“Slavery Isn’t Part of My Country’s History…” – Uh, Really??

Recently I have been part of a few groups with a daunting yet powerful assignment: tracing and sharing your “racial autobiography.” The prompts include personal reflections on your earliest awareness of race, your country/culture of origin, experiences of othering, your family lineage and how it has connected with systemically racist policies, and a lot more. I was working with a cohort of people who self-identified as white, and we were meeting to share and hear each other’s racial autobiographies; our BIPOC colleagues met separately to do the same. Of course, the experience of being white is not the same for every white person; there are layers of complexity and nuance that peel back like an onion. This became apparent in one group I was in, with people who had been born and raised in different countries. A few commented that they identified differently depending on the wider context they were in; they are treated as a person of color in some countries, and as white (or “not Black”) in others.

One brief aside spoken by a participant from a Latin American country has stuck with me ever since: as he was sharing his own biography, he commented that slavery wasn’t part of his country’s history, and (as a result) racism has never been much of an issue there. My Spidey-sense immediately tingled: I surreptitiously did a ten-second Google search, and found that slavery was indeed part of his country’s history – in fact, hundreds of thousands of people were transplanted and enslaved based on the color of their skin over 400 years! But, through no fault of his own, he had grown up with the understanding that the enslavement of people was something that happened ‘over there.’ A country’s schools often gloss over, ignore – or actively deny – periods of history which expose the country’s dark past, leading to a fictional narrative believed by the majority of people and the effective erasure of history.

Maps charting slavery around the world are often inaccurate – this map showing the date of slavery abolition around the world ignores the fact that France and other countries reintroduced legalized slavery at later dates – but the fact that this person had never thought to look because he had always been taught that slavery wasn’t in his country’s history showed that we can all have blind spots of our cultural (or personal) history that we overlook completely. Sometimes we see a glimpse of this and find it hard to reconcile, so we choose not to look further, and willingly keep it as a blind spot. Of course, just as in driving, discovering your blind spots sometimes requires seeing things from a different angle. I certainly learned more about Britain’s colonialism and its fundamental role in the slave trade once I moved to the United States than I ever did growing up in Britain. So how can you discover your blind spots when you don’t even know they’re there?

This Week’s Tip:

Find ways to challenge your long-standing beliefs without defense, through research, conversations, and narratives from different cultures than your own. What have you always believed about your culture or country of origin? What were you taught in school, or by the people around you? Find new angles through historical fiction, memoirs, and conversations with trusted friends and loved ones – looking at your blind spots from different angles can shed light on them. What have others from different cultures been taught about yours? How does that mesh with what you believe? How is that challenging? Notice if it brings up feelings of discomfort, tension, or wanting to not think about it. What does it prompt you to want to learn more about? What steps could you take to learn more in the coming weeks?

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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