My adviser in graduate school gave me some very good advice when she told me that you may never feel finished with what you write, but the time comes when it is done with you. I may have reached that place for now in this series on matters of race and memory. I certainly do not have a way of wrapping it all up in a satisfying conclusion, and it would have been hubris indeed to think that this could be done in a few blog posts, however thoughtful.
This same adviser taught me to be wary of conclusions based on partial understandings. There are too many examples of polices, programs, and strategies that fail to address the root causes of a problem by only treating a symptom, or fail to appreciate the synergy among a multitude of causal factors. Ethnicity in America is far more complex than the dynamics of black and white that I chose to write about here. The same is true at the very least for class, creed, politics and gender.
Yet it is also important to act, to make a decision and adapt in a timely fashion to new information and changing circumstances. If you do this without a framework for understanding these changes you can only muddle through. There may be significant implications for making the wrong decision, but worse still is to fail to decide at all.
There is a difference between being able to discriminate and discrimination. One may question the basis for our judgments, but not the fact that we value one thing more highly than another. Cultural sensitivity does not require that we accept human rights abuses that are the norm elsewhere. Self awareness requires facing up the legacy of such abuses at home.
I believe that people act, even if unintentionally, within an arena of choice that is unique to their experience and circumstances. The same applies to institutions, which are essentially repetitive patterns of behavior. We are not always rational actors, dispassionately weighing costs and benefits, incentives and threats: otherwise Wall Street would be a very boring place and no one would remember Shakespeare. You cannot blame externalities alone for the circumstances you face. But nor can you blame the victim while being silent about the crime and its legacy.
They tried something different in South Africa after apartheid, an experiment that has yet to run its course. The idea that truth and reconciliation was not only possible but to be actively sought and sustained is a revolutionary one. I have seen a small part of its impact and I still am left with more questions than answers. Still I believe that talking about the past and accepting our individual and collective responsibility for what we make of it in the present is a prerequisite, if we are ever to reconcile memory and denial, guilt and accountability, what we came from and what we can hope to be.
For now, that is what I can do.