Illustration by Dave van Patten

A Practical Guide to Whiteness in the Age of Trump

We brought this on the country

The map is clear: White Americans are responsible for Donald Trump’s presidency.

Last week, even as much of the nation took for granted that Hillary Clinton would clinch the 2016 election, all types of white demographics cast their vote for Donald Trump and his white supremacist politics. Even white women, who had a chance to quite literally see ourselves in Hillary, gave Trump our vote. Despite the sexual assault accusations against him and his inability to understand what sexual assault even meant during the debates, despite his history of using hateful language against women and his promises to defund Planned Parenthood, 53 percent of white women voted for him. Female identity politics didn’t matter enough here. We were too busy, by and large, protecting our whiteness.

It would be naive to think Trump will actually be our first white supremacist president, but he is certainly the first to overtly use incendiary racial language to garner a modern white nationalist movement. As a driving force of the birther campaign that questioned the nature of Obama’s citizenship, Trump’s passion for proving our first black president’s un-Americanness planted the foundation for a victorious presidential campaign built around mobilizing white people to fight to maintain the privilege we have always had in this country.

Though he has no actual political experience, Trump used his skills as a businessman, reality TV host and media pundit to manipulate information until he won. He marketed himself as alternative and championed the new language of white supremacism — the most historically static and preserved of all American identities. Supporters read websites like Breitbart, where they continue to enjoy a virtual “alt-right” white community that allows them a “safe space” to slander Black Lives Matter activists and cheer on xenophobic immigration ideals.

In positively American bad taste, the successor to our country’s first black president is wasting no time installing a white supremacist cabinet ready to “make America great again.” This weekend, Breitbart executive Steve Bannon was appointed chief strategist and senior counselor to the president. Also joining Trump’s transition team is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped draft Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration legislation SB 1070. These are just two of many scary white people Trump is considering to instruct him come January.

It makes sense to declare all white Americans as needing a major ideological makeover—including women, queer people, environmentalists and other groups likely to fear the changes of the next four years. This election is an indicator that in America, race still trumps all. Intersectionality is real, but our sensitivity to the nuances of identity in 2016 need not prevent us from making blanket recommendations for rehabilitating whiteness. Strong emotions and good intentions aren’t enough.

It’s been said this election has erected a frightening American mirror, but I think many in this country, namely people of color, have no trouble recognizing what they’re seeing. For example, Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Rock this weekend: The two black characters are the only ones not shocked to see a Trump victory—which is to say this election has been most instructive for white people. Trump’s rhetoric actively engaged working-class whites, while our wealthier, more educated neoliberal counterparts prioritized emphasizing their separation from those other white people—in many cases, while gentrifying neighborhoods far away from the red states they grew up in.

To be able to productively engage with progressive social work and political defiance for the next four years, we as white people need to first pause and stare deeply into this allegorical mirror together. And so, in preparation for Trump’s America, here are some recommendations for our white selves.

Getting caught up in fear is the whitest thing you can do

Don’t make this about us. At least not right now. At least not yet. Sure, the environment is at profound risk, and things like women’s rights and trans rights are likely to face serious challenges, but many of us live lives where our whiteness lowers the stakes of potential danger, regardless of our other identifiers. White women are safer than women of color. White trans people are safer than trans people of color. Given the nature of Trump’s campaign and the demographics that voted him in, white supremacy is a national crisis that must be triaged. White people who enjoy a slew of privileges other than skin color have an added responsibility to this cause.

Are you a white woman unsure of how I, as a white woman, could possibly say we haven’t given as much priority to racism as to misogyny? If so, consider the strongest reactions to Trump’s hateful campaign, and when and why they happened. As evidenced by the social media outcry, white women were shook by Trump’s comments about pussy-grabbing. Suddenly, lifestyle bloggers and consumer-capitalism-soaked fashion models were up in arms about his candidacy. Meanwhile, he had been shouting his brutal plans for Muslims and Mexicans for months, but very few of us Instagrammed about that. We became mobilized when it became about us, which is a very white thing to do, and the main reason we have so far made such little progress in undoing our country’s racist foundations.

Listen to what POC have to say about whiteness

People of color know plenty about white people, as they have long experienced and studied us — not for the purpose of extracting and monetizing cultural capital, as we have them, but as a way to help protect themselves against us. We can either listen closer than ever to what people of color have to say about the violence inherent to American whiteness, or we can become supporters of the White House’s new KKK-supported white team.

This process begins with recognizing that we have a racial identity in the first place, and that our privilege as white Americans is why we haven’t had to do much critical thinking about what that means. Avoiding this kind of personal excavation normalizes a different facet of the same delusion that has so many of us thinking Trump will “make America great again.”

This is not to say people of color need to spend their time teaching us about ourselves; rather it means that no matter how not-racist you think you are, it is a matter of national security to spend time dedicated to more deeply understanding the implications of our race. Our collective white consciousness must be broken and remade because we are sick. We cannot pretend the white supremacism that elected Trump is somehow unrelated to our own white identities and modes of operating in this country, no matter where our state’s electoral votes went.

Avoid moderation

Every progressive white person needs to take a few steps “left” and then realize how “center” many of us have long been. Our liberalism is usually so moderate because we pause when our own needs and desires have been met. Progressive politics entail concerning ourselves with people who aren’t ourselves, which is hard for a lot of white people because doing so demands we not only recognize how American institutions are organized in our favor, but also means we have to want to forgo those benefits in favor of a more just society.

By and large, the lives of a lot of liberal white people are too easy. We are anti-racist on paper or out loud, but more often than not, most white people are still more comfortable hiring each other and dancing to Beyoncé together.

Martin Luther King’s comments about the “white moderate” from his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail” encapsulate the work white voters must now belatedly do:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Strategize resistance

Operating in a society designed in our favor means we don’t have as much to fear. The police are less likely to murder us because they are less scared of us. The media is more sensitive to images of our own dead bodies than to the bodies of slain people of color. It is with that in mind that we must fearlessly use our own privilege to strategize resistance. New modes of satisfying radical white racists are being invented as we speak. We don’t yet know whether this will mean mass deportation or forced mosque registration, or federalizing an SB 1070-style law, or all of the above, but we do know we must show up. When white people disrupt the governmental order, less force is taken. Our showing up in solidarity with people of color has the potential to make situations safer for them, whether that comes through direct intervention or merely by playing witness.

Likewise, as new spikes in old styles of hate crimes continue to rise, we must support vulnerable people when we witness them under interpersonal attack. Intervene, if that just means striking up a simple conversation with someone being bullied by someone else. We can also let aggressors know why their behavior is violent when we encounter it.

Be considerate

When joining political movements, defer to the leadership, often the people of color, already in charge. Listen more than you speak; as white people, our voices have long dominated history, and those voices are what’s gotten us here.

Be careful how you behave at protests. Maintain order and keep strategy in mind, because if things go off the rails, you are less likely to be hurt or arrested than your fellow protesters of color. Likewise, be sensitive about how you document protests and demonstrations. Recognize the vulnerable position documentary photos and videos could leave some organizers in, particularly organizers of color, as these materials can be sourced and scrutinized by law enforcement. Furthermore, not all supporters, especially people of color employed by white people, have the privilege to openly protest without the possibility of facing workplace discrimination or other types of social backlash.

Don’t police how POC feel

Remember, just because you might be feeling enlightened and enlivened, you’re not suddenly in a position to comment on how people of color should be behaving or reacting right now. If you think Dave Chappelle was too soft on Trump by saying he’s going to give him a chance as long as he gives “them”—i.e., marginalized Americans—a chance, consider how soft your American experience has always been. Think about the flexibility and resilience black Americans and other Americans of color have had to nurture for centuries as a mere tool for preserving their identities in an institution designed to silence and assimilate them.

Learn about chill white people

Don’t overact on your anger; overdeliver on your re-education. America has a slight but strong history of white radicalism, abolitionism and anti-racism that can be learned and remembered as inspiration during times like this. Howard Zinn was unflinching in writing A People’s History of the United States, his attempt at filling in what so many of his fellow white historians had long excluded from our country’s narrative. Rachel Corrie, an American activist in her early 20s, dedicated herself to preventing the demolitions of Palestinian homes at the hands of a regime funded by the U.S. government and denounced by fellow white American critic Noam Chomsky as “much worse” than South African apartheid. A bulldozer killed Corrie in 2003 when she refused to let a Palestinian family’s home be removed. Tim Wise grew up in the openly racist South and has since created a career for himself as an anti-racist essayist and workshop facilitator focused on dismantling white privilege. His first book, White Like Me, is required reading for any burgeoning, white anti-racist. His 2012 book, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority speaks much more progressively to the same group Trump was able to get to the polls last week.

These are folks who have prioritized collaborating with people of color to stop racist American colonialism. Dissent can become tradition. If you haven’t participated in workshops about white identity before, consider checking out a group of white people who organize around racial justice. In Los Angeles, there’s AWARE-LA, where white people facilitate interracial organizing and dialogues in “a space for white people” that “serves as a resource to people of color who want to work with white people but don’t want to have to spend all their energy dealing with the racism of white people.”

Promote progressive public education

As people complain about low voter turnout, I can’t help but think of how disillusioned the youth are in watching this all play out. Educators need to catch up to the sociological education the younger generation has acquired on its own, via incisive memes and exposure to the promotion of diverse identity politics online. As the white people about to take office circulate ideas so old they’ve gained support from the Klan and the Nazi party, the young people of color who have long proven the drivers of viral internet culture are left with a huge gap in the critical analysis they encounter online and the passive education most American children are receiving in schools. This does not necessarily bode well for youthful involvement in politics during the next election.

Schools are the foundation of local politics. Good schools help students process the reality around them and classrooms can even become powerful collectives, little unions within communities that support individual and group needs. Good education can help treat the grand disassociation most young people feel from traditional institutions. Find or create the public humanities schools that nurture critical thinking over nationalism. Donate to them. Sponsor a teacher. Send your kids there.

For any possible Trump supporters still reading, you’re not off the hook…

I’m privileged enough to feel a little sad for you. Behind your back, political businessmen call you “low-information voters.” They think you’re idiots who can’t tell fact from fiction and they’ve made websites whose popularity proves it. They examined your aesthetic choices and gave you a cheap little hat to wear so you could feel like you belonged to a winning team.

Maybe you’re on opiates or depressed or unemployed or some combination of the three. Most of the people that commit random acts of gun violence look like you. And ever since big media recognized the marketing power of targeting audiences of color, you’ve been sad to see less stories about yourself on TV. Years ago, Donald Trump pegged you as the group easiest to convince of anything.

I want to have enough love for you to try to organize you, at least the young ones. I also want to organize tons of “well-intentioned” white Democrats I know so that we can be strong and smart enough to organize you together. But there are levels to this shit. I challenge you not to further the distance between us, but to better understand the crafted spectrum of white identity formation along which we all fall. I want to tell you to your face that your sullen, masculine, white angst is what’s always driven war in this country. I want to hear why you think all was lost during the Obama era despite the fact that the American legacy of white capitalism supremacy still reigned supreme. I want to engage with you, because it’s nobody’s responsibility except other white people’s to do so.

I want to engage with you so you’re less likely to harm people who don’t look like us.