Making Peace with the Ancestors

 

Two very foreign paradises have helped me to carve out my sense of identity and my understanding of the value of cultural difference. The first was in my wonderful, difficult three years in Zimbabwe. There the logic of mixed opposites, as we philosophers say, came to appear as my initial starry-eyed vision cleared. It was there that I first came to be told that that I was “white”.

In Canada, we name ourselves by our countries of origin and not by the colour of our skins. There are English-Canadians (I am one) and Sardinian-Canadians (my hubby), and Jamaican-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, Polish-Canadians, and so on. But there are not white Canadians and black Canadians. All these hyphenated Canadians, moreover, so-name themselves in this way precisely to show deference to the only true and original Canadians, who do not (with few exceptions) misname themselves Indians, but enjoy the prestigious “First Nations” status.

This generous and honest Canadian self-naming practice is one way that we preserve our awareness and appreciation of the rich diversity that our homeland offers.

Moreover, the naming practice is in moral keeping with our national ethos, symbolized in the metaphor of the mixed salad, so far superior to the national metaphor of the melting pot, held dear by our national neighbour to the south.

Like the beautiful and delicious differences that bring liveliness and flavor to the salad, we Canadians believe that our cultural diversity is our strength and our blessing and not merely some inconvenience to be tolerated.

Learning of my “whiteness” in Zimbabwe has come in handy in my second paradise, as a professor in a historically “Black” university in the Bible Belt of the United States. My white skin colour again identifies me on the wrong side of their history of painful race relations. As an outsider to this way of naming human difference and as an outsider to their troubled history, I do not share either the uncomfortable guilt of the white Americans or the painful shame of the Black Americans, but I can compassionately witness the agonizing results of both these historical woundings, and appreciate the suffering that continues to undermine wellbeing on both sides of the race issue and that endures to drive both groups toward insularity.

We all have hurts and offenses in our distant past, and certainly some peoples have suffered more than others, but we have much to learn and benefit from stepping outside our cultural comfort zone and getting to know those who are different. Moreover, the peace of our democratic societies depends upon it.

I am happy to be a Canadian, and although our history is not free from subgroup suffering, I am proud to know that we have emerged from our difficult histories with an overwhelmingly generous national ethos which celebrates the value of diversity. But this national character does not evolve naturally without an enormous amount of purposeful planning and effort at the systemic level.

We have been intentionally teaching peace in our schools since I was an elementary school teacher in the 1970s. We have a broad open-door policy about immigration and we citizens generally agree that the generous support we extend to newcomers helps to build a more peaceful environment for all of us. We welcome, rather than tolerate, difference, and I believe that I am not at all special, but typical as a Canadian, when I say that I count myself blessed and my life enriched by the rich cultural diversity of my homeland.

When I return to my country, I am deeply struck by the breadth of diversity of our population, and when I return to my temporary home in the long-suffering south, I am convinced that these longstanding, relentless, hate-fostering cultural distinctions endure, not from too much confrontation with “the cultural other,” but from not nearly enough!

As important as it is to find solidarity with others who share a common cultural lineage, it is equally important, as Thich Nhat Hahn phrases it, to “make peace with the ancestors in ourselves” and forgive the past, in order to be fully present to reap the fullest possibilities of this moment.

 

By: Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. (Philosophy) Professor, Department of Liberal Studies, North Carolina A&T State University.

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