A Letter to My Fellow Straight, Cis, Progressive White People
Dear straight, cis, progressive white people,
It’s been less than a week, and we’re all still grieving. I know you feel angry, betrayed, bewildered, and possibly hopeless right now, because I do too. Before all those feelings fade — before we all go back to living our comfortable white lives — I need us to talk about something. We need to talk about our responsibility for Trump.
I know you didn’t vote for him. I didn’t either. There’s a good chance you even campaigned against him, for Hillary or Bernie, like I did. I know you’re appalled and don’t want to think about, let alone talk to, a Trump supporter right now, whether it’s a family member or a friend on Facebook. That’s OK. We don’t need to dive in immediately. But please hear me when I say this: we can’t disassociate ourselves forever from Trump supporters, because the people who elected him are white like us.
Yes, their vote suggests that they hold different values than we do. But whether you are openly racist, support a racist candidate, or denounce one, if you are straight, cis, able-bodied, and white, you benefit from the foundation of white supremacy on which this country was built. It’s a system that was and is designed to help you, simply because it deems you white.
I’m sure you know this, and in saying it, I’m not trying to be pedantic. But I think it bears repeating because, while a lot of us, including myself, do a good job of acknowledging and thinking about our white privilege, what we don’t do enough is instrumentalize it. We don’t use it to chip away at the power structure that creates and upholds it. This is part of why we lost the election.
I think it’s helpful to think for a moment about how pervasively white privilege effects our lives, especially those of us who are straight, cis, and able-bodied. We can move through public spaces with a reasonable expectation of not being harassed (with the obvious exception of women). We can confront the police without fearing that we’ll be shot and killed. We can advocate for ourselves without being labeled “uppity” or “ungrateful.” We can have conversations with other white people, who take us into confidence based on an assumption of kinship. We can borrow money from banks more easily. We can get jobs more easily. We don’t need to expend energy worrying that the health care we’re receiving is subpar, negligent, or harmful because our doctors are silently discriminating against us. Simply put: what white people are accustomed to as “normal” is actually exceptional in this country. We can literally go places and do things that PoC and LGBTQ people can’t. If we want to defeat Trump and the bigotry he represents, we must take advantage of our advantages.
What does that mean in practical terms? I’m not going to offer a list of specific ways to take action, because others have already done that better than I could. But I want to raise two points for moving forward.
First, we white people need to talk and listen to other white people. Because our fellow white people are going to talk to us much more openly than they would anyone else. Have you ever been at a party and had someone you barely know casually offer up a racist comment, with an air of confidence and conspiracy? This is white supremacy in action. And rather than simply being horrified by it, we need to learn to use it as a way to pry open conversations. Is that going to be uncomfortable and probably totally demoralizing? Yes. But who else is going to do it? PoC or LGBTQ people who are literally fearing for their lives? No. It has to be us. And even if most of our conversations fail, we owe it to the rest of the country to try.
Second, we straight, cis, white people need to support organizations made for and led by people who are not straight, cis, and white. This does not mean starting new organizations. This does not mean being a white savior. This means finding groups, preferably local ones, that work on social justice, gender, environmental justice, LGBTQ, racism, or housing issues and giving them our time, our labor, and our money. It means asking them what they need, rather than assuming we already know, and doing whatever we can to help fulfill it. As so many PoC activists have pointed out on social media in the past week, people throughout this country are already doing the work. They have been doing the work. Now Trump has been elected, and they will keep doing the work, because for them it’s not a choice. It is a choice for us, and we have to make it.
Let me be clear: I am not calling on you to become a political organizer (unless you want to be, in which case, DO). Nor am I suggesting you attend a flurry of protests in the next several months and then settle into the new normal. (Trump and the administration he’s assembling are not normal.) What I am asking you to do is to start volunteering for a few hours every week and to start doing and saying things that make you feel uncomfortable. I’m asking you to understand that unless we burst the white bubble, we’ll be facing a lot more than just four years of this terror.
One final note: I have heard a lot of us—an alarming number of us—saying, over the past week, “Let’s wait and see what happens” or “It’ll all turn out fine.” Well, OK, here is what is already happening: hate crimes and the bringing of a white nationalist, anti-semitic, misogynist man onto the White House team. But beyond that, take a moment to consider the people around you: your immigrant friends who don’t have official status here, your Muslim neighbors who wear hijabs, your gay coworkers who got married not too long ago, your black friends who fear the police (if you don’t know any of these people, that’s an important place to start). Ask them whether they feel they can afford to wait. I would bet the answer is “no.” Because that waiting is a privilege — it means your life is not currently at stake. History has proven time and again that just because something isn’t happening to you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Forgetting that is the ultimate privilege.