By now you may have heard that Ben Affleck participated in a TV show that explored his ancestry. He learned some really important lessons about his heritage. His mom for example, was a Freedom Rider. How cool is that? Very. He also learned that one of his relatives owned slaves and we probably agree that that truth is not so cool.
According to the news and his statement, Ben Affleck tried to lobby the show to not share the information about his slave-owning ancestry in the episode. Is it really a shock that a white American has an ancestor that owned slaves? Would it be a stretch to believe that an African American has an ancestor who was likely enslaved? No.
There are a few of points I want to address. Firstly, white people have regularly edited racial history to suit a modern narrative about race. It is common for some folks to share information about their heritage, but seldom do people share information about their slave-owning past. I can actually say I have never spoken to anyone who admitted their relatives were slave owners. And think about it, who wants to be associated with the brutality of an economic system that treated Black people in the United States as objects or work animals? Only psychos.
For a very long time, slavery was legal and it is the economic system that led the path for “making America great.” Think about it- free labor (or super cheap labor) for 300 years. White people- all white people- benefited from that system in one way or another, for all those years, and that brings me to the second point.
Many white people are uncomfortable with talking about slavery because then they have to admit they received an unfair start to life. Whites received something denied to others because race. A white person today did not ask for that benefit, but that benefit was given for the first time hundreds of years ago all the same. Ben Affleck is a brand. He’s the working class guy from Boston who worked his way up to stardom (with Matt Damon,) he won an Oscar and became famous. How does it play morally or intellectually to reconcile the truth that Ben Affleck, like all white people, received an unfair advantage that slavery provided for him? Not good, in many ways but not all.
Ben Affleck really is like most people because he and lot of other white people edit out that history from “their story.” Most of us do not have a TV show tracking our heritage, but in life- most of us edit out the grimy parts that don’t jibe with the narrative that is our racial truth. I don’t fault him for that.
In the years I have facilitated discussions about race I have never had a discussion with a white person about their slave-owning roots. Race and racism isn't talked about and slavery is most certainly not talked about.
I’m disappointed Ben Affleck’s episode had that detail edited out because white people who want racial justice are hurt by not being reminded that they too have slave owner roots. Slavery isn't just a part of life for enslaved Africans, it was a part of life of all Americans including the people who owned and benefited from the system.
For every down side to racism (even today,) there is an up side. For every person who was being oppressed there was a person being lifted higher. For every dollar that was saved on not paying for labor, there was a dollar accruing interest somewhere. And I haven’t begun to address the social and psychological damage and advantages that relate very directly to the legacy of slavery. Isn't it time we start highlighting it and naming it. When we do, white people will be better able to comprehend our racist legacy in the U.S. and maybe we all can heal from it.
Ben Affleck missed an opportunity to create the kind of change I believe would make his mama, the Freedom Rider, proud and maybe even make it safer for other white folks to acknowledge their own histories.