To My Fellow Urban, Educated Whites
I stayed awake early Wednesday morning for the sun to rise, but it didn’t.
It was too cloudy for me to confirm this new day in America, November 9th, 2016. Donald Trump — President. President Trump. President Donald Trump. President Donald J. Trump. Almost a week later, these words continue in my mind on repeat, yet I still struggle to accept them as reality.
I’m truly nervous that our planet is now even more likely to reach global climate catastrophe. I’m horrified that the most powerful armed forces in history will be controlled by an intemperate 12 year old accustomed to getting the cookie from the cookie jar after tweeting enough insults. I’m even starting to worry as a Jewish writer and journalist, recalling all those Anti-Semitic undertones bubbling throughout Trump’s campaign.
And yet, these are still abstractions to me, the straight, white male. I walked outside on Wednesday, and I was honestly surprised at first to hear the birds chirp. No houses were on fire. The streetlights still worked. What I saw was what I’ve always seen, and so I calmed a bit even as the words President Donald Trump remained so outrageously unbelievable.
Though ominous the clouds seemed that morning, once I had time to think, I could recognize they were just clouds. I turned to CNN commending Trump’s “genius” as they walked courteously in cautious step with our imminent new ruler to ensure peaceful transfer. We are shown a magnanimous Trump humbled by the incredible duty suddenly thrust in his tiny hands. As concepts are processed and immediate reality is assured, we begin to rationalize a reality we only imagined in fictional, apocalyptic terms. ‘So much of that is campaign rhetoric… He can’t actually deport 12 million people… He won’t actually ban all Muslim immigrants… He can’t single-handedly end American democracy’ and so on and so forth until we are normalizing an incompetent fraud becoming president of the United States on a platform of white, misogynist nostalgia.
To be fair, some of this rationale is warranted. Trump is not so much an ideologue but a narcissist who discovered dog-whistle politics and anti-elitist rhetoric as appealing to and amplifying the anxieties of forgotten Middle America. But to his fringe supporters — and his extremist advisors — it doesn’t matter either way. While my immediate security is affirmed with the world simply spinning, America’s oppressed endure discrimination they have always experienced now emboldened by a presidential mandate. Since before the Constitution counted every black man as 3/5th of a human being, racism has been deeply embedded in American society, but not since Jim Crow has it been validated on a societal level like it just was. As existentially frightening this new world is, it still remains so abstract for me, the unwilling victor: the white, straight male.
We, the white, educated progressives don’t know how this could happen, and it makes sense from every perspective. My shock the past week mirrors that same disbelief when I’d first hear from friends the rampant racism or misogyny they’ve always endured. We couldn’t imagine a doomsday scenario ever affecting us because we are the cultural elite where we still enjoy our latte the morning after a bigot is elected.
But there is more than one side to my personal insulation. While I only hear the stories of misogyny and bigotry in black and brown communities, my world is at an even greater disconnect with my Middle America counterparts. From far away, I dismiss them as racist and stupid, even if there’s a good chance I’d speak and think just like them if I grew up as they did. While we build bridges with the oppressed, we excoriate the angry working class, condemning collectively deplorable support without addressing the root economic anxieties that made regressive nativism so palatable in this election cycle. Instead of recognizing our outgroup dismissal, we are possessed by it all the same.
Indeed, it is truly incumbent now for every socially conscious white person to stand by people’s side when there is harassment or assault or degradation in all social spaces physical or digital and offer love even in those quiet moments. We must support the numerous civil rights groups that will be on the frontlines in the coming years. But while recognizing and challenging the new order, we must strive to end our part in America’s polarization. We can’t elevate ourselves as the enlightened white elite blessed with a heart. We’ve enjoyed completely separate existences from both minorities and the working class so that a Trump presidency seems incomprehensible from a political, social, economic, logical, and moral standpoint. But in the world of minorities, it’s not so far-fetched for people to support a bigot, and for the working class, it’s not so crazy to support an outsider offering change.
The Black Lives Matter movement defines greatest the struggle that all oppressed people endure. To not matter isn’t to be necessarily hated or derided — it’s to simply be inconsequential. In Middle America, black and brown lives are often inconsequential because black and brown problems are far more abstract — and thus disputable — than the problems workers personally face. At the same time, urban, educated progressives decry stagnant wages for the 99% and jobs shipped overseas where workers can be properly exploited to the shareholders’ benefits, but we speak for these blue-collar workers without seriously engaging with them. We are careful not to mansplain or whitesplain, but we chafe at the idea of collegesplain. There is a fundamental difference between whitesplain and collegesplain; to whitesplain is to reinforce the problem by assuming authority for matters you directly know the least about, while collegesplain by contrast infers greater exposure to ideas and information. But by dismissing anyone who doesn’t speak our academic language, we condemn their perspectives to the annals of personal irrelevance, an easy temptation in the fractured worlds we inhabit.
Understand — we are living in an unprecedented world of 7.4 billion people, millions of businesses and websites, thousands of languages and peoples, hundreds of governments, dozens of Ben & Jerry’s flavors, and only so few opportunities to change anything in our lives. Our world is so overwhelming, and we have so little control, we feel condemned to whatever fate these amorphous forces dictate. Our options become either to unite under common banners, or revert to nihilism. Trump’s election is the statement by workers left behind that their lives matter. This aggregates into a declaration that brown, black, female, disabled, and LGBT lives don’t matter, but that isn’t how many Trump supporters see it. White working class workers had voted for Obama, the previous symbol for change in Washington, but now, Trump is that symbol — even if he offers scapegoats instead of real solutions. It’s not like the racially and gender oppressed suddenly didn’t matter to these people. Black and brown lives were always inconsequential, and so, a chance for change among the exasperated and the ignored justifies a tacit coalition with xenophobia and misogyny after twice voting for our first black president.
In this insurmountable world of institutions, people, and ideas, we all look to community-anointed leaders to mobilize. Frustrated and anxious whites look to Trump, and they hashtag to make America great again. We look to our favorite woke authors or activists, and we hashtag to check your privilege. The allure of the echo chamber is having a voice in a world of billions. Our social media groups construct a reality that we desire, but consequently, we fail to constructively engage with those forces from within and without. We cannot proceed forward on dogmatic terms. If anyone is to pursue that hallowed state of woke nirvana, it must come from true contemplation and understanding of what our social justice terms truly mean and what truths others’ beliefs rely upon.
This requires a fundamental reclamation of what truth means in society. We never had all the information, but what we once read held journalistic integrity. As Donald Trump belies the New York Times in favor of Breitbart propaganda because honest reporting reveals him to be a deeply narcissistic, misogynistic, racist, ignorant, dishonest man, there are no universally accepted truths when our echo chambers validate what we want to believe. It is a tragic illusion of choice dictated in actuality by the primal wishes of our collective identity. We have to invest in media with journalistic standards and fill our echo chambers with what we need, not what we desire. The propaganda followers must be questioned not with condescension but incredible patience and dedication to interrogating the truths held within a constructed reality. Nobody can glean information for the sake of validation. Because if you think everything you encounter on your newsfeed is true, you’re kidding yourself.
It is our duty as privileged whites to work towards serving as that bridge between economically oppressed blue-collar workers and oppressed minorities so people can begin to understand what systemic racism means, how capitalist oppression permeates, and how they intertwine (see: neglected urban areas). Facebook statuses do little in their echo chamber realms to remedy this divide. To attempt dialogue with someone of an entirely different constructed reality is excruciating and can feel pointless, but it is the only option we have as voices in the amorphous abyss. Those former Obama voters who went Trump need to understand that black and brown lives aren’t inconsequential, but truly matter. Conversely, we need to understand that the lives of working class Middle America — the primary short-term losers of capitalist globalization — matter in an economic sense. Even if their manufacturing America will never be great again, we must work together so they aren’t forgotten as we proceed forward. We must enter a conversation among one another utilizing first principle reasoning to understand why we all believe as we do and what each of us experiences.
If we, the white, educated, urban progressives choose to declare war on Middle America, we are the ones who will suffer the least. It will be a cultural war predicated on second-hand understanding that will only further endanger the oppressed and fail to ease the poor white’s economic anxiety as they attack the scapegoats rather than confront the forces of power. We can never normalize hate and bigotry. We can never accept a President Trump as normal. But we must constructively engage with opposing forces and its accomplices as our white privilege allows, having those difficult conversations we always avoid in a way that actually makes a difference.
The looming task is daunting. To challenge these nebulous forces requires collective transcendence. As individually powerless we feel, only that indomitable belief in humanity can guide us past illusion and misunderstanding. Otherwise, the mistruths will metastasize and the schisms of isms will entrench further. We can’t allow it. We can’t simply muse, retweet, or subscribe. We must act.