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Minnesota Friends examine roots of structural racism

Minnesota Friends examine roots of structural racism

Published: March 11, 2014
Lane Holden, AFSC Twin Cities intern

Lane Holden is a junior Sociology major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Photo: AFSC / Jon Krieg

By Lane Holden

March 6 marked the first day of AFSC Twin Cities Healing Justice Program’s Healing Justice Film Series. The series brings to light systems that perpetuate racism in our society today in order to create a conversation about our role in disrupting these systems. The first of the four films in the series was titled Traces of the Trade.

This documentary follows the director, Katrina Browne, as she learns that her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. James DeWolf—the “mastermind” behind the family’s slave-trading business—oversaw his slave-trading business from Bristol, Rhode Island.

From this northern city, the DeWolf business would send ships to West Africa to trade rum and sugar for African men, women, and children. From West Africa, they were brought to Cuba to be auctioned or to work in plantations that the DeWolf family owned in Cuba and the United States, completing the “Triangle Trade.” The DeWolf slave-trading business did not only benefit the DeWolf family; the business and its products became a foundation of commerce in the United States.

Katrina is determined to get in touch with the reality of her family’s history, and she decides to contact 250 other members of the DeWolf family, hoping some will feel similarly. Nine family members respond to Katrina’s outreach, and join her in the making of this film.

The group of ten begins their journey in Rhode Island, where the slave-trading business began. From there, the family traveled to both the coast of Ghana and then to Cuba, the two international locations where their distant relatives managed the slave trade.

Over the course of the family’s journey, we observe a transformation in the emotions—and ways of thinking—each member undergoes while working through the reality of his or her family’s past. We follow the conversations they have with one another as the horrors of their family’s history become more and more apparent.

The family wonders where they fall in this history—what is their role today? These discussions focus on the divide between black people and white people in our society today, and what to do about it.

After watching this documentary, we—the group of Quakers in attendance—had a conversation about our emotions and what we were thinking while processing the family’s journey. There was a deep sadness among us in the room, and a few individuals in our group said they were feeling shaken up.

And understandably so. In just 86 minutes, the film contains an incredible amount of history and an account of ten individuals’ journeys to a deeper understanding of the issues of structural racism—the normalization of cultural, historical, and interpersonal dynamics that benefit whites while simultaneously marginalizing and creating adversity for people of color.

One of the first things someone said when our discussion began was the utter dismay she feels when she thinks of our country being founded on slavery and genocide. This statement brought us all to question where we stand in society—what can we do? Our country is as wealthy as it is today due to all of the unpaid labor that took place in the founding of our nation. We addressed reparative action, and where we stand with this.

Because the majority of the people in this discussion were white Americans, the unjust reality of white privilege was inevitably addressed. One attendee described a situation she was a part of earlier that day, and how it could have gone differently.

A white American woman, she got on the bus with her daughter, a young girl of color. After the doors of the bus had closed and the vehicle began to move, the woman realized that her daughter did not have her bus pass and therefore could not pay for her ride.

The woman assumed that there would be no problem and that the bus driver would not mind—which was true. However, the woman continued by presenting the scenario in which she was not there, and her daughter was alone without her bus pass. Would the color of her skin affect the way the bus driver reacted to this situation? Did this woman’s appearance, a white American woman, change the outcome?

Unfortunately, it probably did. The privilege attached to her skin color likely repelled any trouble with the bus driver. This concept of white privilege contributed to our overarching question of what can we—a nation of many races—do to change our structurally racist society?

There was much to be said, and each comment sparked other ideas that led to more discussion; it was evident the film had moved everyone in the room. It was also clear that everyone there was dedicated to the discussion and to each idea presented. Important conversations like these should continue. And more people should be a part of them. For more on the series, click here.

Lane Holden is a junior Sociology major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her AFSC internship experience includes work in both St. Louis and the Twin Cities.