This is another hard reflection for me to write. In order to be honest about how The Underground Railroad impacted me, I have to confront my privilege. As a white person, I have the privilege to ignore the horrors of slavery and their lasting impact. I have had the ability to have a general sense of its horrors, but never fully understand them. My privilege has allowed me to live in relative comfort thinking it wasn’t much different from how I was taught in school it was. After reading The Underground Railroad, I had a choice on whether to continue to live in the comfort of that privilege or acknowledge that I had hid behind my privilege all these years.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but to a certain extent, I like to bury my head in the sand. While this is in some ways a metaphor, it was also how I handled scary situations as a child. When there was an unnerving scene on TV, I would stick my head between the back of the couch and the couch pillows. My parents used to joke I was an ostrich. But even then, I wanted to hide instead of comforting what makes me uncomfortable. To this day, I still want to hide when I feel uncomfortable, though I don’t stick my head behind pillows anymore. But I do disengage. Disengagement and feigned ignorance has been my shameful secret to how I cope with America’s painful past.
Even as a young child, I paid attention to politics and as I learned about America’s shameful past, from slavery to Native American genocide to colonialism and the like, I distanced myself from America and disengaged from American politics. I loved politics and political behavior, but focused on comparative politics over American politics because I could not love a country which had such an awful past. But over the years, I learned that these awful pasts exist in most countries and the best way to love a country is to try to repair the damage.
I switched to American politics in my PhD work and became more actively engaged in politics. Before I had to stop working due to disability, I was working in politics. I had made progress on learning to love a country that had such an awful past. What I hadn’t worked on was confronting the full reality of that past nor the underlying institutions that exist to perpetuate it still today.
The Underground Railroad does not only show the horrors of slavery, and horrors is not a strong enough word to describe at least one of the scenes in the book, but it also shows the horrors of the institutions created outside of slavery perpetuating second class citizenship and indefinite servitude. It is not the history of slavery per se that has led to the institutionalized racism of the day, but rather the institutions which were created around slavery specifically to ensure that former slaves and freeborn blacks did not obtain too much power after slavery fell. While some people did not believe slavery would fall, others saw that it was not sustainable and put into place measures to ensure white privilege and black struggle for intuity.
Nothing made that more obvious to me than the fictionalized depictions of North and South Carolina. Even if I wrote spoilers here, it would not be possible to to truly feel the impact of those chapters without reading the book. These fictionalized accounts of reality highlight the real effects these policies had, even when they came from “good” intentions. In many ways, the depictions of what happened in these two states will haunt me more than the horrors of slavery in Georgia. Nearly anyone can see how immoral slavery is when faced with accounts like those of what happened in Georgia; but it is a lot harder for any of us to see the horrors of institutions designed with the best intentions until someone like Whitehead takes them to their limits and shows us the true outcome.
It is not as though I was entirely unaware of some of what was depicted in the Carolinas. I knew of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cervical cells were taken without her consent and used for medical research. As a PhD student in a science, one learns about the research that was once done on people of traditionally marginalized groups and performed on them without their consent. But knowing generally and living it through the eyes of a character are two different things. Though Cora does not specifically witness nor experience medical research without consent, she is privy to other immoral medical situations, and it is through her and other characters’ reactions that I understood the legacy of such actions. Black people have a reason to not trust medical personnel, the government, and whites in general, but it was not until I The Underground Railroad did I understand that connection.
It is incredibly hard for me to admit this, not only because it bruises my pride which believes that I am clever, but also because it highlights my white privilege and my choices to hide my head in the sand. I’ve been told time and again by readers I trust that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a powerful, well-written read, but I have yet to read it. I did not dive into the history of research abuses the way I have other bits of information I come across. I haven’t read personal accounts of slavery or watched the famous movies around them. I am uncomfortable with seeing humans treated in inhumane ways on a level that is painful to me. But reading The Underground Railroad has shown me that choosing to not see historical reality means I not only do not understand the institutions in place currently but also my role in maintaining those institutions.
Part of why I did not want to know more is because I do not know what to do with this knowledge. It is a heavy burden, but one I do not know how to resolve. I am a person who struggles to see the value in short-term goals and small wins, though I am trying to move toward a path where I can see the value in them. What I want to do is save the world, but as I will discuss in my reflection on The Hate U Give, there are serious problems with that framework. Which means I have work to do and I have to end this post feeling as though I am leaving the topic unresolved. But I am stepping into the vulnerability and sitting here with the discomfort. I am trying to do as Brene Brown suggests and not puff up or run from the discomfort. This is where I am right now. I’m not proud of it and I do not want to be here, but it is where I am. I know I will gain more insight by staying here and reflecting than I will by I taking action or hiding behind my privilege. This is me, raw and without all the answers. I feel naked, but I am trusting the process.
How do you face the discomfort of privilege, whatever that means to you?