Complicating my view of history

map of redlining

Hello, my name is Alex Hansen and I am a white, middle-class woman studying theater and social justice. My proposed summer research project was to interview the incredible women who are leading the Black Lives Matter movement. To begin this research, I needed to first understand more about the history of oppression of people of color in this country. While I had a basic understanding of this from history and sociology classes, I have learned so much more since beginning this project and reading in depth the many ways institutionalized racism has been carried out in this country.

One of the first things I read was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations. The subtitle reads

“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

Coates is an eloquent writer, and The Case for Reparations certainly showcases this. Outside of that, though, Coates has set out to make a case and has armed himself with more than enough facts to do so. I personally was more than convinced. Despite how disenchanted I am with the United States’ as a whole, there was plenty in the article that still surprised me, including but not limited to the realities of discriminatory housing practices and the fact that for the past 25 years Congressman John Conyers Jr. has introduced a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects at every session of Congress and it has yet to be passed. This bill simply puts forth the idea of researching the effects of slavery and the possibility of reparations, and still no one wants to pass it. After reading Coates’ article I wanted to share it with everyone I knew, particularly family members I had previously discussed things like affirmative action with. Yet I also wondered if being able to read about this would actually change their minds, or if their immediate reaction would be defensive. I began to wonder how one communicated the necessity of change to those who thought things had already changed enough.

Coates' explanation of redlining gave definition to my murky understanding of discriminatory practices, and the focus on Chicago hit particularly close to home.
Coates’ explanation of redlining gave definition to my murky understanding of discriminatory practices, and the focus on Chicago hit particularly close to home.

Reading Coates’ article gave me solid facts as to how discrimination continued after the Civil Rights Movement despite what we (white people) like to think. Further readings complicated my understanding of how people were thinking about civil rights and how they would best be implemented. I read several essays in Critical Race Theory, most of which referenced Brown v. Board at some point. Whether this was to talk about the slow and unsteady implementation of Brown v Board through many other cases in individual districts, the quality of the newly integrated schools, or whether integration was really a helpful goal, all of these essays complicated what had always been taught to me as a relatively straight line through history. One of the essays that struck me the most was Alan David Freeman’s “Legitimizing Racial Discrimination Through Antidiscrimination Law: A Critical Review of Supreme Court Doctrine”. What has really stuck with me is his explanation of the two perspectives of racial discrimination, the victim and the perpetrator. Basically the victim perspective holds that discrimination exists based on the conditions of social existence as member of a perpetual underclass. The determination for discrimination depends on the victims experience. The perpetrator perspective, on the other hand, sees discrimination as a series of actions inflicted on a victim by a perpetrator. In this situation, someone must intend to discriminate against someone else, which proves to be impossible to prove in many situations. I find this really applicable to many of my discussions with other white people, particularly older family members, though sometimes with people my own age. “I never owned slaves, so why do I have to pay for what other people did?” They see things like affirmative action as empowering people of color at their expense, even though they as individuals did not “do” anything wrong.

A collection of brilliant legal analysis still somehow accessible to a non-law student.
A collection of brilliant legal analysis still somehow accessible to a non-law student.

Much of my preliminary research has me thinking about how to communicate this information to white people who are not going to take the time and read several books and many articles about this subject. This is something I am going to carry with me as I continue this project, particularly because as a white person I think it is my responsibility to share what I have learned in any way possible. I have also been inspired by so many of the talented, thoughtful, passionate and strong writers I have encountered thus far. If you’re interested I would recommend checking out Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing at The Atlantic (, all of the work by the Crunk Feminist Collective (, Professor Zandria F. Robinson’s writing (, and the information on the Black Lives Matter site ( The first three I recommend based on the fact that they are current, poignant, and often humorous. The last one is a good reminder of why the movement began and why it needs to continue.

If you have any reading recommendations for me I would love to get those. I think I could spend the entire summer reading and have just touched the surface of all the incredible work that is out there, though I am hoping to move forward with some discussions in the near future.

3 thoughts on “Complicating my view of history

  1. Thanks for the reading recommendations! Very interesting project. I really like how your focus seems to be tactics for reaching out to people who already have deeply entrenched beliefs about race and it’s role in the U.S. today. Unfortunately it seems that this topic has not been given the proper reanalysis in the recent past, but I suppose that is part of the goal of the Black Lives Matter movement : a large-scale reanalysis of racial relations in America, why they are the way they are today, and how they can potentially change in the future.
    I started getting interested in the covert forms that racism took post-Jim Crow after hearing an episode of This American Life called House Rules which is about how important the neighborhood where you grow up can be and the passing and lack of enforcement of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. It’s free online and one of the reporters works for ProPublica and her name is Nikole Hannah-Jones, I think you’ll find her articles and the whole site a good resource. I would also recommend The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, it’s DEFINITELY in line with your interests! Good luck and I look forward to reading more!

  2. Alex!!!
    This is actually so inspiring and amazing. I for one am super proud that Gallatin is supporting projects like yours -ones that actually develop a poignant change on an academic and personal level -and I say that as a friend, fellow student/scholar, black woman and artist. Amazing work.

    I think the role of white allies in the #BlackLivesMatter movement is extremely important and I want to encourage you to keep working in this area and employing the same care and respect that you have so far. One of the hardest things to understand is another person’s experience, especially when your own background is in opposition. I think you’ve done a great job of understanding the black American perspective and working as an ally.

    As far as recommendations, I have a few (mainly from Nancy Agabian’s creative non-fiction class -I recommend highly!). “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin and “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” by Kiese Laymon (avail on are two of my favorite essays on trying to comes to terms with blackness in America, specifically the American South. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh and “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person” by Gina Crossley-Corcoran are great teaching tools to explain white privilege. Also, you have got to check out “Stranger in the Village” byJames Baldwin (here: which is simply just my favorite Baldwin essay (if you’re reading him anyway, read this one).

    I’m excited to hear how the project progresses!!!

  3. Dear Alex,

    I’m so so proud of you and of everything you’ve already done as part of your research. It sounds like you truly took the time to fully dive into the issue, and to tackle the topics that are sometimes most difficult to discuss, especially among white people.

    You wrote that you have been thinking about ways to communicate the issue with fellow white people who might not be as passionate about the subject as you are. I think one way to go about it, is to talk about the issue in the most positive way possible. Instead of saying: this is everything we’ve done wrong in the past and we are the ones to blame, you could look at it like: this is all the progress we’ve made so far, but this is what still needs to happen. Although the mistakes of the past should be taken extremely seriously, I think it’s also important to look at the way the United States has been trying to deal with it so far, which then shows what is still left unsolved (which I know is a lot, but still!).

    Something else that might be interesting to do, is to ‘zoom out’ and look at how fast change has been happening so far. You could look at major milestones in black history and see how much of an increase in positive change there has been, which can help you figure out what you can expect and hope for in the future.

    It almost feels weird writing this because I realize how much still needs to be done, but I do think that if you look at the positive change that has already happened, it can stimulate people to implement even more change, instead of reminding them of their mistakes in the past.

    Can’t wait to read more about your hard work!


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