Why we need to take a social justice chill pill regarding Donald Trump

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This is my first semester as a faculty member in a higher education program full of future student affairs educators brimming with dreams and hopes of making the world a better place by helping to make higher education institutions places that are accessible, inclusive, and educationally beneficial for a wide-array of students. I have been challenged to consistently meet my students where they are and grapple with all the complexities that go into crafting a transformative educational experience for them. I have not had many opportunities to reflect on this new journey so I am excited to take this first foray (thanks Fall break). One topic that has come up over and over again in the classes I am teaching is the state of the U.S. presidential election and specifically concern over Donald Trump, his “irredeemable deplorables,” and him/them potentially winning the election in just under a month.

Now some (incomplete) disclosure about my salient identities (i.e., my postionality)is important before I continue. I am Christian, a partner in an inter-racial marriage, black, heterosexual, first-generation U.S. citizen (both of my parents were born in Jamaica and immigrated to the U.S. in the 70s for school), cis-gender male that is temporarily-able bodied. I grew up in a single parent household with one sister, in what would be considered the working-class. However, since my mom had her PhD and worked as a school guidance counselor, my sister and I had access to considerable amounts of cultural and social capital that didn’t make us feel as “poor” as we really were in hindsight.

I grew up in South Florida in a very diverse area, I am a part of a black fraternity, I hold a bachelors, a masters, and a Ph.D. from three well-regarded educational institutions putting me into a new SES class, and I consider myself to be somewhere on the politically conservative spectrum. This last identity has caused me much dissonance over the years and led me to study the political identity development of college students to better understand how people come to form their political thoughts and ideologies during their time in the formative educational space of college.

What all this means, in short, is that I bring a myriad of lenses into every experience that I have and use these lenses to make sense of life and construct a reality that is consistent with my goals in the social justice process. That being said, I am limited and enabled by these (and other) lenses and find solace in the ever-evolving nature of my awareness, understanding, and (in)action that my identities bring to bear for myself and those I interact with.

What these identities also present me is entrance into a lot of different social networks that are in many ways conflicting and at odds with each other. This particular reality is what leads me write this post on my thoughts on the social justice process and the election of Donald Trump. What strikes me as a troublesome is the outrage that people have around Donald Trump and his racism, sexism, islamophobia, xenophobia, etc. What is worrisome about this is that the outrage is misplaced to an extent. We are all and should be continuously implicated in the perpetuation of oppressive systems and to grow enraged at Donald Trump is to deflect away from our/my complicity in other or similar forms of oppression.

The outrage is discernibly robust in the liberal circles I operate in as if their lives are free of benefiting from or perpetuating oppressive systems. Two colleagues of mine recently wrote posts in the wake of Donald Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” leaked audio that incriminates, to an extent, all men in this type of sexist/patriarchal behavior (Jalil, Shaun). Yet, even within their and many other essays on the topic and related comments from Trump — hating on Donald Trump and his “delporables” has become a way for some to feel self-righteous about themselves and their social justice practice. In other words, “we the enlightened are to do better and be better than Trump and his crew in order to not be like them”. This is very narrow incrimination and strikes me as a false equivalency, because even if we do different than Trump and his ilk (whatever that even means), these actions do not free us from the pervasive and ever-evolving ways that oppression operates. This liberal know-it-all, social justice warrior attitude is exactly what turns so many of Trump’s supporters off from realizing how these systems work or that they even exist. Yet, liberals and the media persist in writing these pieces and acting in these ways. This sort of prideful admonishing reminds me very much of a case-study in the danger of this sort of approach.It is my experience that very often “pride comes before a fall” and that the “masters tools cannot dismantle the masters house” and we had an 8-year case-study that bore these points out.

Back in 2008, some on the left believed that electing Barack Obama would do much for race relations in the country even to the point of asserting that we may enter into a post-racial era in the democratic experiment in the U.S. Almost 8 years later, the reality is that racism (along with other isms) are still as prevalent today as it was in 2007 and before. Presidential candidates and their supporters do not create or exacerbate systems of oppression — they are manifestations or the product of these systems. Systems of oppression already existed and are always evolving to marginalize some and benefit others. For example, take the “gain of marriage equality” within the LGBT movement that has come with the erasure or eroding of trans* policy issues in popular discourse and the political arena. Just because a battle within a system of oppression is won does not mean the war with that system is won. We are all located within these interlocking systems and this fact is why trying to claim the moral or enlightened high ground is imprudent and should be met with suspicion from any angle.

My reality is that one’s social justice practice needs to first and foremost focus on their own identities and sphere of control. Put another way — what am I doing — day in and day out — to perpetuate and disrupt, grow more aware or more critical of systems of oppression that influence my life. Beyond that there is an important space to engage with others, but it must, in my perception, come from a place of deep humility and empathy. This humility and empathy in our social justice practice should not be tied to wanting to convince people to think or act as we do or to lecture them about what they are right or wrong about. Our own sense and awareness of our power and privilege should help us to be hyper-aware of how difficult and how on-going this process of learning and unlearning things are. Centering this task of (un)learning about ourselves and learning about others brings everyone into the social justice process and foregrounds that everyone has work to do — me, you, and Donald Trump.

So let’s all take a chill pill and engage in reflection about the work we need to do within the social justice process that I promise will still be there on November 9, 2016. Despite what it may seem, I hope that this reflection in part leads you to voting on November 8, 2016. While the masters tools cannot dismantle the masters house per se, I am a firm believer that we must have a “both/and — all of the above” approach in crafting the type of world we want to live in. Voting for your preferred candidate is just one of the tools at your disposal and I hope you use it in a way that brings congruence between your goals and actions. I also hope that it leads you to seek out people who disagree with you and engage them with a sense that they are people who are on the same journey that you are.

I welcome responses, critiques, feedback, and trolling…