How much do we hold previous generations accountable to our morality?
It’s a question I struggle with, from reading literature to pondering today’s political environment to trying to understand my own family. Mark Twain, depending on who you read was either a racist, a man of his times, or an abolitionist. Lincoln wanted to end slavery and also to repatriate the slaves to Africa. The Founding Fathers who we hear so much about today, said All Men Are Created Equal. But they were actually referring to white property owners, not all citizens. Jefferson begat the Hemings family and denied them freedom even on his deathbed. Some people in my family can’t make it through a Thanksgiving dinner without using the “n word.”
Then there’s this, from Paula Deen:
Jackson lawyer: “Have you ever used the ‘N word’ yourself?”
Deen: “Yes, of course.”
Deen testified that she probably used the racial slur when talking to her husband about “when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head.”
“I didn’t feel real favorable towards him,” she said, referring to the robber.
Jackson lawyer: “Have you used it since then?”
Deen: “I’m sure I have, but it’s been a very long time.”
Deen said she couldn’t remember other contexts in which she used the slur, but “maybe in repeating something that was said to me.”
“Yes, of course” is what bothers me. As if we should just assume she used that word. And as if a bank robbery is an excuse.
The tear-filled apology tour began after this, but the deposition itself doesn’t really sound to me like it comes from a person who’s now mortified by past transgressions. She apologizes for using hurtful language rather than saying that sort of language is reprehensible and she is ashamed of the way she’s embraced racism, whether it was culturally acceptable or not. However, Jimmy Carter, a true humanitarian in my book, said she’s been punished enough and it’s time to forgive her.
I believe forgiveness is always the best idea; that it a compassionate gesture is never in vain. But I struggle with two questions: (1) How do I forgive people who aren’t sorry?; and (2) What role does a forgiven person play in my life? I have, at best, a shaky understand of healthy boundaries and I struggle with understand how to hold these contradictions in people. I’m well-acquainted with both extremes — dismissing what’s inconvenient or distasteful as “a product of the times” or rejecting every idea and person who violates our sense of right and wrong. I think we all have lines in the sand to draw.
Boy oh boy though. Anyone who claims that we are in a post-racial society or that somehow Obama’s election means racism is dead needs to go back to the thinking chair. Maybe with a handheld device to surf the web. Spend a minute or two reading what people say about Deen’s situation, the Zimmerman trial, or even our president. Then tell me racism is long gone.
One persistent growing edges for me has been to put aside the us vs. them thinking in favor of honoring a common sense of humanity. In one of Sharon Salzberg‘s meditations, she says that everyone wants to be happy. That urge toward happiness is rightful, but ignorance is a powerful force. In other words, people don’t understand what leads to happiness, so they make poor decisions trying to get there. She says that we can acknowledge that common urge toward happiness even as we take strong action to remove them from our lives. I go back to that meditation often; it has pulled me out of the well more than once. I guess the best I can do is to say to Deen and Lincoln and my racist family members: I strongly condemn things you say and do, but I accept that it’s not the sum total of who you are.