an open letter to mr. obama
Dear Senator Obama,
There are so many things I would like to discuss with you, about your policies which I agree with 90% of the time, about your integrity as you manage your campaign and as you face down one of the nastiest and most mismanaged opposing campaigns ever witnessed in history, about your loving family which sets such an encouraging example for American people, about the inspiration you have been to me in a time when I struggle to be proud of my country… But I want to tell you a story, my story of how this campaign has touched my life.
It starts with a seven year old white girl riding the bus to school and a fight over a seat by the window. That seven year old girl was me and I was fighting with an African American child. As we argued, the words ‘whitey’ and ‘blacky’ were exchanged. Later that day, the principal of my school entered my second grade class, called me to the front of the room, and spanked my bottom for using a racial slur.
I remember curling up on my bed later that day and crying hot tears, my heart aching. I had been humiliated. The other girl had tattled on me, and failing to mention her own racial slur, had gone unpunished. I had worn an old pair of training underpants that day, and as my dress had been lifted for the spanking, my whole class had seen them. But even that was not the cause of my tears. What ripped my seven year old heart out was my disappointment in myself for saying something I didn’t mean, for allowing others to think I cared about something as silly as skin color, for being accused of racial bigotry. As long as I live I will never forget the depths of that little girl’s pain.
Now I live in Pennsylvania, a state that has been getting much attention for our supposed biases. I live in a decidedly middleclass and racially mixed town three miles from an indigent, largely African American urban environment. Driving the three miles from my house to those city streets takes you past many million dollar homes, almost all of which are owned by white people. We are a diverse, multi-cultural, dynamic point on this nation’s map and I think we qualify by anybody’s standards as Real America.
Although I haven’t allowed myself to dwell on it much in the past and certainly I’ve never talked about it, I face every single day what you referred to in this speech as the racial divide. I witness black anger and white resentment when I shop at my favorite vegetable market, when I buy gas, when I walk through the food court of our mall, if only in facial expressions and body language. Even with my African American friends, there is always a reserve, a diffidence, a guarded tension. I applaud your courage to say that “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” I too think it’s time we looked it straight in its evil eye, and your campaign as well as your speech has allowed me to do just that. What I’ve been privileged to see fills me with hope.
For the last five weeks I’ve been volunteering at my local Obama campaign office. I have canvassed the very streets I mention, and I have served as team leader for a phone bank two nights a week. While volunteering I have worked side by side with white men and white women, black men and black women, poor people, rich people, Jewish people, Christian people, and even Republicans, and never once have I felt the bitter airs of racial divide stirring in our midst.
Last week I went to a GOTV meeting in a town hall that was packed so full people were standing shoulder to shoulder. Every racial, religious, and socio-economic group in America was represented in that room. The mood was joyful. We shared a common goal and in it we were able to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Throughout the speeches given by politicians and community organizers there was not one negative reference to the other side, and nothing but howls of excitement and hope and pride emanated from this crowd.
Every day I walk the streets of my town wearing an Obama button on my chest and every day people, many who look decidedly different from me, offer me smiles and high-fives and fist bumps, and it feels wonderful. I know you have said in your speech that you don’t believe one campaign, one candidate, one election cycle can heal all racial wounds. I’m sure you’re right, but in my world it has been a much needed salve, a giant first step toward racial wellbeing. You have given us a common cause to fight for, and simply by giving each other the benefit of the doubt – an incredibly empowering thing – we are fighting together as one, in peace.
Imagine this country if we could find the right slogan, design the right button to pin on every American chest that would kindle in all of us a desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with the strength of our nation, with the future of our children – every one of them with no exception – as our common goal. Imagine if we all found it in our hearts to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Imagine if we all made the choice not just to move beyond this racial stalemate but to put down our weapons and walk off the battlefield together.
In that image I can see perfection, Senator Obama, and I thank you for the glimpse.