll bring up how unfair that is sometime when I see her around, that we are denied that history and then told we should be ashamed of it.
Moral of the story is: Don’t start digging into history if you’re unwilling to deal with it, deeply and productively, and to fix how it still functions today.
They keep insisting that we shouldn’t dwell on the past & should let it go or some such crap. But when your family history is limited by circumstance to surviving oppression? It’s not dwelling to talk about it as part of your family tree.