The rise of Donald Trump as a legitimate contender for the presidency has created, among a great many other things, the space for white folks to try to distance themselves from other white folks; for them to be the “good” white person ( if this is new to you that’s ok, here, here, and here are some articles that will break this phenomenon down for you). One of the many issues with this positioning is it uses the racism of others to elevate your own righteousness. Instead of calling in and pushing for elevated consciousness it calls out and can leave folks isolated and defensive with only whiteness to comfort them. I understand this position. While I am not the greatest at calling in, I believe in it. A friend, and somebody I deeply respect, told me something a few months ago after we both sat on a panel together that stayed with me, she said: “We don’t have time for white people’s righteousness.” I get that. I want any work I may do to be effective. I want to move people. And many times patience and educating is the way to go. But this ain’t about those times.
I find myself, often, wondering, “at what point have you just chosen sides?” I don’t mean this metaphorically. I mean quite literally at what point do we know when folks have chosen the oppression and violence of Whiteness? And at that point, what is the appropriate response? It seems to me the general approach that is taken with White folks is that they simply do not know what they are doing, a general assumption of ignorance. But what if they, what if we, do know. Zeus Leonardo makes this point in Race Whiteness and Education and I think it is something that needs to be taken seriously.
White defensiveness and white fragility is something that has been highlighted in great detail, and for good reason: White folks get in their feeling hella quick. I’ve talked about these concepts on multiple occasions and referenced the work of Dr. Robin DiAngelo numerous times, especially this article. While I have seen folks respond to this and it gain some traction, I have also seen folks dig in deeper. In other words, I have seen folks choose sides.
When I was first confronted with the reality of Whiteness, via being told about privilege, I was at a private college surrounded by folks much more wealthy than me and mine, and I was angry. They were privileged, not me. So, I reacted the way many working class white folks react: denial and accusations of reverse racism. I even remember citing that a Black coach could bench me because I was white. I am grateful that the person who was educating me was patient and didn’t cut me off right then and there. I didn’t move right then, it took me some time, but I moved (and am still trying to move). And while that is ultimately the most important thing there is also another truth that needs to be made very clear: I wasn’t ignorant.
I may have been unaware of the ways that whiteness shaped my life but in that moment I was very clear that whiteness did shape my life, and I was desperate to deny that truth. I knew the idea that my hard work was solely responsible for any success I may have gained felt good to me. I knew that I didn’t want the burden of thinking of myself as part of a legacy. In that moment I knew those things. And so does every other white person.
This knowledge can be seen throughout history in white folks collective opposition to polices meant to rectify the centuries of oppression that mark the relationship of white folks to communities of color. White folks opposed abolition. White folks opposed reconstruction. White folks opposed desegregation. White folks oppose affirmative action. Perhaps this is most clearly illustrated in the journey of Irish immigrants. In Ireland there was a strong abolition sentiment and there was an intentional attention paid to solidarity with Black folks. But when Irish arrived here they learned quickly that Whiteness made their lives easier and they became some of the harshest, most violent racists.
It is true that more and more whites are moving towards working for justice, but by and large Whiteness is still winning and, when push comes to shove, those of us with white skin continue to protect the advantages that skin may give us. This is painfully obvious in the rise of Donald Trump. Trump relies on White’s lack of ignorance around racial issues. His slogan panders to this knowledge. When you hear “Make America Great Again” you have to wonder at what time are we referring. Is it to the times of segregation? Is it to the times of slavery? The answer is actually simple, they want to return to the time when they didn’t have to feign ignorance around the perceived superiority of Whiteness. When they can be open about which side they are on.
I don’t know how to identify these folks, but I know they exist. I know that they are thick in Minnesota, as Minnesota nice covers their true feelings. I know that at some point debating the right to be treated as fully human is an act of violence in and of itself, and at that point who calls in the folks calling in?
I don’t know what would have happened if I would have just been called out. Sure maybe I would have been pushed farther away from justice and left feeling like I had no choice but whiteness, something like Remy in Higher Learning. Or, maybe I would have moved quicker. Maybe I would have been propelled to self-reflection and acted in accordance with my stated values sooner. I do know that folks have got to choose sides and some folks are going to choose whiteness. And, what about them?