This reflection was originally posted on November 12, 2016.
CW: racism, sexual assault
I have been mulling this post for over a month now, but it takes on particular meaning in light of the events of this week.
I’ve seen dozens of posts fly by over the last couple of days about whether those who voted for Donald are bigots or not. Many of my friends believe that a good portion of voters were simply brought in with a combination of his economic message and a hatred for Clinton, regardless of whether that hatred is justified. Others have stated that anybody who is willing to ignore the way in which Donald has conducted his campaign is guilty of willful blindness at minimum and thus deserves the label.
Complicating this is a long history of the way that race is talked about in this country. The grade-school version of racism is simple: somebody notes another person’s skin tone and intentionally makes a value judgment or other decision based solely on that information. This type of judgment, of course, has been roundly rejected by the vast majority of our society, even if those who continue to espouse it have been emboldened by this week’s events.
But within mainstream discussion over the last few years (likely more, although I myself have only grappled with this recently), the conversation has expanded to include institutional or structural racism: the idea that even if nobody is making intentional decisions to exclude or damage the rights of minorities, they don’t have to in order for inequities to persist.
I would say I’ve seen at least a dozen discussions in the last couple months where a comment will state that “only people can be racist, not systems.” It’s an elegant idea that seems to make sense on the surface—how can something be wrong if no part of it directly considers that wrong?—and it is entirely incorrect. Taking that additional step, though, is very, very difficult for what I would expect is a large portion of the American population.
Part of that, I believe, has to do with the stigma that attaches to the word “racist”. Consider that many people in this country are taught the grade-school version of intentional racism in a racially isolated school and then end up interacting with racial minorities only occasionally for the rest of their lives. How receptive are they going to be to the idea that racism might include their friend Paul, the senior manager at the Chico’s down at the mall, who keeps promoting people over his only Black employee, because she can be a little too belligerent? Or their friend Sheri, who speaks a little more slowly with the Latino cashiers at Costco regardless of whether they speak fluent English or not? Or their friend Martha, who crosses the street at night whenever she sees somebody she can’t immediately identify as a white woman? After all, those decisions don’t flow from an intent to present racial animus, right? There are other justifications for them. How dare we call those things racist.
But, even if they don’t fit into that grade-school version of racism, they are judgments made on race. And even if the judgment comes from a good place, or seems to be separately justified, these are things that need to be changed. And in order to change them, they must be discussed.
And in order to do that productively, I think that there needs to be a term that we can use to describe benevolent or unintentional judgments that implicate race.
Better yet, though, I think that term already exists, and just needs to be redefined in modern discourse. Let’s call it “racism.”
This, at least the way I conceive it, is separate from bigotry, which is intentional and open. And I think it’s an easy reclamation to introduce one-on-one, as the person introducing can note that they have also thought and done things that are less than ideal from the perspective of race. (Because we all have.)
One thing I have not seen a lot of people discuss as a large part of the “whitelash” is a rejection of what these voters see as the moral superiority of the left. “PC culture” is, when boiled down, a combination of three primary factors. First is the idea that one is being told that something they do (or have always done) is bad. Second is the idea that there is a moral code out there that they haven’t been privy to. Third, and I think most easily overlooked, is the idea that the person telling them that they’re wrong feels morally superior for knowing about this newfangled unwritten code.
To many, somebody who asks them to use “East Asian” instead of “Oriental” feels to them not like a person requesting an innocent correction, but someone who has found a chance to lord their “enlightenment” over a poor, unsuspecting soul. And in rare cases, that may be part of it.
This is why I believe that this redefinition can speak to those who weighed supporting Donald and did not find sufficient reason not to do so. It shows to them that we strive for moral perfection but don’t believe that we ourselves have gotten there yet, and that our concerns about racism and terminology are not rooted in one-upmanship.
On a final note, I do think that this conversation is one that NEEDS to occur with those who have voted for Donald (as well as those who did not do so but were willing to overlook his many transgressions). I have not deleted Donald supporters from my network because I believe that the wall between my echo chamber and theirs needs to be broken down. However, I also do not fault anybody in the slightest for removing Donald supporters from their lives. Given the extent to which actual, literal trauma, from racism, from sexual assault, from any number of other things, is baked into his campaign and even his public image at this point, self-care will always be more important.
But this is where allyship is not only useful but necessary. For those of us who can stare at the abyss without blinking, we must take the lead in offering to listen to those who were able to look past centuries of misogyny and, yes, racism to support or vote for Donald in this election.
For those of us who can face the people who might reject the humanity of our brothers and sisters, even if unintentionally, it is our duty to remove the stigma around this conversation. It is our duty to show them that we are not perfect in this regard either. It is our duty to show them that this is a problem, but not an irreparable moral failing. It is our duty to show them that we truly believe that they are not defined by this decision that they have made, and that we have also made decisions that we try to learn from. It is our duty to make them feel understood, but to do so specifically with the aim of helping them to grow.
Some will refuse to grow. But an ally’s job goes farther than posting about support. An ally’s duty is not waived when the risk of failure is high and resistance may be stiff.
An ally must do.