TLP’s Mourning in America, Part 1
This is the first in a series of short posts attempting to grapple with and analyze the election results and, hopefully, add some value to the newly invigorated conversation about white liberalism and white supremacy in the United States of America.
There are two different kinds of white liberal reactions to Trump’s win
No doubt at this point you have seen at least one, if not a few, written or spoken takes on the phenomenon of “white liberals” being shocked and surprised by Donald Trump’s electoral college victory in the 2016 election and the accompanying victory of the GOP for control of the Senate. (And let’s be clear: Donald Trump carried the GOP to the Senate, not the other way around, but that’s for another post.) Here is an example of some white liberal dismay from Paul Krugman at the NYTimes:
We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time.
We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.
It turns out that we were wrong. There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy. And there were many other people who might not share those anti-democratic values, but who nonetheless were willing to vote for anyone bearing the Republican label.
And then there are the criticisms of those reactions. Courtney Parker West wrote a popular piece about the privilege and problems of this white liberal shock at Trump’s win:
Dear liberal white people whom I often love: advertising your shock and surprise that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry are pervasive enough to hand that man the Presidency is a microaggression. Please stop.
Folks are encouraged to read both pieces as examples of their genres and know that there are many, many more of both along with countless tweets and status updates of the same. If you don’t like reading, then just take a few minutes to watch SNL parody the entire thing:
This is where I want to make the distinction between white liberal surprise and white liberal shock at Trump’s election. Folks like Krugman and the white characters in the SNL sketch are surprised that there is enough racism/sexism in America to elect Donald Trump, which is a sentiment that deserves to be pilloried.
That isn’t the only thing white folks might mean when we say we are shocked by Trump’s win. Plenty of white folks – myself included – are shocked by Trump’s win because an overwhelming amount of data over a period of many months said he could not win. Trump never came close to being ahead in polling in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Trump rarely had a lead in Florida and looked increasingly likely to lose North Carolina. Were there counter indicators? Sure, but only enough to justify Nate Silver’s reticence, and even his model gave Clinton better than 2:1 odds to win.
There is a difference between saying “I can’t believe there are so many racists/sexists in America” and saying “I am shocked to discover that the white supremacist vote managed to mobilize and distribute itself in a way that delivered Donald Trump 270+ electoral college votes.” There is a difference between ignorant white folks who are surprised that this could happen in America and historically aware white folks who are shocked that it just did happen and how vast are the consequences. Commentators assuming that any expression of shock is just a demonstration of willful ignorance about racism/sexism are minimizing entirely legitimate feelings of dismay felt by those of us who recognize that while the American cultural landscape was the same Wednesday November 10th as it was Monday November 8th, the political landscape has changed very dramatically and for the worse. So, yeah: please stop.
How the shock might improve so-called white liberalism
As an aside, I don’t like using the term “white liberalism” to describe all white folks who didn’t vote for Trump or are otherwise considered on the Left of American politics, but I’m going with it for now because one thing at a time.
Let’s be clear that while some white liberals are shocked, but not surprised, the folks who are surprised are almost certainly also shocked. Based on my personal experience, there is a real opportunity to use the shock that white liberals are feeling to vastly increase the personal and political empathy that we are able to generate for people of color and/or LGBTQ+ folks.
Using myself as an example: I have much greater fears for my child’s safety than I did before last Tuesday. I wonder if he is ever more likely to be shot in a random and/or mass casualty shooting because the NRA is now controlling all three branches of government. I wonder if I will live to watch him – and maybe some future grandkids – starve, or drown, or suffocate on a planet that is no longer able to support human life because congressional Republicans and President-elect Trump just can’t be bothered to science. I wonder if I will get to watch him grow up, because I have some health issues that are not-bad-unless-they-get-bad and I’m very likely about to lose the health coverage that lets me stay on top of all that.
I have the same intellectual understanding of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism and all that as I did before the election. My emotional awareness of what it is to live with a constant feeling of fear for my health and my child’s safety has been greatly increased by the election, though. But it won’t last. My son and I are both very privileged and could only be more so if we were wealthy and Christian, so the part of my mind that is determined to soothe me will find a way. A lot of white liberal folks might not be interested in admitting this, but it’s true: we have the option of gradually going back to not being completely freaked out and are likely to take it.
The fleeting nature of this mass white liberal shock is exactly why I think it is important not to minimize it, but rather exploit the hell out of it. There is an opportunity here for white liberals who are shocked, but not surprised, to collect ourselves a bit and help our #NotMyAmerica white liberal friends understand that #UmmYeahThisIsTotallyOurAmerica and to anchor this week or two of terror and grief as our best chance to glimpse the emotional reality that marginalized people in America have been living with every day for a long time. Intellectual understanding of the issues gets votes, but emotional resonance can actually generate activity. And activism is what is needed of us.
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