Oh, Mary

Roots of Systemic Racism

June 5, 2020
Melanie Wilhoite

Many years ago as a student at Cal Berkeley, I sat in the stands at Memorial Stadium watching a football game and noticed a black athlete on the Cal team named Wilhoite. Someone named Wilhoite was black. For someone like me, a young woman who grew up in a white middle-class family in suburban Los Angeles in the 1970s, this was a revelation. My neighborhood was largely populated by white people like me, along with growing populations of Hispanics, Filipinos, Chinese and to a lesser degree, African Americans. But to understand that there were black people out there with my rather unusual name instantly opened my eyes to something I’d never considered. My forebears owned slaves.

Both sides of my family have roots in the American South back to Virginia in the 1700s. There are several branches of the Wilhoite tree that branch off from Granville County, North Carolina, and Bedford County, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. The heart of cotton country in the late 1700s and 1800s.  

I was able to determine that the family of a direct relative, Young Wilhoite, had one slave in Granville, NC in the year 1810. Between 1833-1851 a woman named Hetty Wilhoite, likely a distant cousin by marriage, owned six slaves she had inherited from her wealthy father. I cannot deny that my family has benefited from slave ownership. And even though that was a different age and time, it does not erase the fact that my family, and therefore I, have benefited from the sacrifice of slaves. And this is to say nothing about the labor that African Americans dedicated to the country, from building the White House to monuments and countless other country-building tasks.  

Despite knowing all this, and despite considering myself very pro-equality and anti-racist, despite recognizing that there has historically been a lack of equality for my fellow Black American citizens, I have never thought too deeply about the part I might play in systemic racism, until now. 

As my fellow African-American citizens take to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minnesota policeman, I am having a difficult time coming to terms with what this all means for me, personally. I am taking it upon myself to learn why this week the Black community is taking to the streets the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1960s. They are fed up with the numerous ways inequality and racism have manifested in America as a pandemic rages and affects blacks to a greater degree than whites, both physically and economically. I’m finally, after 55 years, thinking more deeply about what systemic racism means. What I can do about it. What I shouldn’t do. I am embarrassed that I made the mistake of asking fellow people of color, just this week, how they view what’s happening. My role is not to put upon others, but to educate myself. And to know better.

I am starting small, reading and watching a lot, donating to Black Lives Matter and the Nationwide Bail Fund to help bail community activists out of jail. I am talking about it with others, joining in conversations. Sometimes awkward conversations. Sometimes I don’t get it right. It’s not much, not enough. Can it ever be enough? 

The roots of systemic racism are long and deep. So deep that we may not even realize they are there, in our own family trees. Even if all we can do in the moment is think about it, try to understand how we have benefited from our slave-owning forebears, asking what we can do today, and truly committing with our hearts to be part of the solution, I hope that’s a start.