Dear White liberals: I’ve heard that this 2016 election really hit you hard. That it was a “wake-up call.” You’ve told me “I never knew there was so much racism in this country.” or “I didn’t realize that so many Americans were so prejudiced.” or “Before this election, I just—- I just didn’t know.”
White liberals in particular are suddenly being forced to engage with the racist underbelly of the U.S. and realize that it’s not nearly as remote or difficult to find as we wanted to delude ourselves. We just didn’t want to peel back the flimsy translucent layer that was hiding it and check. But it’s always been there, poised to oppress and destroy.
White liberals who consider themselves to be entirely non-racist now have to suffer through stunted conversations over the turkey at Thanksgiving and sit rigidly straight-backed on the edge of their chairs during the awkward lulls of silence over Christmas dinner. My racist uncle voted for Trump? My uncle? Oh. Well. Um. What do we even talk about now? I have Black/Brown friends! How can I engage with a Trump supporter? Do I educate him? Do I try to explain privilege and oppression to him? But it’s just so darn exhausting to beat yourself against a brick wall of bigotry! I’m just so tired of trying to point out racism to racists, y’know? They don’t get it, and all it does is make me sad and frustrated. Y’know what, no, I can’t keep doing this to myself; we’re just going to ban politics talk. We’re just not going to talk about Trump.
It sounds terrible, but when I hear scores of people tell me that story, I just can’t help but laugh. Welcome to my life. To me, that story sounds like it is a tiny soundbite from the life of a person of color (PoC), but still very clearly retold by a White person. Let me explain.
After Trump’s election, White liberal teachers are being forced to teach their racist students, and stomach listening to that virulence in the face of their beliefs because “First Amendment rights!” White liberal neighbors are reconsidering the idle chitchat they make with the parents down the street who carpool to take their kids to school because “but they have a Trump sign in their lawn.” White liberals whose coworkers have “All Lives Matter” on their Facebook wall now have to look across the row of cubicles and wonder if their coworker is a rabid Trump-level racist or just a diet racist (and “what are the conversations in the break room going to sound like now?”).
White liberals are being forced to engage in political conversations that aren’t just contentious, but that actively doubt the intellect and humanity of the participants. And even more painfully, White liberals have to make the decision between whether they are going to call out their family/friends/neighbors/coworkers on their bigotry and potentially burn that bridge through an arduous and mentally/emotionally demanding dialogue, or if they have to value that relationship “in spite of” the racism and xenophobia and just overlook it.
What I need you to know, my White liberal friends, is that the struggle you’re experiencing right now? That struggle to confront bigotry amongst your friends and coworkers? That indecision between educating them and just saving your own piece of mind? That regret at unearthing the fact that your longtime friend is actually a Trump supporter even though you would have been much happier not knowing? That, my friends? That is just a tiny bit of the internal monologue that flows through the mind of a PoC on a daily basis.
From the time we get up in the morning to the moment we fall asleep, we struggle with the weight of the knowledge that there are racists in the world who don’t believe in our complete humanity, and we can’t cut ourselves off from those people. They will always be part of our life. PoC every single day from birth on have been living that struggle. And now you get to live a tiny bit of it.
Except you can disengage. That’s privilege. When it’s too much for you to handle— and we all get to that point when we just need to take care of ourselves first and foremost (and that’s 100% valid and absolutely crucial)— you have the ability to decide you don’t want to have these conversations anymore. You can decide this isn’t the time, and stop.
But I can’t abandon my skin. I can’t just leave it at home today. Short of isolating myself in my room and cutting myself off from the entire world, I can’t turn that part of my life off when I want to.
I will always, without reprieve, be forced to wonder if that off-color remark was racist or just a poorly thought out joke that wasn’t ill-intentioned. And then I will always have to wonder how poorly thought out a joke has to be to qualify as needing to be confronted. I will always, when faced with the umpteenth stupid remark of the day, have to decide if I can really mentally and physically afford to confront it— if I have the emotional energy in me to paste on a happy face over my furious indignation and educate someone who appears to have little to no desire to be educated— or if I’m just too exhausted to do it today again. I will always have to reconsider if it is safe for me to speak and share my opinions in a space, not because it might lose me Facebook friends, but because literal harm might come of it.
And it never ends. Ever.
So this struggle you’re facing is difficult, I know, but it’s only a small portion— a heavily diluted portion— of what PoC experience daily. And you can suspend it at any point in time.
It’s difficult— no, it’s absolutely do-I-have-to-get-out-of-bed-today crippling sometimes— to confront bigotry like that on a daily basis. And many White liberals don’t exactly have a lot of experience with that so, I understand, it’s even more mind-bendingly difficult. I understand. And I am not in any way discounting the level of pain that sort of uphill battle causes.
But what I need you to understand is that if the 2016 presidential election has complicated your life, it has made the life of many PoC treacherous. This is not a time we can indulge in fragility. If you’re feeling inconvenienced by the results of the election, I’m sorry, but get over it.
Now, more than ever, PoC need you to stand up for what you believe in, even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult. Because a conversation that is difficult for you to have may be dangerous for your Black/Brown friend to have. Hate crimes are up, terrifyingly so, and that means situations that are uncomfortable for White liberals are potentially threatening for PoC.
And I also need you to understand that we can’t afford to just cut Trump supporters out of our lives, anyway. They are still a massive chunk of American society. Ignoring and silencing them is what got us to this position to begin with. Clearly, it’s not working. These are conversations we have to be having. If we aren’t engaging with White working class America and the message they’re getting from the news media and politics is that their problems aren’t being addressed because of Black and Brown Americans, then we haven’t solved a single problem. Not a single one. Actually, we’ve made it worse. We’ve handed Trump and his cronies that base of supporters on a silver platter. If you’re really worried about your Black/Brown friends, this is how you do it. Engage.
For you this was a wake-up call that the U.S. is still seethingly and unapologetically racist, but PoC never managed to forget.
If you consider yourself a non-racist, this is the time to show it. This is the time to live it.
P.S. If you want to hear this sort of message a little more comedically, enjoy this video from Late Night with Seth Myers: