For the past six years, Margaret Biser was privy to unique insight on how Americans view slavery. As a tour guide at an undisclosed Southern historic site, it was her job to lead visitors around the plantation, telling them the stories of the lives of the more than 100 slaves who toiled there. But it wasn’t the narratives she learned and shared that surprised Biser, who is white, the most. It was the misconceptions she frequently encountered from visitors and what they said about how they view race, both in the past and present. She shares them in an illuminating essay on Vox.com.
Among the things she learned was that there are many people who think slaveholders “took care” of slaves because they cared about them, and that the slaves should have been grateful for their efforts:
This view was expressed to me often, usually by people asking if the family was “kind” or “benevolent” to their slaves, but at no point was it better encapsulated than by a youngish mom taking the house tour with her 6-year-old daughter a couple of years ago. I had been showing them the inventory to the building, which sets a value on all the high-ticket items in the home, including silver, books, horses, and, of course, actual human people. (Remember that the technical definition of a slave is not just an unpaid worker, but a person considered property.) For most guests, this is the most emotionally meaningful moment of the tour. I showed the young mother some of the slaves’ names and pointed out which people were related to each other. The mom stiffened up, raised her chin, and asked pinchedly, “Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got from their mistress?”
Biser also encountered many guests who felt that slavery wasn’t that bad an institution.
One important branch of this phenomenon was guests huffily bringing up every disadvantaged group of white people under the sun—the Irish, the Polish, the Jews, indentured servants, regular servants, poor people, white women, Baptists, Catholics, modern-day wage workers, whomever—and say something like, “Well, you know they had it almost as bad as/just as bad as/much worse than slaves did.” Within the context of a tour or other interpretation, this behavior had the effect of temporarily pulling sympathy and focus away from African Americans and putting it on whites.
In reflecting on her experiences, she realized that her guests were downplaying the horrors of slavery in an attempt to absolve themselves. “In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past,” wrote Biser, who left the plantation a few weeks ago. “We don’t want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slaveowners, and they weren’t defending slaveowners so much as themselves.”
Read her full essay here.