As the election results began to solidify last week, Van Jones—an African-American news anchor for CNN—called America’s decision to elect Donald Trump a “whitelash”: an outraged cry of resistance against the legacy of a black president and the landscape of a changing country.
To argue that our president-elect devalues the lives of non-white Americans is unnecessary: it is fact, undeniable. It is equally obvious that white America was the engine that elected him: white Americans accounted for 73% of the electorate, and white people were the only demographic of which a majority voted Trump. But the whitelash is more than statistics. This election represents a deep ideological choice, one between inclusion and fear—and we have loudly and proudly chosen the latter.
And so, in the wake of an American tragedy so clearly defined by whiteness, I wanted to write about white people, and how we have responded to this moment. In particular, I wanted to write about white liberals, us white people who somehow continue to fool ourselves into thinking that we are superior to the members of our race who uphold explicit prejudice.
White liberals constitute the community in which I grew up. They are my schoolteachers and soccer coaches, my oldest friends. They are my kin and I am one of them. The following piece is as much a self-reflection and critique of my own thought practice as it is of anyone else. I write this because my people have shown their true colors in response to the election, and those colors have, indeed, been troubling.
First, there were the lefty think pieces that tried to explain the election—and the entire scope of our country’s ideological civil war—in one cute paragraph. Then there were the op-eds calling for empathy towards the white American working class. Finally, there were the superficial and quite meaningless markers of solidarity, the Facebook statuses and safety pins.
Through and through, the collective response of us white liberals boils down to our effort to distance ourselves from white supremacy; that effort is futile because that distance is, quite simply, imagined. We are white supremacy, and white supremacy is every single one of us.
Take the safety pin, for example. Supposedly a marker of solidarity, the safety pin is meant to assure immigrants, people of LGBTQ identification, Muslims, and black Americans that the person wearing the pin is an alley: people may, in theory, see your safety pin and know that you’re a friendly face, that they are safe with you. Apart from the meaningless and empty nature of this gesture, the safety pin also assigns white people a responsibility that we simply cannot execute, because one cannot claim to know how to construct a safe space if one has never felt un-safe. Worst of all, collective responses like the safety pin assure us that we are doing something, anything to fight against misogyny and racism, and therefore permit us to dodge asking ourselves the most difficult and most important question engineered by this jarring historical moment: how do I contribute to the ruling machine of whiteness?
I do not have the answer to this impossible question, but am rather writing this because I believe that the act of asking it is essential. For in the wake of a political tragedy so absolutely caused by our people, whites should not be spending time explaining results, proposing solutions, or lamenting the low turnout black vote: we should be questioning ourselves incessantly. We should be questioning the ways in which we wield our privilege, the ways in which we respond to it, the avenues through which we cash our political capital, and the many moments we have stayed silent, for our very existence is the fuel of the machine that so visibly reared its teeth on November 8th.
Please do not misread me as discounting the importance of vocal love and solidarity on behalf of everyone, including my fellow white people: those are radical and vital political acts, and we desperately need them. It is only that such vocalization is far less meaningful if we cannot, at the same, constantly place the effects of our own whiteness into question.
In almost all that we do, white liberals attempt to avoid this line of questioning. Instead, we expend our energy asserting our superiority over the white people we see as truly culpable. We attempt to separate ourselves from the rural, racist white folk who really uphold racist rhetoric, and who really lost us the election. But the weight of ruling whiteness does not draw divides between racist whites and liberal ones, for it is upheld by every single one of us. And at its heart is the inconvenient truth that we white liberals have much more in common with the “rural racist whites” than we would like to think: we were formed by the same arc of history, nurtured with the same privileges, and plagued by the same inability to see. One must understand that our commonalities—though unconscious and unintentional—are inevitable. Let us not pretend otherwise, for to assert that we share commonalities only with our fellow Muslim, immigrant, trans, and black citizens is to commit a great act of historical amnesia. We can stand with them—and I do very emphatically encourage doing so—while still addressing the many ways that we construct and benefit from the very system that forces them to fear for their lives.
I cannot even begin to understand the weight of white supremacy because it will never put my life in danger. I do believe, however, that attempting to understand it is of absolute necessity, mostly because I am, in so many ways, complicit in its power. Until we white people find a way to acknowledge this—until we loudly lay claim to the ways that we stand at the very root of the problem—the solutions we try to engineer to fix it will continue to be as superficial, fragile, and meaningless as the safety pin.