The letter below summarizes my thoughts on a touchy subject. I have put them in the form they are in because I don’t think my son is old to have that discussion in its entirety right now.
To My Dear Son,
One of your mother’s hobbies is investigating her ancestry. She spends a lot of time on various websites, tracking down distant cousins and having email conversations with strangers about whether they might possibly related. She also took a genetic test to give her more information about her ancestry and convinced me to do the same.
I didn’t pay enough attention, but my recollection is that taking into account your mother’s background and my own, your blood, so to speak, is primarily Ashkenazi, Irish and Iberian. In our culture you learn a lot about the Ashkenazi and the Irish, but not so much about Iberia, so let me share some of its key history with you. Perhaps more important than anything else was the conquest by the Moors and the long campaign to drive them out. In 711 AD, these Arab-African invaders crossed the straights of Gibraltar. It took two decades for the Moorish expansion in Western Europe to be halted. A Frankish army under Charles Martel defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours, but that didn’t help your ancestors; the invaders would enslave and subjugate Iberia for almost 800 years.
Over 8 centuries, a lot happens. There were times when the Moors could be described as benevolent overlords. At other times, the Moors were vicious, crushing their subjects underfoot with little remorse. But the desire for freedom remained through all of that, and eventually, there was the Reconquista. In 1492, the Portuguese and Spanish people finally managed to take back their countries.
A natural reaction might be anger or even hatred toward Arabs and Africans for perpetrating such an outrage on your ancestors. You might even think restitution is in order. That might be a natural reaction, but it is a bad one for a number of reasons:
1. These events happened a long time ago, and they didn’t happen to you. Sure, there is path dependence, and perhaps your circumstances would be very different had the Moors been less cruel, but that is conjecture and wishful thinking. What you deserve, morally, for the suffering of your ancestors is nothing. Absolutely nothing. For the same reason, I might add, you don’t owe anyone else for what happened to their ancestors either.
2. The people who invaded Spain and Portugal and oppressed your forebears are long since dead. Their descendants who were expelled to Africa in the decade or two beginning in 1492 bear no guilt. How could they?
3. 800 years is a long time. Time enough for the invaders and the invaded to mix and match a little bit. The Moors bred with the locals, sometimes by force and sometimes with consent. As a result, there may even be a touch of Moor, however diluted, in your gene pool. It doesn’t show up in the tests your Mom took, but that may well be due to imprecision of the current commercially available technology.
4. In the same way, some Africans today have Iberian genes. Perhaps more than you do, in fact.
5. The sad fact is, we are all, with the possible (but extremely unlikely) exception of the San, descended from oppressors and invaders. And we know one thing with certainty: your ancestors gave better than they got. This is self-evident from the fact that you are here and an uncountable number of bloodlines were wiped out.
As a result, the wise thing to do is to treat everyone with the same respect, at least until they prove they don’t deserve it. But not everyone has wisdom. Sleights perpetrated against their forebears motivate a lot of people. Making matters worse, one person’s oppression is another person’s heroism. For instance, Osama bin Laden, whom you will one day study in a history class, talked frequently about reclaiming Al-Andaluz (i.e., the Iberian Peninsula). To him, the Moors were conquering heroes spreading the One True Faith, and their expulsion was an injustice that must be avenged.
So while you should treat everyone the same at first, try to develop the ability to tell if a person feels the same way. Be very, very wary of those who carry around the past like a crutch or a club. Some of them are dangerous. Most will accomplish nothing, and the reasons for it will generally lie close to home. But people don’t easily accept mediocrity, especially when it is self-induced. People like that will blame you for their failure. These people don’t respect themselves, and they certainly don’t deserve respect from you.