"I remember the first time I questioned my existence on this Earth. Disregarding all the philosophical dimensions of being and the state of nature more abstractly, I narrowed my focus to the reasons for which I was “here,” in St. Louis, Missouri as a five-year-old Caucasian girl in 1998. Rather than delving into the metaphysical question of “Am I here?” I asked myself, “Why am I here?” and “How am I here?” The immigration of my ancestors over the past 350 years explains the former. Unfortunately yet inevitably, some degree of collective white shame explains the latter."
With this paragraph, I began an essay discussing my proposed solution to the involvement of Northwestern University's founder, John Evans, in the Sand Creek Massacre (see Careful Inspection). While I chose to focus this essay on the pragmatic remedies to be made with regard to Sand Creek, I now elect to delve into the issue raised quite deliberately in the final sentence: collective white shame.
On the one hand, I constantly ask myself, Why have I been so blessed as to benefit from the spoken and unspoken advantages given to non-first-generation white Americans? On the other hand, right wing pundits and also the formidable, inspirational pride asserted by certain minority and social groups suggest that maybe no such significant discrepancies exist.
However, despite intimations of the contrary, I am convinced that America and certainly the world at large is not acting in complete accordance with The International Bill of Human Rights.
Perhaps my thesis studies on women's asylum procedures have spurred my recent feelings of guilt on account of my race, nationality, religion, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group (which so happen to be the five grounds for persecution according to the Geneva Convention). Notwithstanding grave matters of human rights violations, the fact is that I've never in my life had to move from the nation I called home to a brand new one. I've never been forced to learn a whole new language on top of my native one. And most of all, I've never had to and will never have to live with the residual aftermath of these events and the ethnic, linguistic, racial or any other type of discrimination that accompanies it.
Maybe I'm blowing this whole concern out of the water. Maybe I shouldn't feel so guilty for being who I am, for possessing the advantages that I do, for automatically bypassing hurdles that others face everyday. It's true; I'm often way harder on myself than I need to be, and I've expressed considerable gratitude for my blessings and support for those who aren't quite as lucky. Despite all the empathy and hope I've voiced, however, I can't help but feel ashamed not by what I have done but by what society has done thus far in order to afford white Americans this undoubtedly privileged status. While disadvantaged individuals can certainly achieve remarkable success in the long run, why do they have to work twice as hard to get it as I do? Sure, I have my own obstacles to face; we all do. But race is something that just cannot be changed.
Lest I rack my brain to eternity on this issue, the only solution I can come up with is actually quite simple: to do everything in my power to encourage people of diverse cultures to spread their unparalleled knowledge and gifts, and to increase broader understanding of the advantages in melting the pot. Though it's sometimes more tempting to commiserate solely with people like you, you could be missing something big, something life-altering by neglecting people who aren't so much like you. I for one have gained what I would consider groundbreaking insight after coming to college, befriending the people I have and debating the people I haven't. Furthermore, whereas some individuals choose to "erase race" and pretend as if no differences exist, I prefer to uncover and embrace the unique perspectives and lifestyles that only such variations can bring to the table. The answer is not the erasure of differences, but the acceptance and welcoming of them. Your brain is a lot more capable than you think; give it the chance to take in some challenging viewpoints and partake of meaningful new cultures.
Be not ashamed of the advantages you possess, but be open to the many ways in which you can enrich them through others and share them with the world.
Absorb, grow, and sow the seeds of community, yes, and of partition, no.
Sweater: J. Crew (old). Jeans: Bebe (old). Scarf: Zara (old). Shoes: Ann Taylor.
All photos courtesy of Alex Zhu.