Ben Affleck, white guilt, and the dangers of historical revisionism

by Dana Saxon

Dear Ben & other white people whose ancestors committed horrible wrongs: this isn’t only about you. 

By now most of you have heard and discussed Ben Affleck’s preference to shove that whole owning-other-human-beings thing into the trunk of his family tree – far, far away from our judgment.

If you haven’t heard about it, here’s the quick summary: Ben Affleck’s appearance on Finding Your Roots was subject to some critical editing, with the embarrassing parts of his family history removed. McGuire, an ancestor who apparently enslaved an unstated number of people, didn’t make the cut. As Affleck explained in his apology for the poor decision to edit his history, “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”

He hid it. We found out and became annoyed by it. He apologized for it.

Although we may be inclined to move on, this story isn’t only about  the inhumanity and embarrassing nature of Ben Affleck’s ancestors. Rather, as well-intentioned as he may have been, Ben’s sentiments and reaction are the perfect representation of a larger, global issue: white guilt that leads to a detrimental revision of history. 

Ben Affleck
Photo courtesy: pbs.org

Not unlike the writers of mainstream American and European history books, Ben Affleck had the privilege of eliminating the dirty bits. I imagine the logic goes something like this: “if it embarrasses me, I’ll pretend like it never happened, regardless of the other people I’m erasing from history in the process.” While some stories and people are intentionally ignored by history, many others’ lives and experiences are marginalized or forgotten as a result.

As much as we’ve talked about Ben, Skip Gates, and the Finding Your Roots editors, how much of the discussion has focused on the mysterious “slaves” who were owned by Ben’s ancestor? I’m nearly certain their descendants would be thrilled to know anything about them, whether it’s their names, their circumstances, or even information about the man who claimed to own them. Their stories aren’t told at all. Are they even acknowledged as people?

While avoiding the shame of an ancestor who once owned people, the historical revisionist (unintentionally) perpetuates the dehumanization of the enslaved. Their lack of identity and the erasure of their stories is merely a consequence of protecting the reputations of a few.

We often hear, “get over it.” And we’re told to “move on” from the painful parts of our histories. We’re informed that slavery was too long ago to continue to reflect on it. And our enslaved ancestors remain unnamed. I once thought this was solely an act of aggression, as a proactive means of marginalizing histories. However, with Ben Affleck as the current representative of white guilt, I now see this disregard and silencing of certain histories as a consequence of shame. Because when some of the privileged mainstream are embarrassed, the rest of us should be silent.

Listen, I get it. If my ancestors were horrible people who treated other human beings as chattel, I certainly wouldn’t be proud of them. But let’s bear in mind that the historical evil-doers played a major role in the lives of those they oppressed. And if we can make anything right about that awful, embarrassing past, we should openly discuss every detail. Imagine if Ben’s ancestor somewhere listed the names of the people he enslaved. Imagine if they were humanized. Imagine if we shifted the narrative away from the white man’s embarrassing power to the naming and empowerment of those he wronged.

A less self-involved approach to history might make a difference.

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