Remembering Even the Worst of Our History Is Important

Rebecca Todd Peters, Times News, February 26, 2015

My third grader is a white child in a Title I school in our town. She’s writing a report on Harriet Tubman for her Black History Month project, devouring information and proudly sharing stories from Tubman’s life with our family.


We talk together about Tubman, slavery and the history of racism in the South. As a white mother of two white daughters, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to educate my children on the racism that exists today in our communities and lives and how it is connected to the history of our country.

It is imperative that I teach them that their white skin is a privilege in a country where brown people are discriminated against in both conscious and unconscious ways.

But talking about privilege is hard, and not just for parents. For most people with privilege, talking about it makes us uncomfortable. Admitting that we have privilege seems unseemly at best, but worse than that, for many of us, it feels arrogant.

The fact that people have difficulty even recognizing their own privilege is well documented and one of the reasons that privilege is so hard to address as a cultural phenomenon. For starters, how do I teach my children about social privilege without reinforcing social privilege? It’s not easy, but it certainly won’t happen if we ignore it or pretend like we don’t have it.


The history of lynching in the South is just one of the pieces of our past that has largely been erased from our physical landscape and thus, for too many, from our consciousness. It is much easier for whites to remove ourselves from the reality of lynching when it appears as a list of horrors in a textbook than it is if there was a memorial marker down the street from our house or in the middle of our town.


How much of our own white privilege is built on the history of their actions? What might accountability look like in a discussion of lynching in the South?

We must learn how to distinguish between guilt for our privilege (implying some wrong behavior on our part) and accountability for our privilege (implying action that challenges the unjust reality of white privilege).

Accountability in the case of lynching might include memorial markers, increased attention to the motivations and effects of lynching in our collective past, as well as careful consideration of how the history of racial prejudice, violence and terrorism continues to shape race relations in the United States in the 21st century.

Accountability for people of privilege must include breaking out of the safety of our cocoons of privilege and building relationships with people across lines of difference. It must begin with acknowledging and examining our privilege and then figuring out how to use our privilege to address the ongoing forms of injustice that we see in our neighborhoods, our communities, our country, and the world.

For our family, it also includes supporting our public schools, talking about Harriet Tubman at home, and encouraging our children to make the connections between the history of slavery and the conditions of poverty and injustice in our community and in their schools.


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