Since the election, there’s been a fairly large response of shocked white people suddenly realizing how very pervasive racism, sexism, and various facets of xenophobia or hating your neighbor are in their communities. There’s also a group of folks who are upset that they’re hearing that either they themselves or their family and friends stand for shitty ideas like that because they voted for Donald Trump.
“But I’m/my loved one is not that way,” both of these groups say, for different reasons. I want to look at both.
Let’s start first with the idea of intent versus impact. Say you or a loved one voted for Trump because you felt his economic approaches would legitimately be the best for the country. You didn’t vote for Trump because you want to build a wall; your loved one didn’t vote for Trump because they think it’s a good idea to grab women’s genitals against their will. You and your loved one are Good People, you say. Why does voting for Trump mean they are bad people? Why are people afraid of me or my family member?
Intent does not matter, but impact does. The rough gist is that while yours or your loved one may not have intended to promote sexual assault, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, and more yucky, dangerous things – they still promoted those things with their vote for Donald Trump. If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, that’s not dangerous. Why are people afraid? Regardless of the intent, the impact is that the rate of hate crimes in the first incomplete week since the election is worse than the rash of hate crimes after 9/11, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. You could find long lists of personal accounts of hate crimes or hateful harassment the day after the election. If you or a loved one voted for Trump, you’re essentially “on the side” of the people who feel emboldened enough to do terrible things like this to people in your community.
That’s not even touching the possible impact on our laws. People are literally afraid of losing their lives from losing their healthcare, losing their marriages, or their work, homes, and families in the United States due to changes in immigration laws. As Hasan Minhaj from The Daily Show put it,
You personally may not be a racist, sexist xenophobe. But that comes with the package. So if you take that deal, what you’re telling me is, “Hey, man. I don’t hate you. I just don’t care about you.”
It’s hard to come to terms with the implications of this. You may think of yourself, or your loved one, as a very logical and compassionate person. You don’t hate your fellow neighbor, but other issues are more important to you than their feelings of safety, or whether or not their marriage, health care, and immigration status stay intact. Whether or not you think their feelings of safety are real or not, it’s a very powerful emotional statement to those people that you’ve made with your vote. Your intent doesn’t matter. The real impact of your vote does.
Turning to freshly shocked white people who are now seeking ways to help oppressed groups with activism, the same thing needs to be remembered: your intent doesn’t matter. The impact of what you’re doing does.
There’s a massive influx of new people to groups like SURJ and new community groups are popping up all over Facebook for white people to gather and “survive” a Trump presidency. (I personally was added or invited to five.) I’m seeing a lot of people who are inspired to DO something – but the first thing they want to do is very loudly declare their intent to be an ally to oppressed groups. One of the biggest ways this is showing up is with the safety pin trend; the idea is to wear a safety pin to mark yourself as a “safe” person to oppressed people. But again -say it with me- your intent to be a safe ally doesn’t matter.
As an excellent article on Everyday Feminism by Jamie Utt says, “Being in solidarity is something we can strive for, but in the end, it is the choice of those we are attempting to ally ourselves to as to whether they trust us enough to call us an ally.” Accepting the truth of that means the number 1 step of striving to do better means listening to the people you want to help. Listening means shutting up – and not talking about yourself, your feelings, or your ideas for how to help in places where the oppressed are speaking.
The whole safety pin idea is a nice one and many people, including some of oppressed groups, shared the concept and embraced it. As quickly as word about it spread, the problems with it were spread as well. You can’t label yourself as safe to someone else. White supremacists might be co-opting the movement to perpetrate hate crimes. Putting a pin on yourself and beating your chest about how much danger you’re willing to take on for the oppressed – well, happening en masse that’s a concept called white saviorism. It’s deeply rooted in racist ideas and is very problematic even with the best of intentions behind it.
Wow, upsetting, right? Confusing? You’re freshly interested in helping stop or prevent oppression. You want to declare yourself for a compassionate and equitable treatment of humanity. Instead, you’re being told that it’s not the right thing to do, or that there is a lot more to learn. You’re hearing you need to shut up and listen. How mean and ungrateful!
It’s natural to feel angry about this, or discouraged. It’s a very common reaction in all kinds of situations where people are told they made a mistake or hurt someone. I think it also is easy to skip over the fact that sometimes the anger probably masks latent racism – why would you stop to listen to other voices when you know you are in the right? Oops. Maybe you are valuing your own voice about race or some other issue over the people who have experienced the issue much more. That’s natural in our culture as it exists, too, but still very unhelpful and will make you both unsafe and unwelcome to people you want to help.
So – bringing the Trump voters or lovers of Trump voters back into the conversation here, too – how do you deal with being confronted by the reality of your own mistakes, or your own racist, sexist, whateverist choices, regardless of intention? How do you get past the feeling of needing to yell, “BUT I’M NOT A BAD PERSON!”?
There’s no easy answer. Literally everyone has been there. Nobody was born as or exists as a perfect person; we’re all works in progress. The many mistakes we’ve all made in our lives weren’t about something so serious as voting for someone that’s considered a rapist by some, or starting an activist journey by making a giant, unsafe mistake. We all make a lot of mistakes as we learn and grow. How do you teach yourself to let go of mistakes and learn from them? Practicing embracing mistakes is difficult, but worthwhile.
Positive self-talk and self-forgiveness is a great start. Remind yourself you and people you love are human. Remind yourself that you made a mistake and making a mistake doesn’t make you a bad person. Learn more about what kind of mistake you made, and try to learn what you can do to fix it. Think critically and don’t just take the first, easiest way you think you find. Don’t run away from uncomfortable feelings; learn to sit with them and feel them through. Easier said than done, I know – mindfulness training is a really excellent start. If you can feel more comfortable being uncomfortable, you’ll be more likely to be able to hear uncomfortable truths – and discover ways to help alleviate them, none of which involve crying out to the heavens that you are not to blame.
As my dear friend Kayla recently said while sharing an excellent resource, “We ALL can stand to be better and there is no shame in acknowledging the things we thought were harmless were hurtful. Saying a terrible thing does not make you a terrible person, but repeatedly refusing to learn from the experience doesn’t make you a good person either.”