As we stand on the precipice of a Trump presidency, white allies need to realize it’s our time to take a supporting role. When you’re used to being in charge, it’s sometimes awkward to relax your grip on control. There may be strangeness, crossed lines and overcompensation. But right now we are needed for support, not for leadership.
In service of finding our proper role in this movement, here are several things that white allies should probably stop doing. These behaviors are rampant on Facebook, on blogs, in Op-Eds and embarrassingly, in some of my own writing. There is no space right now for public displays of hand-wringing and guilt, nor is there space for grandiosity and self-importance. So as we move ever-closer to Inauguration Day, can we all agree to cut some of this shit out?
The #notmypresident movement is bullshit for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, you cannot be indignant when the right says “not my president” about Barack Obama only to whip back around in 2017 and shout it about Trump. It was disrespectful to the office of the president then, and it is disrespectful now. The constitution protects your right to say whatever you want about the man in office, but it does not protect your right to ignore his authority. That’s a terrifying and disheartening fact, but it’s still a fact. If you are a United States citizen, this man is your president.
Additionally, even though he did not win the popular vote and Russian hacking most likely helped sway public opinion, he still won. He won using arcane, stupid rules, but he won. That means he represents us to the rest of the world. You disagree with him? Great, join the club. But as president, he is our representative at home and abroad. By saying #notmypresident, you are abdicating your duty as a US citizen to make your voice heard. #notmypresident is a shrug of a movement. It gives you permission to be offended by his actions while you, yourself, remain actionless.
Pick a different hashtag.
Congratulations, we are all here now. Our eyes are open. Our hearts hurt. We’re angry.
There is, however, no need to rant on Facebook each and every time we experience a revelation about institutional racism. There is no need for us to beat our breasts on Twitter every time we feel shook by the privilege we once took for granted. There is no need for screeds written in a shaky voice, begging forgiveness for past trespasses, bemoaning the ineptitudes of those other white people.
Performing woke-ness is gross. It is off-putting both to the people who were already there (“Yeah, it’s so cool that you’re joining us just now. Can you please pull it together or get out of our way? We’ve been working.”) and people who aren’t there yet (“Why are you so aggressively and dramatically throwing this in my face?”). Self-reflection is vital. Critical analysis of lifelong privileges, and the resultant guilt, is the only way white society is going to change. But melodramatic shows of our angst are obnoxious at best and actively harmful to progress at worst.
The Suffragettes were upper class white women. Second Wave feminism was studied and propagated by college-educated, upper-middle class white women. White women have been leaning in all over the place for decades and have made absolutely no space for women of color and queer women within the movement. Cries for unity have been used to silence dissenting voices. And now, at the start of Trump’s presidency, white women are bowing out of hard conversations because it is not providing them the “salve” they desire.
That’s unacceptable. Former feminist movements have gotten us to this point; a point where women of color and queer women still face exponentially greater economic and physical hardship than white women. We can’t be ok with that. We have to do better. And doing better will require open minds and lower defenses. If women of color tell us that we don’t understand their lived experiences, we have to listen with the intent to understand. Queer women’s anger should offend us, not because it exists but because it has so many causes. When we’re told to open our eyes further, read more, listen better, we need to do it. Don’t wave away someone’s rage and pain because it’s uncomfortable to hear. Change comes from discomfort. We have to throw ourselves into it instead of backing away.
The internet has become an algorithmically perfect echo chamber. Our carefully constructed essays on white people’s passive participation in institutional racism aren’t going to reach audiences that need such explanations. If I get 64 likes from my liberal arts college classmates, feel like I made a difference and then go back to watching Netflix, I haven’t done shit. If I block racist family members, refuse coffee with high school friends who voted for Trump and bow out of difficult conversations with coworkers, I’m only helping myself.
Anyone can shout an opinion in a room of people who agree with them and receive rapturous praise. What’s the point though? Confirmation that people agree with you? Awesome, people agree with you. Let’s move forward and start on the much more difficult work of changing minds.
The country is already divided enough without us pushing people away to protect our moral superiority. Blocking racist classmates on Facebook isn’t an act of protest, it’s a huge waste of a platform. There are people who cannot safely go into the spaces that we white people can. There are people who have historically been ignored and degraded and physically hurt by white audiences. These same white audiences may at least listen to someone who looks like them. We need to help spread the messages that need to be spread.
It should no longer be the responsibility of people of color to educate white people. They’ve been graciously doing that for a long ass time, and it’s our turn to pick up the slack. A Trump supporter from your hometown is not likely to seek out the writing of bell hooks of their own accord. However, they may listen if you, a white person, engage them in a conversation, try to unpack their ideology and work to change their mind. It’s harder and less immediately satisfying than ranting online, but it’s the role we white people are uniquely suited to play.
This battle that we liberal white people are raring for has been going on for centuries. The parameters and lines were drawn at the start of the nation. We need to recognize that while this new administration is unprecedented in many ways, they’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done in smaller, seedier, quieter ways for hundreds of years. Just because we, in our young educated liberal circles, haven’t heard slurs and dog whistles and racial scapegoating, doesn’t mean it was somehow gone for a while. Discrimination was always here. It’s just now being talked about in language that we understand and coming from bully pulpits we can no longer ignore.
We are not going to be generals in a new fight. We are long overdue back-up.
White allies are currently working to find where we will be most useful and what causes to put our backs into. It’s a difficult, wide-reaching and ultimately personal quest to find where you best fit. Do your research, talk to your friends, reach out in your communities. Learn who needs you and do what they ask.
But let’s agree to turn our guilt into respect for those who have been fighting for freedom and equality. Let’s use our privilege to support those who struggle to keep going. Let’s go into spaces and communities where our white skin provides us safety and engage those who have long buried their heads in the sand. We are not leading this charge, but our open, active participation in it is vital. Now is not the time for us to sit behind our computers bemoaning the state of the world as we see it. Now is the time for us to listen and follow and go where we’re needed.