Dear Friends, men and women who are white who are feeling upset, angry, hurt, and marginalized due to accusations of being “racists, homophobes, xenophobes, misogynists,” and other such things because you are white and because regardless of who you voted for, you resemble the “Silent Majority:”
I am writing to many of you whom I call friend, and who hopefully use this term earnestly towards me. I am also writing to those I’ve never met, whom I would likely enjoy meeting, just simply because you’re nice people I’d enjoy sharing cake with. But because of the results of Election 2016, I don’t know if you would enjoy meeting me, because a great many people in this country just made it loud and clear that people like me don’t belong here. So I am hoping you’d like to meet me, but I hold a certain apprehension which I will attempt to explain. Because truly, I don’t want November 8, 2016, to be the day that goes down in history as the date the USA imploded into the Cultural Civil War.
First, I don’t consider you to be a member of the KKK, a person who hates people of color, a man who hates women, a Christian who wants to burn non-Christians, or an American who hates foreigners just because you’re White. I don’t need to be reminded to see you as an individual, because I already know you are an individual. I know you are decent, respectable people who care about your children and the future of this country. You are interested in learning, have the ability to see beyond your own personal experience, and can feel compassion for someone who has been wronged. I also know many of you are not violent by nature and would have no interest in doing any harm towards me or anyone like me.
Second, I also know that many of you may have voted for Trump, or may have at least sympathized with the image of Trump, because you felt like you had been left behind. America had moved too fast and too far, leaving you lost and neglected in a dead forest of debt, unemployment, and disregard. The images of yourself created in movies and television portrayed a middle-American who was, in a nutshell, a bumbling drunk fool incapable of having meaningful relationships. You’ve been told for a long time you are to blame for much of what has gone wrong in the social sphere; you are too white, too manly, too comfortable. And, you have been told that you benefit from the suffering of others, even though when you look around at your mountain of debt, your nonexistent savings, your layoffs and downsizings, your divorces, your miseducated children, and your fear resulting from living in a violent, uncertain world – you see no privilege, no mountain of gold, nothing in your life that says, “you’ve got it all, babe.”
In the midst of this, you tried to say, “hey, stop pointing the finger, I’ve got hard stuff going on too.” And not enough people heard you, and you felt ignored. So when a figure like Trump appeared, someone representing nothing of the status quo, and everything of what success could be, I can understand why his agenda might seem enticing. So some of you let the rest of the country know you would not be ignored any more, even though you want nothing to do with Trump’s sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on.
Third, I also know many of you felt misunderstood, and did not vote for Trump. Many of you saw Trump’s agenda as a path to evil, a representation of the opposite of the Christian morals you’ve been trying to protect, a figure who behaves in ways you would never want yourself or your children to emulate. Even though you may have struggled with this thing called “white privilege” and still may be undecided about its existence, you knew Trump’s behavior became the permission now enabling many white supremacist groups to come out of hiding and put women and people of color “back in their place.” Many of you are just as outraged about his becoming the President-Elect. And now you feel betrayed that you are being referred to as racists, hate-mongers, xenophobes, etc. because you too tried to stand against the message of Trump’s Hate, and you are being judged guilty by white association.
I see you my friends, and I have been seeing you for the full 43 years of my life.
In return for seeing you, what I now ask is for you to – just for a moment – suspend your anger and outrage in the hopes that you might see me as well. And perhaps after we see each other, we will be able to put down our shields and swords long enough to remember what we kept dear between us, and that which will move us forward towards making a society where we hold certain truths to be self-evident, that we are all created equal…
Who are you seeing? I’m the diversity teacher, I’m the person who’s been standing in front of classrooms for 15 years telling everyone that White Privilege exists. I’m the one who’s been asking hundreds of students to consider how Racism affects and hurts everyone, including white people. I’m the one who challenges people to break down dominant discourses like the “American Dream” and meritocracy so we can start to see the multiple ways we have been shaped, influenced, and misled into thinking that if we simply dream it, we can make it happen. I believe it is impossible to grow up in this society, this world really, without being given thousands of messages about who does and does not matter, and that we inadvertently repeat those messages all the time.
I am a woman with a boy’s name; I am a person of color who isn’t always regarded as a person of color. My existence is the “thing” that throws a lot of racial identity concepts out of whack – I’m biracial, a person whose parents identify with two distinctly different ethnic groups. As I define it, my ethnicity is both and neither that of my parents. I am a living example of “fluidity” in its many forms. According to the “old” definitions of race, I’m supposed to “choose” my ethnicity (I suppose in a manner similar to how we “choose” sexual orientation). But the reality of my experience is that most people attempt to choose for me, and based on their own preferences. I get to hear a lot of opinions, particularly when I don’t ask for them, about whether or not I’ve had a bad, misguided life, about whether or not I’ll ever “fit in,” and especially about whether or not I should’ve been born. And to top that off, one of my parents is also an immigrant, so these days I am really the thing that represents “everything that is wrong in the USA,” according to groups like the KKK.
So to set the record straight – I haven’t had a bad life, but I have had bad things happen to me. I have experienced overt racism. More often I experience microaggressions, those small sayings, gestures, indications committed by many well-meaning people who inadvertently suggest my “difference” is also abnormal, undesirable, or flat out wrong. I have also unfortunately experienced violence, enacted by men; I have experience betrayal, enacted by the church. I know racism, sexism, and heterosexism because of what has been done to me.
I also know racism, sexism, and heterosexism because of the things I’ve done.
Admitting my own racism hurts me in ways you may or may not relate to. Because when I admit to engaging in oppression, instead of validating its existence, people who are white often turn this into a “free pass” to completely negate racism. “You did it, so therefore it must not really be there.” Or, “see, minorities do it, so why can’t white people.” I don’t really understand these arguments, because it’s sort of like saying, “you hit Jo, so let’s all go out and hit people.” Hitting is still wrong, except I end up being the only person in the room confessing.
So this gets to something else you may not have noticed about me: while I do hold more privilege now, as an employed person, as an able-bodied person, and I have a certain degree of power – my power can be negated in a second. Now, you may be recalling how you have felt powerless in your life, how you were not really given a choice about many things. Power might look to you like those three or four big houses on the hill in your town, inhabited by people who resemble the upstairs folk in Downton Abbey. And that is a particular kind of power that cannot be denied, and that is felt by very few people in this country and indeed, the world.
But most power isn’t felt. The kid who stands up to the bully, the teenager who moves against the crowd, the adult who speaks up – none of these people feel powerful when they do that. In fact, they feel afraid. And they know these actions could very well fail, and they’ll be worse off than when they started. This is exactly why such acts are courageous, because they act in the face of fear, and because there is no assurance of reward or success. Faith is not an act of power, it is an act of release.
Power in American society rests in the ability to decide what is real or not real in this world. It is connected to decision, including the act of looking the other way. Power comes from having all the ability in the world to speak, but choosing not to, because you don’t have to. And none of this power relates to whether or not you’ve earned it, it is there simply because it was decided long ago that you should have it. White privilege means you are defined as the most desirable thing to be just because you are white. Power means you could have lived most of your life without ever noticing the privilege you were granted.
Power, in this election, came in the form of one word. One word from the self-identified Silent Majority, a group composed almost entirely of white men and women. That is not opinion, that is math. This group with their word, their one voice, turned the entire country upside down. This one word threatens to destroy decades of work towards civil rights. It is the reason why so many people of color, women, and people of the LGBTQ communities are afraid. Because the not-so-silent majority, those of us who have been very loud for many, many years, have been fighting, yelling, and bleeding to create a world where everyone, including white, Christian, heterosexual men and women, can have this thing called equality. And all that work was erased, that history negated, our lives invalidated, with one little word.
That, my friends, is Power.
This is why I am angry. This is why I am hurt and scared. This is why I must do something. I am sorry you are being unjustly accused, and curiously in exactly the same ways many of us have been unjustly accused for a very long time. It is wrong and should not happen.
This brings us to my final point. If you were uncertain about what the effects of racism could be, you have now been given a very big, unpleasant dose of it. And if you don’t like it, then welcome. Welcome to this part of reality we have been shouting about for generations. I do not mean to say, “get over it.” I don’t want you to get over it at all. I want you to feel it. I want you to get angry about it. Because now you know for certain that injustice lives.
A terrifying product of this election cycle has been the rise of White Supremacy. There are many out there, people who are White, who very much want a White America. They are more than happy to get rid of anything not white, and use any means necessary to do so. I don’t mean just the KKK. I also mean those who have been sleeping, the portion of the Silent Majority that were waiting for the new Hitler to emerge, to justify their hostile take-over. You are likely as disgusted by their actions as I am, and this is why it hurts you so much to be lumped in with them.
So I promise you I will not lump you with them. But you’ve got to make a promise too: instead of getting angry at me, get angry at them.
Talk. Tell people, particularly people who are white, how Whiteness does not have to equal hatred, racism, bigotry. Create a definition of white culture that is free of racism, that has the capacity to love and honor difference, that can see culture as a source of pride and mutual enhancement. Tell other white people how outraged you are; declare racist jokes as not funny, say “oops, my mistake” if you engage in a microaggression, try to just listen to (not fix) the story of someone who is different from you. Admit you are not an expert on other cultures, because I’m not either. Consider the ways in which privilege may have betrayed you, and how you can use your power to create the world you want instead of passively accepting the world you received.
And: talk to people of color. If you are stereotyped, it is ok to say, “hey that’s not me.” But also now, during this time when so many non-white, non heterosexual, non-male people don’t know who to trust, take a moment to say, “I’m sorry this happened.” If you too did not want the legacy of Trump’s Hate to lead this country, then say that, tell us you are hurt and angry as well and you will work extra hard to keep love first.
Because, my friends, it will be very tempting and very easy to say nothing. Talking will open yourself up to the potential for harassment, you could be jeered and derided for “loving” us. You will no doubt find it simpler to look the other way, to blend in. And in truth, you’ll be protected just because your skin is white. You still have the privilege of saying absolutely nothing.
But I don’t have that kind of protection. I’ve never had that kind of guarantee. And that means I need you, I need you to see me, hold me, stand with me, challenge me, fight with me, curse with me, laugh with me, and maybe even die with me. Otherwise I am alone, and our country is just an A without an US.
With fear and hope,