White Light

I won’t pretend to be comfortable with the idea of identity politics and “centering marginalized voices.” I would prefer to look at how things are now for individuals rather than agonize over past wrongs done to large groups. But I do see that there’s a kind of convenient blindness that afflicts white people, and I think it’s important not to wrap oneself too closely in it.

I’ve started reading Legacy of Violence, a fat and scholarly (but very readable!) new book that examines the dreadful history of the British Empire. Probably not many people today know that the British had a small sugar-producing colony called Demerra in South America. In 1823 there was a slave revolt in Demerra. Yes, the British still had slaves in 1823.

Here’s author Caroline Elkins’s description of how the British dealt with the rebellion: “Order was restored within forty-eight hours, though martial law remained in effect during the governor-ordered trial of dozens of the rebellion’s alleged ringleaders. Some were publicly lashed, others were executed and their severed heads nailed to posts, and some were hung by chains outside plantations where their corpses remained suspended for months so that they ‘might produce salutary effects.'”

And why was this horror perpetrated? So that a small bunch of rich white men in London could see a profit on their investments and not have to do any useful work.

For the record, all of the surnames in my immediate family, going back several generations, are from the British Isles (British, Scots, Irish, and Welsh). I’m about as white as you can get. I had nothing to do with the trouble in Demerra, and it’s not likely any of my ancestors did either — but when I encounter, today, a certain lingering obstinacy on the part of black and indigenous people, a reluctance to let go of the past, I think it’s important to recognize that there are reasons for their deep discontent, reasons stretching further back than we white people might prefer to be reminded of.

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