Opinion

Hey white people: we’ve got work to do

Immediately following Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election last week, I, like many of you, found myself asking a lot of questions: “What do I do now? What do any of us do now?” I knew a route forward had to exist, but at that moment I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t escape the pain long enough to see it.

I don’t mean to say that I felt pain or sorrow for myself. I quickly recognized that the actions of a Trump administration would not impact me nearly as much as they would the millions of people that the president-elect belittled and dehumanized throughout his campaign. Instead, the pain settled in as I looked around the living room of my house and saw the looks of pure despair and fear on many of my friends’ faces. During my time here, I’ve tried to make a point of listening to the stories of those around me who feel oppressed and marginalized, and I’ve tried to understand and empathize with their struggle. This, though, was different. This was a silent understanding. This was all the fear and horror I try to learn about, personified in the face of a clear and present danger.

The moment I knew Trump would win the election came coupled with the realization that I had not done enough to stop this from happening. As a straight, white male at Macalester, I thought I’d spent a lot of time over the past few years learning about my privilege, but the election provided an unexpected, yet warranted wake-up call for me. As I wandered around our eerily quiet and somber campus the day after, I found myself feeling complicit in this outcome. I realize now that it shouldn’t have taken this election to make me realize just how prevalent the forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry still are in the United States, but it did. We all should have been paying closer attention before and realized that our vote simply isn’t good enough. So, now, I’ve got a message for my fellow white people (particularly for my fellow white men) who consider themselves liberals: it’s time to step up.

I understand how easy it is to tacitly support the movement for social justice. Prior to the election, my outward expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement extended only so far as conversations with my family and a limited group of friends back home. These talks were often met with strong resistance, and so I didn’t press too hard. I, like many of you, didn’t want to risk burning bridges with those close to me. I let sexist comments slide because my friends insisted that they were “just joking” and I “needed to be more chill about it.” This inaction led to real consequences. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and we as white people have to understand that allowing even these small injustices to occur, no matter how easy they may be to overlook, permits the forces behind them to continue to exist.

I realize right around now, some of you might start feeling defensive. This is the part where you start rationalizing your actions (or inactions) to make yourself more comfortable with them. I understand that instinct too. It’s a natural impulse for many of us when we feel criticized or embarrassed. I’ve made mistakes and been called out for things I’ve said before, as I’m sure many of you also have. I’ve given into the temptation to defend myself and doubled down on those comments because I didn’t want to admit I was in the wrong. We have to resist that urge. It adds unnecessary tension to the situation, closes our minds, and makes us less open to meaningful future dialogue.

I worry that living as a white liberal at Macalester sometimes numbs us to the reality of our world. There are so many echoing voices advocating for social justice here that we become complacent. Our campus gives the illusion of being so much better than the rest of the country when it comes to these issues of equality and justice. Buying into this idea opens a dangerous door that lets us feel better than others simply because we’re here. We cannot allow ourselves to accept that premise. The exact community that likely teaches us so much about oppression can also feed our complacency. Studying at Mac doesn’t grant us a free pass to stop critically examining ourselves. The country just sent us a brutal reminder that outside this bubble, most of the rest of the nation doesn’t think like we do. Both on this campus and off of it, we have to pay more attention to the injustices around us, learn from them, and act upon them. We shouldn’t need to rely on people with marginalized identities to point them out to us and encourage us to take action.

This brings us back to my original question of what to do next. That question likely yields a different answer for everyone and a plethora of great options exist. In the short term, I personally recommend that whenever the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress attempt to push an agenda that threatens civil liberties, pick up the phone. Call them repeatedly and do so at their local district office, not the one in Washington D.C. Be the thorn in their side that just won’t go away. Force them to provide explanations for their actions. If you possess the financial means, give to groups like Planned Parenthood or the International Refugee Assistance Project among any other equally important groups. Start having those difficult conversations, even if they threaten to add strain to your relationships. Ensure that you listen more and talk less especially when sharing space with marginalized people. In the long term, think about how your lifelong goals interact with social justice issues. Consider running for office, or better yet, supporting candidates of marginalized identities who are running themselves. Think about going to law school and becoming a lawyer to fight on behalf of immigrants, refugees, members of the LGBTQ community, Native Americans, and anyone else facing civil rights violations. Look into working for or creating organizations that promote social justice and equality. Become the best teacher you can and work in the places that need you the most. Possibilities exist everywhere. It’s our job to relate them to the struggle for equality.

My fellow white people, we’ve got work to do. We reap the benefits that white supremacy provides. That means the task of dismantling it falls on us. If you’re like me and you know you haven’t done enough to promote a more just world, then it’s time to start rectifying that.

November 18, 2016

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