At a certain point in a young child’s life, one is introduced to the concept of race for the first time. If you are white, part of this involves learning about your race’s terrifying history.
Shawn: White people did all that?
Shawn: But… that’s terrible!
Dad: Oh yeah. And there’s more.
Dad: We haven’t even made it through all the Crusades yet. You might want to grab a snack or something.
He wasn’t kidding. We had a bit of a nasty run there. Even though I was too young to really understand what had happened to whom, when, or in what context, I wasn’t too young to feel really, really bad about it. In particular, the enslavement of African Americans deeply upset me. Feeling guilty and not knowing how else to make things right, I decided that I needed to apologize to a black person on behalf of my ancestors. Having given it some thought, I settled on Jacob, one of my best friends in childhood. One day, I was over at his house, and I judged the time was right to unburden my soul.
Shawn: Jacob… I think it’s awful what white people did to black people in history.
Jacob: Yeah, it’s really terrible.
Shawn: I feel really bad about it.
Jacob: Uh huh.
Shawn: (emphatically, with eye contact) I’m sorry.
Jacob: You’re sorry?
Shawn: Yes. We shouldn’t have done that to your people.
Now, you could argue this gesture of mine was problematic for a number of reasons. The one that really stood out, though, is that Jacob isn’t black. He’s a white guy who just happens to be tanner than me. Apparently, I didn’t understand the difference.
Shawn: I’m trying to say, I think it’s terrible what white people did to black people, and you’re my friend, so I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.
Jacob: But I’m not black. I’m white.
Shawn: What are you talking about? You’re black.
Jacob: No, I’m not.
Shawn: Here, put your arm against mine. You’re darker than me, see?
Jacob: So what?
Shawn: So, I’m pretty sure that makes you black.
Shawn: Look, wouldn’t you say your skin is brown?
Shawn: Well then.
Jacob: “Well then” what?
Shawn: Well then, I’m sorry for slavery!
Jacob: I’m sorry for slavery too!
Shawn: Don’t be sorry, you didn’t do anything wrong!
Jacob: Shawn, we’re both white!
I wasn’t backing down. In desperation, Jacob appealed to his mother to settle the dispute.
Jacob: Mom, please, just tell him I’m white!
I should mention that there was another layer of historical misunderstanding in play here. Both of us are Jewish, and our ancestors were way too busy running around Eastern Europe screaming to systematically mistreat anybody. And that’s maybe why Jacob’s mom, too amused by the spectacle of one Jewish child apologizing to another for the horrors of slavery, couldn’t bring herself to end it.
Jacob’s Mom: (barely suppressed laughter)
Jacob: Mom, why aren’t you saying anything??
Shawn: Because she agrees you’re black!
Jacob’s Mom: (is trying so hard not to give the game away that she’s turning red)
Eventually, it was time for dinner, so I had to go home before we were able to reach a consensus. I can’t say the whole thing went exactly as I’d hoped. On the plus side, though I don’t know the cure for healing contemporary America’s racial divisions, I can safely rule out apologizing for slavery to other white people. Turns out that doesn’t really cut it. Who knew?