There’s no ignoring history and privilege

It is necessary for white people in America to confront privilege in order to form a “more perfect union.”

Chelsey Perkins

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched the racial flare-up surrounding Sen. Barack Obama with trepidation, waiting to hear the presidential candidate’s views on racial discrimination. Like many people ready for changes in a variety of institutions in this country and, consequently, the world, Obama’s message of change from the bottom-up has resonated with me.

Yet, this potential for change Obama speaks of cannot be fully understood without first understanding, and then acknowledging, that the past is ever present. For a nation whose founding principles, which guide many of our daily lives and make it possible for my thoughts to appear here today, were written and spoken by liberty-loving men who also owned slaves; for a nation whose laws allowed, within lifetimes of the living, people to be separated based upon the color of their skin alone; for this nation, we cannot ignore how past and present institutional oppression shapes the racial and economic landscape we experience today.

A friend of mine has a family member who recently proclaimed he would vote for Sen. John McCain. When probed for the reason of his allegiance, he replied, “Black people are voting for Obama, women are voting for Hillary Clinton. I’m a white male, so why wouldn’t I vote for a white male candidate?” The fact that until this point, every nonwhite, nonmale person in this country has had no other choice but a white male was apparently lost upon his logic. His answer represents to me a certain kind of historical amnesia, manifested in what we’ve been told since elementary school: We live in a melting pot in which everyone’s political and economic destiny lies in their own hands, as soon as they pull up those bootstraps.

I am impressed that Obama has chosen to discuss these issues upfront. So many politicians sweep racial discrimination under the rug for fear of making white voters uncomfortable. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that Obama’s carefully chosen words did show a little restraint. He addressed the fact that underprivileged people exist in this country, while steering clear of the existence of a natural counterpart: over privileged people.

And I, as a white person, am one of those over privileged people. It’s something I’m not proud of, it’s something over which I have felt guilt and shame, and it’s something I think about and notice every day of my life. White privilege is something that pervades all white people’s lives, whether by opening a newspaper to see mostly white faces or benefiting from an accumulation of wealth made over a time period when people of color were systematically denied the opportunity to accumulate their own.

I am not saying these things to be divisive or to make others feel guilty. I am saying these things because I believe that in order for change to happen from the bottom-up, white people must be allies to those most affected, no matter their color of skin, with an understanding of ways in which privilege has shaped their own lives. It doesn’t matter that historical decisions were made without your control or approval. What matters is that you use the privilege reaped from that history toward making this country a place where liberty and justice truly is for all.

Chelsey Perkins welcomes comments at [email protected]