Get angry. Don’t shout. Keep working.

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This post is intended as a guide for white Americans who would like to find productive ways to oppose the policies of Donald Trump.  I specify white people here for two reasons.  First, white voters put Trump in office.  Many, although certainly not all, of those voters were motivated by hostility towards women, people of color, and Muslims, and his policies reflect this.   We as white people are well placed to connect with our peers who hold these attitudes, and work to shift them.

Second, I’m writing from my own experience as a straight white US citizen with a Christian background.  I’m in no position to tell people of color, queer people, immigrants, or people of other faiths how to manage their activism.  In fact, insofar as I know anything about activism for social change, much of that comes from reading about the experiences of activists from minority groups.  They’ve been out there contesting the threats posed by people like Trump for their whole lives, and I’ve had the luxury of growing aware of much of this recently.  So I am specifically speaking to other white people in the same position as I am — those who want to keep working towards the dream of a diverse and inclusive America.

Here’s where to start.

Get Angry

Or feel sad!  Or numb, or confused, or a newfound interest in whether Nova Scotia is nice this time of year.  There’s no right or wrong way to feel.  It’s also normal to cycle through different feelings — from anger to grief to shock — and to be uncertain about how to respond to any of this.

There is great power to naming emotions, in my experience. It helps them seem less unmanageable, and can be an important way to guide your future work.  So sit with your feelings for a while.  Think about what you’re feeling and why.  If you’re angry, are you angry at the political system, or at specific people?  If you’re sad, is it out of a feeling of personal powerlessness, or on behalf of others who might be harmed by Trump’s policies?  And if you just want to put your head in the sand for a bit, that’s all right.  Have a drink, go for a walk, do something kind for someone else.

Whatever you’re feeling is valid.  And conversely, whatever others are feeling is also valid, even if it’s diametrically opposed to your own sentiments.  This brings me to the next point:

Don’t Shout

There’s a great deal of both literal and metaphorical shouting going on at the moment.  We’re taking out our anger at third-party voters, at racist voter ID laws, at the Electoral College, at Hillary Clinton, at ourselves — and, of course, at Trump supporters.  It’s the latter category that I want to focus on today.

However angry you’re feeling, and however satisfying it would be to write a scathing Facebook post to a Trump voter on your timeline, this is not helping our cause.  You will feel better for a moment.  You will have lost an opportunity for productive conversation with that person in the future.  And you will be hardening the political divide between liberals and conservatives in a way that is very difficult to change.  Whatever you’re feeling is valid, but not every response to your feelings is equally useful.

Put it like this: many Trump supporters already expect that white liberals will insult them. Some aspects of this complaint carry more weight than others.  We have a troubling record of calling conservatives idiots and mocking them for being poor, using terms that would be justly condemned if they were targeted at a person of color.  On the other hand, calling someone a racist is seen as rude even if they genuinely hold racist views.  From a strategic perspective, though, the point is that insulting your opponents just confirms their existing beliefs, which does nothing to promote change.  (Homework: please think of a time when someone called you an idiot and you immediately agreed with their position, rather than doubling down on your own.  Due Monday morning, 1000 words, APSA-style citations.)

Even if it’s difficult, even if it feels distasteful, the key tactic here is respectfully engaging with people whose views you don’t share.  Respect does not mean passively agreeing with them.  It does mean seeking to understand their position; addressing the factual basis for their views; and refusing to use ad hominem attacks.  This is hard work, and it isn’t going to be successful with everyone.  But when it is, the results can be phenomenal.  One of the best articles I’ve read all year is this piece on the changing politics of Derek Black, who grew up as a youth leader in the white nationalist movement.  He left the movement in college after some of his classmates learned of his views and decided to engage him, as a friend, with facts that challenged the narratives he had always known.  Inviting the head of a KKK-affiliated group to Shabbat dinner is arguably the opposite of purity politics, and slowly, unevenly, spectacularly, it worked.

We as white people have a particular obligation to carry out these types of conversations.  It is your family and friends, your colleagues and neighbors, who are more likely to support Trump.  You are more likely to have relationships that can serve as the basis for conversations about racism, sexism, religion, economic growth, the fear that the country is changing without you and leaving you behind, all of it.  This is true even if you feel that you haven’t been directly affected by these issues, or might not be fully knowledgeable about them.  It isn’t fair to leave the work of fighting prejudice to people who have already been harmed by these types of injustice — an unwanted double burden for them, and an abdication of responsibility for the rest of us.  If you’re not sure where to start, check out these resources on racism, sexism, homophobia, and prejudice against immigrants and Muslims.  You don’t have to jump into conversations right away if you don’t feel prepared, but it’s important to keep educating yourself about these issues.  In other words:

Keep Working

Many of Trump’s proposed policies do pose real threats to Americans.  He’s likely to restrict access to abortion and possibly even birth control, denying women control over their own bodies.  He wants to expand the use of stop-and-frisk policing programs, which don’t lower crime rates but do lead to many pointless arrests of black and Latino men.  He would like to privatize the country’s roads, which is likely to lead to higher costs for people with the least access to public transit — the rural poor.  He has apparently taken back his statement about banning Muslim immigration to the US, but he’s still peddling in harmful stereotypes about women and Latino immigrants, leading to concerns that hate crimes might increase.  It’s important to keep talking to Trump supporters about why these policies are problematic, and hopefully shift some opinions there, but for may of us this won’t feel like enough.

You can do more, through both legislative and civic channels.  Here are eight great options to choose from.

  • Contact your members of Congress and ask them to oppose Trump’s policies.  You can find your representatives and senators online.  Email, call, or write to them to ask for their support in this.
  • Get involved with local politics.  Most of us will never be high profile politicians, and that’s fine!  But there are loads of opportunities to promote progressive political change beginning at the local level.  You could get involved with the campaign of a candidate from a historically underrepresented minority group, or start thinking about running for local office yourself.
  • Connect with a national advocacy group.  Think back to that moment of sitting with your feelings.  Which issues really leapt out at you?   Check out this list of national organizations doing work in support of the rights of women and minority groups, and see if there’s a way to get involved in something that you care about.  Most groups will primarily be seeking donations, but you might also find opportunities to volunteer.  At minimum, sign up for their mailing lists to stay informed about the issues at hand.
  • Check out local volunteering opportunities.  If you haven’t got much money to donate, but can contribute your time or skills, look for local organizations working in your area of interest.  They can often make better use of volunteers than can national organizations.
  • Push for change where you work, study, and worship.  People often underestimate how much good they might do by working within existing institutions.  You don’t have to openly discuss politics in these spaces if you think it wouldn’t be helpful, but you can still push them to become more diverse and inclusive.  If you’re a hiring manager, think about whether women and minority groups are underrepresented compared to their share of the national population.  Then check out these tips for recruiting for diversity and avoiding bias in hiring.  If you’re a student, look for activist groups on your campus, or start your own if you can’t find one.  And within your place of worship, think through what your tradition has to say about supporting the poor, empowering women, or welcoming immigrants.  Most faiths have a diverse variety of interpretive perspectives, and can be more supportive of progressive values than commonly assumed.
  • Take your activism online.  Share news with your network on Facebook.  Write an op-ed or a blog post for a progressive site.  Volunteer as a web designer for a non-profit. Start a petition through Change.org or the White House petitions site.
  • Build strong relationships in your community.  Perhaps none of the options above seem feasible.  That’s all right!  Building strong and inclusive communities is valuable in its own right, and there are many ways to contribute to that.  Join the PTA and fight for quality public education.  Volunteer as a tutor for students whose first language isn’t English.  Greet your neighbor with the Trump sign in his yard.  Even small acts are something.
  • Remember to take care of yourself.  Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed by politics right now.  Maybe you’d love to get involved, but can’t imagine balancing that with work and taking care of your kids.  Maybe you don’t think it would be safe to be open with your political views in the area where you live.  Taking care of yourself and your family is important.  If that’s your priority right now, it doesn’t make you any less of a progressive.  Be well.

You may feel energized by the work ahead, or discouraged by it.  I take to heart a line from the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 2:21): “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but nor are you free to desist from it.”

9 Comments

  1. I couldn’t get through all of this post. Too much pandering and banal liberal platitudes to read the entire thing (i.e. “Whatever you’re feeling is valid. And conversely, whatever others are feeling is also valid, even if it’s diametrically opposed to your own sentiments.”).

    But Trump won because so much of the United States is fatigued by federal overreach driven by crass minority chauvinism.

    If someone didn’t tell me otherwise I would have assumed that this was printed in the onion.

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      1. Well, for one, allowing gender and not sex to determine what bathroom someone should use. I opposed this policy because it demands a legal definition of what constitutes gender. (Such a concept is too fluid to be legally defined and even it was possible, the entire idea of having some sort of government body define gender is just Orwellian.) But having Washington D.C. tell the rustbelt that men in wigs can use the women’s bathroom is just way too culturally obnoxious to them and is partially responsible for why we saw Trump. These sort of cultural issues should be settled at the local level.

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      2. That’s an interesting point. I’ve been interpreting these policies as more aligned with libertarian ideas than statist ones — the idea that people should have the right to use the bathroom they prefer without anyone enquiring about their genitals along the way seems like a basic question of liberty. Conversely, creating a new set of requirements that people use the bathroom matching the gender they were assigned at birth seems like an inappropriate expansion of state power to me.

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  2. Yet another Very Serious White Person, this one who thinks her advanced degree in political science gives her any insight into the depth of her white privilege, yammering on about how we have to be niiiiiiiicer to racists. It’s “rude” to call racists racist, after all. Much ruder than it is to actually be racist.

    Meanwhile, swastikas are going up all over the U.S., women are having their hijabs pulled off, white dudes are droolingly telling black women that “Soon it’ll be legal for me to own you” … but we have to make nicey-nicey with these shitbags.

    Nah. Fuck that. I’m with John Scalzi, and Adam Serwer, and, most of all, all the African-Americans and Muslim Americans and Latinos who are tired of white people’s shit. And especially tired of Nice White Liberals who think everything can be solved by just sitting down and working out our differences.

    Power relinquishes nothing without a fight. I’m going to fight. Enjoy sitting there like the fatuous fool you are and delivering these spineless, toothless advice. There are a lot of fatuous fools who eat that shit up with a spoon, so you certainly won’t lack for an audience.

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    1. Hi Anon,

      I’m curious — of the actions suggested in the third part of the post, do any of those count as things you feel white people ought to do to fight racism / sexism / etc.? If not, what else would you suggest that people do?

      The point I was trying to make was that change happens in multiple ways — both through systems of power and around them. “Through” is working through the legislative system, supporting advocacy groups, and so forth to try to change the law. “Around” might mean various things, but here I’m focusing on changing the underlying social norms that brought Trump to power. I think we need to work on both tracks, specifically because changes in the law can be ephemeral without changes in social norms to support them. For example, look at the 2013 retrenchment of the Voting Rights Act and resultant voter suppression in this election — the law was important, and it also wasn’t enough to solve the underlying problem. (Or, to take the examples of racist and xenophobic assault that you’ve provided, the perpetrators can and should be prosecuted for that under existing law — but clearly there’s been a sense of a shift in norms that has enabled the sudden outburst of these acts, and we also need to address that.)

      I don’t know if you’ll see this response, but if you do I’d like to hear your thoughts.

      Take care,

      Rachel

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