Two anecdotes about why “white working class” voters felt excluded

I put “white working class” voters in quotes because the evidence shows that though it was mostly white, in fact a significant portion of the Trump electorate was not working class but quite wealthy. As far as I can tell, the real common thread among most Trump voters was a sense that they and more importantly their identity had been excluded from and ridiculed by the mainstream media and political establishment.

I think a lot of people on the left feel outraged that some white Americans could feel excluded when they have no idea of the suffering, discrimination, and harassment faced by so many who are not white, straight, male, or Christian. I’ve read many posts in the last few days that could be summed up as “fuck white people”, basically saying that their claim of exclusion is bullshit. But I think once we’ve all calmed down a bit we’ll see that the picture is more complicated.

There’s no arguing that white privilege is very much real and alive. But just as the fact that Barack Obama was elected president doesn’t change the fact that racism is still a pervasive problem, the fact that white privilege exists also doesn’t imply that the pain felt by Trump voters isn’t real.

Just as the fact that Barack Obama was elected president doesn’t change the fact that racism is still a pervasive problem, the fact that white privilege exists doesn’t imply that the pain felt by Trump voters isn’t real.

I hear snarky comments all the time from liberals that, were they directed at a politically sensitive group, would have been rebuked and rejected as hate speech. (Admittedly, on occasion I’ve uttered some choice comments as well.)

Two examples from my own life came to mind as I thought about this.

Appalachian shame

I dated a guy for a few years who grew up in West Virginia but had spent most of the last decade living in New England. He never quite got rid of his twang and would complain all the time about how people commented on it when he first met them.

I personally felt that it was to his credit that did so well for himself, and that his accent was something he should own, acknowledging where he was from, where he is now, and the hard work it took to get from A to B.

But in his mind, his accent was associated with poverty, ignorance, and backwardness. Moreover, he felt that those around him also made that association, and that it would color their opinion of him, despite the fact that he was by all standard measures a successful and intelligent person. It made him ashamed of where he’s from and, to be honest, I think it made him ashamed of who he is.

Sadly I think he was mostly right that people discounted him because of his accent and his origins. I’ve heard too many snide remarks and white-trash jokes to be so naive as to think otherwise. When people tell those jokes they may believe it’s a victimless crime, but it’s not. Just because someone’s not a minority, that doesn’t mean their identity isn’t important to them or that it doesn’t hurt when someone insults that identity.

South Boston

Last year I worked extensively in South Boston for a start-up project. I met many of the local business owners and community associations doing good work there. The people I met were almost exclusively white and most were women. Some had grown up in the neighborhood, some had moved there later, but all of them felt heavily invested in the South Boston community. It was a great experience getting to know them, and they were as welcoming and supportive of my project as I could have hoped for. I really admired the way that they worked together on community initiatives like the annual Street Festival or the holiday shopping strolls.

For outsiders, and perhaps even for some just-arrived South Boston residents, that community is alternately a joke or a relic waiting to be bulldozed and converted into luxury condos. Youtube skits like “Real Housewives of South Boston” play on caricatures of South Boston women as slutty, stupid, and vain, while movies like Good Will Hunting make it out to be a hellhole to escape from.

(Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that South Boston was one of the communities that voted for Trump. I honestly highly doubt it. I’m citing it only as a mostly-white community that has historically been marginalized and whose long-time residents may feel a similar sense of being excluded. Indeed I had many conversations about the skyrocketing cost of housing and the rapidly changing demographics that hinted at such a feeling.)

I think this is symptomatic of a wider cultural acceptance of ridiculing white communities in a way that would be unacceptable if it were about a community of color or another protected group. That’s not to say minority communities aren’t ridiculed or worse, but nowadays when it happens usually there’s a strong pushback from vocal advocates. In addition, there is also a relatively consistent stream of re-affirming initiatives aimed at fighting discrimination.

For white communities, no such pushback exists, affirmation is hard to find, and so they may feel abandoned in confronting the very real problems they face including poverty and addiction.

(Now you can say that’s nonsense: every successful white person portrayed in the media is an affirmation of white success. Well, yes and no. The problem comes back to the question of identity: are the successful white people that we see identified as a part of the those communities that feel put down? My guess is likely no. In Trump voters’ minds, they’re mostly members of the so-called “coastal elites” and more estranged cousin than role model.)

The road ahead will require bold confrontation but also compassionate reconciliation. There will be many issues and policies where we’ll need to vigorously challenge the Trump administration if and when it enacts its alt-right agenda. At the same time, we should also re-examine the way we talk about marginalized white communities, and we should take special care to think twice before ridiculing them, just as we would think twice before we’d ridicule a black or Latino or gay or Muslim community.