Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Dear white people

Some of the thoughts in this post have been bouncing around inside my head for much of this year. Events have transpired that make it impossible to keep them inside any longer.

The United States of America just elected to the presidency the most dangerous and least qualified candidate ever - a narcissistic bully with the temperament of a toddler, with no apparent grasp of any important policy issues, and with a long history of denigrating women and members of various minority groups, and probably of sexually assaulting women as well. Said bully received the majority of the vote share from both sexes and all age ranges of whites, and was roundly rejected by all other voters.

There is something deeply wrong with White America.

Donald Trump's campaign was largely based on demonizing groups like immigrants, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Muslims. He actively courted the support of white supremacists, often retweeting them, and was endorsed by the KKK. The sad reality is that anyone who would support the man who ran such a campaign is at worst an active supporter of, and at best fairly indifferent toward, white nationalism. And therefore the majority of white people in this country are at worst active supporters of, and at best fairly indifferent toward, white nationalism. I do believe, and hopefully it's not just me trying to be charitable, that for most it is indifference, not active support, and that this indifference comes out of ignorance, not actual malice. Nonetheless, it is all extremely troubling. I weep for all the people out there, especially the children, who are members of these already marginalized communities. The message this country has just sent to them is appalling.

I know that most of the people reading this will not have been Trump supporters. But that doesn't mean we shoulder no responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves. Figuring out how this happened and how to find our way out requires confronting some uncomfortable topics.

I remember when I was growing up, and the civil rights movement was covered in school. We learned about how black people used to be held as slaves. Then the Civil War happened and slavery ended, but they were still discriminated against in many ways. But then, in the middle of what's now the last century, we had the civil rights movement. Discrimination was outlawed! Schools were desegregated! Racism (at a societal level, even if some individual folks continued to hold racist beliefs) became largely a thing of the past! Or so it seemed, based on what we were presented in school.

No one ever brought up the curious fact, when we learned about desegregation of schools, that we were sitting in a classroom in one of Ohio's best public school districts and our classmates were almost 99% white. And just miles away was a much larger district with failing schools, in which most of the students were black.

This isn't something that happened by accident. And it certainly isn't the fault of those black students or their families. It's the result of centuries of discrimination at every level of society. Discrimination that may have lessened over time, but did not go away. And even when it lessened, the carryover effects of more overt discrimination in the past are not easily washed out. I'm not going to expound here on all the ways in which this is true. There's a lot of good reading out there if you want to know more about it. One such article is The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It really astonishes me how I was able to go so long in life being oblivious to all of this. It's only in the last couple of years that I've become fully aware of my past ignorance, thanks in large part to the heightened focus on police killings of unarmed black people, killings that have gone on for ages but have only now received widespread attention thanks to social media and the ubiquity of smartphones with cameras. The Black Lives Matter movement has done a great service in bringing these issues to the forefront of the national consciousness. And the reaction by many to that movement has done so much to illuminate just how big of a problem racism still is.

I really did spend most of my life living in a bubble. I'm fairly certain that in the last year and a half I've had easily more interaction with black people (in contexts other than their being employees of businesses I was patronizing) than I had in the entire rest of my life combined, which is due mainly to three events: I became very close friends with a black woman who was one of Cara's best friends, another black woman joined the research lab in which I work, and I started participating in pickup basketball games at the fitness center at work. And looking back now over the course of my life, it just stuns me how easy it is for a white person to go through life like that in a country that supposedly prides itself on being a diverse place in which people of all backgrounds can chase that American Dream.

In the online game Psychobabble where Cara and I met, our group of players often enjoyed trying to make very offensive sentences - we found it hilarious to take a set of innocuous words and come up with something shocking. Some of the offensive sentences were racist in nature. I totally did not believe any of those racist statements were true. To me, it was all absurdist shock value humor. Looking back on all my old screenshots today, I still find a lot of the other offensive sentences funny, but the racist ones now disgust and embarrass me. Because there are so many people who still genuinely hold such beliefs, and the effects of such beliefs continue to be so embedded in the power structures of our country, I no longer find it at all funny to make "ironically racist" statements as jokes. Yet somehow, ten years ago I was apparently under the impression that racism was no longer a major problem in our society!

Fortunately I had a good upbringing and was raised to respect all people, and I never held any overtly racist beliefs, but I still picked up prejudices that I've had to try to shake (as all people inevitably do in a society that bombards them with subtle and not-so-subtle racist messages). The reality is, though, that if you go through life not knowing any people from a certain group, it is much easier for demagogues to instill in you a fear of that group. And so we see that the places with overwhelming Trump support tend to be the places in which white people can go through their daily lives without interacting on a personal level with any minorities. Trump played to the fears that have been stoked by the right-wing media for decades and told those people that he would "make America great again." Which means what, exactly? When in the past was America more great than it has been in the Obama years? Was it when Jim Crow was legal? Really, "make America great again" means make America a safe space (yes, that concept so derided by conservatives) for white people who are afraid their privileged position in society will disappear.

What is there to do about all this?

That's a very difficult question to answer.

But one thing that has become clear to me is that we as white people have the privilege of basically ignoring racism because talking about it is too difficult, and it doesn't have a direct effect on our lives. Whereas minorities don't have that privilege. So when I see or hear someone express a prejudiced opinion, I can just shrug it off and not challenge them because I don't want that conflict. I'm sure a lot of us have had that experience. Today it seems like a lot of white Americans find calling someone racist for their expression of racist sentiments to be a greater offense than the expression of those racist sentiments. That is really not right and it has to change. We have to be willing to challenge prejudice where and when we see it.

It's a conundrum, of course, because if someone says something racist and you call them out on it, it's not likely their mind will be changed. They will probably take being called out as a personal insult, and might even cling more tightly to the racist belief. But there are other people watching and listening. People whose beliefs aren't so set in stone. Especially children. And it is the battle for the hearts and minds of those people that we have to fight.

I have a lot of experience with seeing prejudiced comments from people I know and just letting them slide because I wanted to be polite and didn't want to cause conflict. This is primarily with certain relatives. Let me be very clear that there are no purely good or purely bad people. These relatives of mine have many good qualities and in most ways are decent people. I don't think of them as "deplorable" people. But at the same time, they do hold some deplorable beliefs.

Furthermore, I think one of the problems with the discourse on race is that most people associate racism with extremists like the KKK, and when someone says "that's racist" to a prejudiced statement they make, what they hear is "you are racist, and therefore a bad person." When in reality it wouldn't really be inaccurate to say that everyone is racist, in the sense of harboring (often subconscious) racial biases that affect one's worldview, because it's impossible to avoid picking up such biases when you live your whole life in a world full of them. The important thing is how you respond to them - do you actively work to suppress them, or do you let them control you?

The point I'm trying to make is that when I talk about these examples of racism by people I know, I'm not saying that they are terrible people, or that I don't care about them. But I also can't continue to just let such troubling and destructive views go unchallenged.

I have an uncle who has made racist statements on a number of occasions over the years, in a family email list. Not KKK-level racism, not even close, but still things that are undeniably racist. Such as saying that the generally worse outcomes for members of the African-American community must be the fault of African-Americans, because other minority groups (such as Asian immigrants) tend to be more successful. Which ignores the whole history of anti-black racism in this country, from slavery through Jim Crow through all sorts of things that still persist to this day. Years ago there were a few times when I would, often snarkily, challenge something he said (usually not even a directly race-related issue but something else political), and there would be a little spat on the family email list. And then I learned to be more polite, but I also learned to most of the time just ignore such troublingly prejudiced claims. And I've watched in dismay over the last eight years as some of his siblings seem to have become more influenced by that sort of worldview.

Here's the thing: none of them supported Trump. They all despise Trump. My uncle is appalled by Trump. But my uncle also spent years as an editorial columnist in which a number of his columns, without using explicitly racist language, nonetheless helped to promote fears of blacks and of Muslims in his readers. And it seemed like most of the time no one in the family would challenge this. So I mostly gave up trying to do so. Because I was tired of the conflict and tired of being alone in putting up an opposing voice. Obviously, my trying to be a more active anti-racist voice would not by itself have prevented Trump from being elected. But if all of us who care about such things and have been silent because we cared more about politeness and avoiding conflict had instead repeatedly spoken up over the years? Who knows?

On the other side of the family, I have an aunt who is a Trump supporter. When I posted something on Facebook about the plagiarism in Melania Trump's convention speech, my aunt replied with something about how Melania had still done a better job than "Aunt Esther." I didn't know what this meant so I looked it up and learned that Aunt Esther was a character on the TV show Sanford and Son who was basically a stereotypical "angry black woman," and that some right-wingers call Michelle Obama that. So basically, that comment was racist as hell. I just ignored it. I know, speaking up probably wouldn't have changed my aunt's mind about anything. But if all of us together make an effort to consistently speak up on such matters, it can change some minds.

It's a very difficult and delicate situation. It can be tempting to want to just cut Trump supporters out of your life. But doing that will only serve to further radicalize them. Yet constantly just letting their prejudiced statements slide will only help validate those beliefs in their minds. I think we have to try to constantly show people, regardless of their beliefs, that we do care about them as people, but also that we cannot accept their denigration of those who are different.

It would be so easy to just give in to hating Trump supporters the way that the more extreme among that faction seem to hate so many other groups of people. There's a tendency among many to blame "both sides" of an issue. "Trump supporters are prejudiced against Muslims and immigrants, but Hillary supporters are prejudiced against rural white people. They're both just as bad as each other." And there are indeed many liberals who are too dismissive of the concerns of the white working class. The difference for me, and I would hope for most people on the left, is that although I vehemently disagree with Republicans on most issues, I have no desire to take away their citizenship, their health care, their quality of life. I just want to stop them from taking those things away from other people I care about.

I hope that a coherent message is coming through in this rambling post. This whole situation is so very upsetting to me. Even had Hillary won, the fact that someone like Trump came so close to being elected president would have been deeply upsetting for the ugly truths revealed about our society. The fact that he actually won is devastating to me on a level perhaps only exceeded, in my life, by the death of my wife Cara, and has largely shattered my faith in humanity. But, I don't want to give up hope. Because Cara wouldn't.

I should also mention that, although my post is focused on the issue of racism, the issue of sexism is equally important. Rape culture has been a hot topic for the last few years (I urge you to read Jon Krakauer's excellent book Missoula for more on this topic), and Trump, disgustingly, is now clearly the president of rape culture. I've seen some people today bemoan the fact that Hillary was nominated because they feel Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump. I'm skeptical of the notion that the same country that just elected Donald Trump would have elected a Jewish socialist, but I'll acknowledge it is possible that Bernie would have won. If it is true, though, that Bernie would have been more successful than Hillary, I have to say that the main advantage for Bernie over Hillary would have been that this country is really fucking sexist.

Where do we go from here? We have to all vow to be there for each other, and especially for the members of all groups threatened by Trump (which, sadly, includes pretty much anyone who isn't a straight white male), because unlike Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, we can be very confident that Donald Trump will not be there for those people. Speak out against prejudice, racism and sexism. Don't just let it pass because you'd rather be polite. Organize to resist at every step of the way the potentially catastrophic effects of a Trump presidency (the potential repeal of Obamacare and the likely reversal of progress on climate issues alone are utterly terrifying). At the same time, vow to do good for others - even for those who would do harm to you or someone you care about. Because we are all in this together. And we have to show everyone that that is still true.

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