Three years ago I had the privilege to visit the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan. It was a somber experience, standing in the place where so many lost their lives. There’s a building called the Atomic Bomb Dome; it stands directly where the bomb was dropped. Because of the way the nuclear bomb detonated, the force went out and not completely down, so the remains of the building still stand. I couldn’t stop staring at it, thinking about the overwhelming loss of human life and how the bomb caused illness and death long after August 6, 1945.
There were tourists from all over the world there with me that warm May day, and the overall tone was heavy. But I felt something more than sadness… I felt regret. Ashamed even. As a US citizen standing in that place, I felt the weight of belonging to the country that had caused this. I had always been (inaccurately) taught that the atomic bomb was a necessary step in ending the war, but as I stood at the site of the destruction, seeing with my own eyes and learning more about the devastation that had crushed this city, I felt sorrowful and contrite.
Clearly, I wasn’t even alive when the Enola Gay flew overhead on that fateful day. I played no part in making the decision to drop that bomb. Yet, I still felt the responsibility of belonging to the nation that had.
I remember studying in grad school this idea of the “precarious concept of guilt.” We read articles by Dwight MacDonald and Noam Chomsky and Thomas Mann and discussed who holds responsibility for the carnage wrought by Nazi Germany. Was it Hitler alone? His advisors and military leaders? The Wermacht? Hitler Youth? What about other German citizens who stood by? And what about the German citizens that have come since?
MacDonald wrote a quote I’ve never forgotten. “If there is such a thing as Germany as a historical entity, then there is also such a things as responsibility– quite independent of the precarious concept of guilt.”
The German people seem to take this responsibility seriously. The era of Nazism is known as their “national shame.” They even have a word for this process—vergangenheitsbewältigung, which literally means to “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past” or “working through the past.” Last year, when the German chancellor visited the site of Auschwitz, she shared that she felt “deep shame” over the Holocaust as she stood in the place where more than one million people were killed. She wasn’t born until ten years after the end of World War II.
“Nothing can bring back the people who were murdered here. Nothing can reverse the unprecedented crimes committed here. These crimes are and will remain part of German history and this history must be told over and over again,” she said.
She referred to this collective responsibility as an enduring piece of the national identity of Germany. In fact, it is illegal in that country to display Nazi symbols or language, and also illegal to deny the Holocaust. It is mandatory that this part of the nation’s history be taught in schools. You will find no statues of Hitler or other Nazi leaders, no buildings named after them, no swastika laden flags flying.
Not so in the good ol’ US of A. We defend our statues of men who fought on the side of slavery. We demand our rights be upheld to wave our confederate flags. We choose to believe that they represent our past, our heritage, and we say we can’t, nor should we erase history. But it’s time that it was rewritten. It’s time our own national shame was named and accepted.
It’s time that we as US citizens, especially those who are white like me, engage in vergangenheitsbewältigung. Until we are willing to grapple with our past and take responsibility, we simply can not move forward. There is this rampant attitude that because we never owned slaves, we own no responsibility for slavery. Because we didn’t agree with Jim Crow, we can’t be held liable for segregation. Because we have no explicit hate toward other races personally, we can’t be burdened with fighting systemic and inherent racism.
From his cell in Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned these words, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
The thing is, before I literally stood at the exact spot where the atomic bomb was dropped, I didn’t feel that sense of collective responsibility. Yes, I’d learned about World War II, I knew the US dropped not just one but two nuclear bombs on Japan, but I had never felt shame over it. Sadness, sure, but not shame. Not until I had to look it in the face.
Racial injustice is staring us in the face. No one is asking you to feel guilty about slavery. No one wants you to apologize for being white. No one is saying you’re to blame. But we must be willing to look racism in the face and accept responsibility; not blame, but acceptance. Acceptance that we’ve inherited an unjust system. Acceptance that it must be fixed. Acceptance that it’s incumbent upon us to fix it.
This is an extremely uncomfortable position to place ourselves in. It feels vulnerable and scary to open ourselves up to the idea that things are not the way we thought they were. There’s this well-documented psychological phenomena called the “backfire effect” which basically shows that when we’re presented with information that is counter to our current beliefs, our brain responds the same way it does to a physical threat; that is to say, we fight. We feel attacked, and we often do our best to defend our viewpoints and look for people who confirm what we already believe. I know this because I’ve been there. When Kaepernick took a knee, I ranted and railed. I’ll be forever grateful that there was grace for that response, and I was shortly after able to push beyond the discomfort to learn more about what was real, compared to what was comfortable and familiar.
We weren’t made for comfort. We were made for each other. If we want to live in a country where we can confidently claim to protect liberty and justice for ALL, we need to embrace humility, decry oppression, and elevate the marginalized. If we want to say ALL lives matter, then we need to behave as though ALL lives matter. This looks like listening when people tell us things are broken, that they are being systematically and consistently dehumanized. This looks like learning more, responding with empathy, and lamenting together. This looks like disrupting status quo until status quo looks like justice.