I, like so many people I know, am trying to process my feelings about last week’s election, reflect on what it all means, and thinking about what concrete things I can do to help. I’ve been cycling through feelings of anger, fear, numbness, and a pressing desire to DO SOMETHING. I and most of my friends have felt all of those things. How to channel these feelings into useful action is the hard part. Donating money to organizations that support things Donald Trump is likely to make worse (the environment, GLBT rights, abortion rights, issues of equal justice, etc.) is a start. Standing up for victims of bias and harassment, whether we have witnessed it ourselves or not, is critical to making people feel like they matter (because they do!). Thinking about how we can incorporate values of equity and inclusion into our daily work is hard but valuable work. But in this increasingly-divided society we live in, I want to change people’s minds. And I’m not sure I really know how to do that.
I’d like to believe that we can recognize our privilege without accepting the blame and guilt for systemic racism. I didn’t cause it (nor did my forebears), but I do feel a sense of responsibility to try and dismantle it because I have benefited from this system and others have not been able to. I feel immense empathy for anyone who has suffered oppression, whether overt or systemic. I think of the people I came from in Eastern Europe and how they were constantly restricted in their ability to make a living, own land, live in specific areas, buy certain things, wear certain clothes, or practice their religion depending on how much the rulers at the time hated their kind. They were frequently blamed for anything bad that happened (the Black Death, financial recessions, famine, etc.) and were, as “retribution,” slaughtered throughout history. Some of the most outrageous and overt systems of oppression in our country have been dismantled, but not the subtle ones that constrain people’s ability to live to their full potential and feel safe and secure.
Empathy, not guilt, is what makes people anti-racists, but I read so much online that is focused not on getting people to feel empathy for others, but on telling people why they should feel guilty. This article from The Humanist magazine talks about the paradoxical problems with white guilt:
The main problem with white guilt is that it attempts to diminish the spotlight aimed at issues germane to marginalized groups and redirects the focus to a wasteful plane of apologetics and ineffective assessment… This can lead to avoidance of the primary issues altogether, as well as the manifestation of defense mechanisms, including denial, projection, intellectualization, and rationalization.
The suggestions to combat this? “Make a concerted effort to humanize and identify with all individuals.” Yes, please. We should all aspire to that.
One thing that I know is that we are all at different places in our journey in learning about social justice issues, oppression, equity, and inclusion. I wish people had more patience for folks who earnestly want to make the world a better place and make missteps or take steps that some think are insignificant. I’m dead tired of reading articles that scold people who wear safety pins to show their support. You’re right, it’s not enough, but I haven’t read anything that suggests what would be “enough.” Maybe instead of telling people they’re just putting on a safety pin to assuage their “white guilt” and not really to help anyone, critics could suggest additional things people could do to help. Shaming someone who wants to do a good thing, even a small thing, isn’t going to motivate them to do more. Donald Trump was really good at identifying everything that everyone was doing wrong; do we want to be like that? Will that move us forward? What is the goal here?
The level of snark on social media is astounding. I’ve been guilty of it. We all have. But in a moment when we have been so clearly and brutally shown how divided our nation is, insulting and fighting with people who actually want to do good makes no sense to me.
I know I’m going to be accused of tone policing. I don’t want to tone police anyone — people should feel comfortable talking about their experiences and feelings the way they want. But if someone wants to change a person’s mind, approach matters. I think a lot about persuasion and what will change people’s minds; not just about social justice issues, but anything (a lot of people hate assessment… I’m working on it). Scolding or shaming people puts them on the defensive and does not create a safe space for reflection. I think getting people to feel shame is a totally different thing and isn’t something you can make someone do by shaming them, scolding them, or throwing snark at them. I think people can only feel the shame of their racism when they open themselves up to seeing things through another person’s eyes. That requires an environment in which people feel safe, not defensive or attacked, even if they deserve it. It’s like restorative justice — do you punish and reprimand or try to make something good come from a bad thing? But the question is, do you want to change attitudes or do you want to vent your anger about how fucked up everything is? I totally understand the latter, especially right now when everything is so raw. But lashing out at people, especially those who want to do good, is going to make things worse and probably won’t really make you feel better.
I’m also dead tired of people being smacked down if they respectfully express dissent because of the assumption that they have an invisible knapsack chock full of privilege. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that you should make assumptions about people based on their words and actions, not on what they look like. But too often people do just the opposite. You don’t know a person’s life by looking at them. You may not see a person’s disability; their sexual orientation; their history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; their religion; whether or not they grew up in poverty; or even their race. You don’t know what their invisible knapsack of privilege really looks like — how overstuffed or empty it is.
I feel immensely fortunate to not have been impacted or targeted by systemic racism in my life but that doesn’t mean I haven’t faced oppression and harassment. When I was 12, we moved to Florida, to an area that, at the time, was still full of open spaces, big lots, and people who rode around in ATVs and pickup trucks. There were a lot of “native Floridians” who went to my school and had very different values than the people who moved to the area subsequently. I remember in 7th grade homeroom having a teacher single me out when we were making Christmas cards and said “Meredith, you can make a Hanukkah card since you’re Jewish.” From then on, a group of popular kids called me “bagel girl” at every opportunity and did everything they could to make me feel badly about being Jewish. I remember once in 8th grade, Tim, the boy who started the whole thing, wrote a swastika up on the chalk board in our history class, told everyone it was for me, and then pointed and laughed at me while the teacher was out of the room. No one in the entire class did or said anything about it (not even my “friends”). I can’t describe how traumatic those two years were for me and how alone I felt.
Middle school is terrible for most people, but it’s a particularly bad time for Jews to be faced with anti-Semitic bullying. 7th grade was when I was studying for my Bat Mitzvah. It was also the time when I had to decide if I wanted to go on in my religious study toward Confirmation. All I wanted to do was fit in. I didn’t want to be different; I wanted to be liked. In spite of the fact that I felt a welling up of love for my religion and heritage when I had my Bat Mitzvah, I chose not to continue my studies and, over the years, moved farther and farther from any sort of religious observance. I have so many feelings about that, even now.
Many years later, I went to graduate school for my MSW in Tallahassee and was reminded once again of the fact that I was different. I was the only Jew in my cohort (and was clearly the only one many of my classmates had ever met) and was sometimes treated by my classmates like a circus oddity. They were all nice to me and I had lots of friends, but their constant odd and probing questions about my religion made me again like the odd man out. These little things, like being told “you don’t look Jewish” or the mother of your friend saying “I knew we were having a Jewish girl sleeping over so I got bagels and lox,” are not terrible things, but are persistent reminders of the fact that people see you as “other.” It’s awkward enough to make friends with non-Jewish people whose families emigrated from Eastern Europe over the past 70 years. You wonder what their grandparents or parents were doing during the Holocaust; were they involved in or only silently complicit in the slaughter of my relatives? Knowing that even now lots of people hate you for your religious heritage and would like to see your kind wiped off the face of the earth is unsettling to say the least. Seeing your President-elect appoint an anti-Semite as his top adviser feels like an endorsement of those attitudes. Like so many people who face bias of one kind or other, I wear this weight; it never goes away. And so many people carry weights that are far, far heavier than mine. It’s horrible.
A lot of folks seem to have a desire to sort people into neat boxes to make the world more predictable (all white people, all black people, all Latinx people, all Trump voters, etc.), but that is a form of bigotry in itself. I refuse to believe that everyone who voted for Trump is racist or wanted to support racism or didn’t care about racism. People who voted for Trump did so for a lot of reasons, because there is no group in America that is monolithic. Some are openly racist, some are quiet racists, and some aren’t racists at all. Their reasons to vote for him may have been solid or foolish or focused on a single issue that they are passionate about. For people to ignore the havoc that globalization has wreaked on so many Americans, particularly in certain areas of the country, is illustrative of the privilege white-collar workers have. Imagine that your career has been taken away from you, your community has fallen on hard times because of it, and someone promises to fix that. Whether they realistically can or not, would you choose the person who is claiming to understand and want to ease your pain or the person who has largely ignored people like you?
I want to try and understand why people voted for Trump (other than those who are really white supremacists) and how we can create a movement that supports their interests as well as ours. I felt like Bernie Sanders’ focus on income inequality (much of which is rooted in racism) held some promise for being a tent we could all get under, but I don’t feel like I know Trump voters (other than the loud, trollish, Breitbart-ian kinds) well enough to know that for sure. Let’s stop the in-fighting. Let’s stop wallowing in white guilt and focus on action. Those of you who have concrete ideas for how we should move forward, proclaim them loudly! A lot of people want to do something now and feel helpless and uncertain. This is the time to mobilize those people to do good. I want to believe we can make things better because the alternative (for me at least) is unthinkable.
I feel amazingly lucky to work in a profession that is so committed to equity and is so full of amazing and generous people. We work to bring down barriers in our patrons’ lives every day! We are so lucky to have this work, these people, and this sense of mission in our lives. I love this profession and all of you. And if you’re looking for some encouragement in that realm, check out Zoe Fisher’s brilliant post-Election blog post “But I know that there will be libraries.” And thank you all for being amazing.