In the United States, and in much of the world, people are reexamining the histories and cultures that built the lives that people live. There is a push to disavow ancestors who were brutal to other people, to disavow groups that committed genocides and atrocities against others, and to disavow the cultural practices of people’s who dominated other groups. Whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 Project in the United States, countries formerly dominated by the British Empire working to redefine themselves beyond their colonial past, or native peoples trying to reestablish a culture that was oppressed by explorers hundreds of years ago, people across the globe are attempting to make difficult decisions about how to understand their culture of oppression and celebrate that culture moving forward without becoming as bad as their former oppressors.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the dilemma such people face. He writes, “whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically diving the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.” History is challenging. For example, while we generally dislike the history of British colonization, arguments can be made that countries colonized by the British had better outcomes than countries that were not colonized. Additionally, it is hard to separate what is truly derivative from one culture relative to another, especially after decades or centuries of cultural dominance and back and forth cultural influence. Simply arguing that history would have been better one way or another, or arguing that a culture should get rid of everything associated with “bad guys” is an insufficient way to think about how a culture should relate to its past.
In the United States this seems to be part of the problem with the sharp divide over the Black Lives Matter movement or Critical Race Theory. White people see these movements and fear that their cultural history is immediately tainted as bad and evil. Rather than feeling as though their cultural heritage has anything worth celebrating, they feel as though people are turning on their cultural heritage and disavowing anything that came from it, ultimately threatening the lives of white people today. If we want to address the cultural problems of white slave holders, it is important to recognize how difficult and thorny our cultural histories in the United States are, and to recognize that we cannot simply say that white people are evil (or have been evil). We cannot paint with a broad brush and must instead consider the nuances and complexities as we think about how American culture can move forward. In the United States this means that black people must be considerate of how their culture was influenced by white dominance, but also how their culture persisted and influenced the United States in positive ways. White people must also look back and not see their ancestors as purely evil. We can eliminate statutes and monuments to people who do not deserve to be praised, but we can also still celebrate aspects of our historical culture that propelled us to where we are. It is a difficult path to navigate, and probably doesn’t lend itself to a solid sense of balance, because cultures are too complex for dichotomies and balance.