I know that over the past months, you have seen yourselves categorized as racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and bigoted. Right now, I imagine that you are trying to distance yourself from the sweeping characterization by many on the left that all Trump supporters are sexist or racist because you do not see yourself that way. If you are in the minority and you do define yourself as sexist or racist, this letter is not addressed to you. If you are a self-defined white supremacist, I am not interested in engaging in dialogue. Our basic values are so far apart that it’s not even worth it.
But if you are in the majority of Trump supporters, and if you are like the Trump supporters that I know, I assume that you are hard-working and dedicated to your families and friends. You respect your husbands and wives and your daughters, mothers, and sisters, and as such you don’t view yourself as sexist. You are incredibly generous with your friends. Some of you have met my family and welcomed my Afro-Latino children with open arms and without an ounce of judgment displayed. You voted for Trump because you work hard and you do not want taxes taken from your hard-earned paycheck to pay to support people on welfare. You have seen stories that people on welfare are doing nothing to help themselves, and you believe these stories and you don’t think it is fair that your hard-earned dollars support them. Maybe you are a single issue pro-life voter, and even with Trump’s spotty support of a pro-life stance, he was the best chance you had because Clinton was clearly and decidedly pro-choice. You see jobs in your neighborhood and your town disappearing and you are scared. You have heard that it is immigrants taking those jobs, and you believe that story. You think the best hope is to deport undocumented residents and to keep more immigrants from coming into this country. You don’t see that as bigoted – you see it as protecting what you have worked hard for. You grew up in a white town and know hard-working white people and Trump is like one of your parents’ friends, like one of your friends, or even like you. His crass way of talking doesn’t offend you because you have heard it from others all your life, and they have been kind to you, so you extend that to him. You are disillusioned with government, and you think someone completely outside of politics will help break things up. Many of you thought that Trump was a bit crazy and you had concerns about how he was sometimes ‘mean.’ You heard other people call his rhetoric racist and sexist, but you didn’t understand why. You voted for him and crossed your fingers that other people in government would keep his crazy in check. (It’s not happening, but that was what you hoped.) You hoped, and hope, and somehow convinced yourself that he didn’t really mean much of what he said. Maybe you thought Clinton was “evil” and you hated her more than you hated him.
I can identify with what I think some of your story might be. I grew up in rural(ish) NH where the politics were predominantly conservative and my peers – except for two individuals in my entire high school – were white. Before 1992, my dad voted exclusively Republican. He called himself a “fiscal conservative and a social liberal,” a term I used to describe myself until I learned more and understood that it was an impossible double-bind. My family was middle-class. I was a post Title-IX baby and I grew up being encouraged to play sports and to excel in school. I believed my gender did not hold me back in any way. When I heard about sexual assault, I thought that couldn’t happen to me. I needed to believe that it couldn’t happen to me because the fear of rape and assault is terrifying and debilitating, and I strongly believed – needed to believe – that I was not, and could not be, a victim. And so I held beliefs that women who were assaulted brought it on themselves. I thought those beliefs kept me safe because it distanced the possibility from me, and I thought it gave me agency. So long as I wore the ‘right’ clothing, so long as I behaved the ‘right’ way, I believed that I could control whether or not my body would be scrutinized or touched in ways that I did not consent to. If you asked me if I was a feminist back in high school and at the beginning of college, I would have adamantly told you that “I was not a feminist, but I believe in equal access to sports for women, equal access to education, equal pay, that women could and should be president, that girls could do anything boys could do…”
And then I went to college in Philadelphia. My university was, and is, situated in an urban, diverse neighborhood. I worked in the inner-city neighborhood schools and got to know the students. When I first walked into the school, I was slammed in the face with inequity. The students in the class I worked in were predominantly black. They were in classrooms separated by temporary dividers, and we could hear the teachers and students on the other side while our class was in session. There weren’t any textbooks available, so the students read from copied sheets of paper that they returned to a file cabinet after class was over. Most of the students did not have paper or pencils, and the teacher whose classroom I worked in provided that for them using her own private money. Other urban schools that I visited in the city were worse off – the actual buildings were in disrepair. This was so different from the school I went to where I had textbooks and many other resources provided, where we were in well-designed classrooms with solid walls and windows, where all the students were white. The students I worked with were bright, curious, personable, and funny.
I wanted to understand why, if this was a public school in America, then why then did I get so much more in my white, rural(ish) public school than these black students in urban Philadelphia were being given? And if their school was giving them so much less, then didn’t that make it so they were likely going to have less of a chance to succeed later? I explored these questions in my university courses, and I learned that much of our education system is this country is funded locally based on taxes. So what this means is that if you go to a public school in a middle-class or wealthy area, your school will receive more funding per student than if you go to a public school in a low-income area. And what that means is that kids of people with more money get better schools and resources than kids of people with less money. Doesn’t sound much like the American dream we were fed, does it? Doesn’t sound much like equal access to education, does it? But that is the reality of our country. It’s important that you know this. It became clear to me that because I had the privilege of being born white and upper middle class, which were both completely unearned advantages, I was given a leg up to a bright future. The students I worked with in this school were already behind, and that was going to impact the rest of their lives. Because I was brought up with solid, small-town values of caring about others, I couldn’t turn away from this once I saw it, and I trust, that because you share those values with me, because you actually do care about others, you won’t be able to turn away from it either. I started to realize that some of the ideals I had been led to believe about America weren’t actually true.
Post-college, I moved to Hawai’i to teach at a private high school, and I was offered to teach an elective course called Identity and Culture, which explored the ways that gender impacts how we see ourselves and how others see each other. In preparation for teaching the course, I gave myself a crash course in women’s studies, and I read a lot of literature and history. And I learned that there was a BIG problem with my “I am not a feminist, but…” statement. I learned that what came after the but was really important. Because what I was saying was really “I am not a feminist, but I agree with all of the things feminism works for. I am not a feminist, but I espouse all of the feminist values.” And in further examination, I realized what I was trying to distance myself from was the label and the negative stereotype that is culturally ascribed to a feminist. Who wants to be called angry, shrill, a bitch, etc.? Not me back then. So I disavowed the label. Until I realized the contradiction. Because I believed in all of the things feminism worked and works for, I was and am a feminist. But I was afraid to claim that. I was afraid of the price I would have to pay. Eventually, the price I paid for not owning the label was bigger than the price for speaking up. Because the price was turning against myself and my own interests. Because the price was turning against other women and their interests. I bet that most of you, at least in theory, believe in equal access to sports for women, equal access to education, equal pay, that women can be president, that girls can do anything boys could do… Do you realize that if you are a woman and believe these things but voted for Trump, that you voted against your own interests? If you are a man who loves his wife and daughters, you voted against the interests of your daughters and your wives.
In college, I had friends who were assaulted and raped. As a teacher, I had students who were assaulted, raped, and in violent dating relationships. Even if you don’t know it, statistics tell us that you, too, know women who have experienced these things. I was harassed, heckled, and had my own boundaries crossed more than once, though I have thus far in my own life been lucky not to be raped. I say lucky, because there were a few situations where it truly was just luck that kept me safe. My immersion into sexual violence prevention work helped me to understand that the way a woman dresses or behaves does not make her responsible for a man assaulting her. You are never responsible for another person touching you in ways that you do not consent to. You are never responsible for another person having sex with you without your consent. Never. Not if you wear sexy clothing and flirt. Not if you have a few drinks. Not if you start having sexual relations but decide you don’t want to go any further. I say this, without a gender pronoun, because this goes both ways, though predominantly men are the perpetrators of sexual violence. And it is not just you that gets to say how someone touches you. The same applies to everyone else. If your response to Trump’s comment about grabbing a woman by the p*ssy was that it was no big deal, if your response to the women who came forward to speak of his unwanted advances was that they either invited it, that it was no big deal, or that they were lying, then please, I implore you, please spend some time reflecting on and examining your attitudes about rape and women. This is how cultural sexism works. It is in the air we breathe and so it seeps into our attitudes and shapes how we think, and we don’t even realize it is there. If you hear yourself say, “I’m not sexist, but I don’t really care that Trump talked about grabbing a woman,” or you don’t care about the women who have come forward to disclose unwanted advances or touching, then you have work to do. Because sexism is institutional, so we don’t even realize how it has become a part of us until we stop and look… I am a woman, and yet, I find myself sometimes holding sexist attitudes. Instead of denying that, I acknowledge it, keep it in front of me, and keep it examined.
Did you find yourself, in this campaign, hating Clinton and thinking she was evil? Hatred is an odd feeling to have for someone that you don’t know, isn’t it? That kind of visceral feeling that you don’t know personally is never actually about someone else, but something within you. When I feel hatred, I always pause and wonder, what is actually going on with me here? I didn’t personally feel hatred for Clinton, but I did, further back, feel disrespect. And, as much as I hate to admit this, I can imagine the me from high school, hating her. Not because of her, but because of deeply ingrained attitudes in me. Leading up to this campaign, I needed to look at how my own sexism was preventing me from seeing her fully. When I did, I saw her more clearly, and I could sort out what things I agreed with her on and what I didn’t. You may not have agreed with some of Clinton’s policies, and that is fair – that is democracy – but I challenge you to pause and allow yourself to see the things about Clinton’s work that are really respectable. And there are many… If you can’t allow yourself to do that, then it’s time to think about how sexism is blocking you from seeing that. I can list things that I disagree with Clinton on (historical policies and votes on war and incarceration, etc.. I will even give you that some of the concerns with e-mails were valid – I don’t absolve her completely of that, BUT it also wasn’t what Trump made it out to be). I can also list for you things that she did really well. She has an incredibly long history of working for women’s health, for education, for people with disabilities, for the environment, for health care, and much more. She has been a tireless public servant for a long time, and no matter what your political leanings are, if you allow yourself to really see that, it’s incredibly respectable. If you are unable to see that, ask yourself how sexism (and a really intense, sexist, and intentional propaganda campaign) is blocking you.
I have made a point of doing this with Trump, of not allowing my preconceived biases to keep me from actually listening to him. I may strongly oppose his sexist, racist, xenophobic rhetoric, and I may not believe that he is qualified to act as president, yet I really listened to him in the debates. I saw how because he was outside the system he was able to speak truth about the establishment that is rarely spoken when we are within the 2-party system. And because he doesn’t care what people think, he just spoke it straight-on. I actually liked that he did that. And I understood how that was appealing to people who feel frustrated and unrepresented. I heard how he spoke to helping people who have been feeling really stuck thrive – and I saw how that was compelling. I saw how, for people who have grown up in rural or rural(ish) white America, he is familiar and relatable. He could be one of your family friends. Heck, he could even be you. That is appealing to have as a leader. It can feel like he represents you. And maybe, just maybe, he can help you be a billionaire like him. That would be great, wouldn’t it?
When my kids call Trump names or reduce him to a stereotype, which they do sometimes in their fear, I challenge them. I tell them we don’t do that to any person, just as we don’t want anyone to do that to us, that we respect his person and we critique his policies. If you realize that you reduced Clinton to a stereotype, that you called her names, that you rejected her outright without really looking at her track record and her policies, then there is work to be done.
In terms of racism, I assume that in your everyday interactions, you interact with people of different skin colors and backgrounds with kindness. That however doesn’t make any of us “not racist.” Racism, like sexism, is institutional – it, too, is a part of the air we breathe. Even if you don’t identify yourself with the racist rhetoric that laced this campaign, you have to see that it was a part of it. We all know, no matter your party affiliation, that the KKK and the ‘alt-right,’ which is a public relations spin term for white nationalists, endorsed Trump – that was for a reason. You have to acknowledge that racism is not just an undercurrent in our culture, but that it is very much at play. It has been braided into our history and our institutions since slavery. This campaign and election made that very obvious. I do my very best to act with consciousness in my choices, but racism is a part of me because it is a part of the culture I live in. My job is not to say that “I’m not racist,” but instead to acknowledge that I live in a racist culture and that means that I, too, am capable of racist ideology, and when I don’t watch the racism that is in me, and even sometimes when I do, it seeps into my attitudes and perceptions. It is my responsibility to constantly keep it in front of me and keep it in check. We are all racist to some degree because we live in a racist culture. Does that make sense? Are you willing to own your own racism, examine it, and keep that shadow out in front of you?
I think the term “privilege” can be a difficult concept to grasp. It does not mean that in every single circumstance, you will be given the advantage. It means that the cards and the system are stacked in your favor. And that most of the advantages that you have, you won’t even see. That is how privilege works. When we have it, we can’t see it.
You work hard and you are kind and you are respectful. You grew up with parents who taught you that if you did the right thing, you would be treated right. And for the most part, this has been your experience in life. How could it be any different for anyone else? Life has not always been easy for you. You have had real struggles in your life, and you have worked hard to overcome them. You have learned to take responsibility for yourself, and you believe that others should, too.
I agree with this to a degree. I don’t think that challenging systems means that we don’t also teach personal responsibility. But personal responsibility without challenging the systems that are stacked against whole groups of people will never, ever work.
Race privilege is when people of one race or ethnicity are seen to get advantages that other races or ethnicities do not get. In America, we have white privilege. It is commonly misperceived amongst white people that white privilege is other races saying that white people are all financially more well off than other races. Or that white people don’t have struggles. Or that in every situation, the white person will come out on top. Definitely not. Not at all. White privilege is when a white man and a black man both walk into a store, but the man behind the cash register only watches the black man. When you have kids of color, you are in a unique position to notice things you didn’t before. When I walk into a store by myself, I am always treated kindly. No one every watches me. I am allowed to wander around the store freely. When I have walked into some stores with my kids, I have watched clerks watch my kids. If my kids are hanging close to me, we are watched less. My kids benefit from my white privilege in that way. If they wander off on their own, I have watched clerks watch them, while other (white) kids run around the store unwatched. This has happened more than once. It seems to me to happen more often as my kids get older. This is implicit bias. The clerks likely are not even aware that it is happening. They have learned through media stories (which are not accurate) that black and brown kids/teens are more untrustworthy, so they need to keep a closer eye on them.
You might think that when you get stopped by a police officer, the reason that you never are afraid is because you are respectful, so you have no reason to be afraid. In many small towns, the cops don’t meet a lot of resistance, so this is generally true. All it takes is respect, and you are treated well. But the cities are different. And the cops do react differently to people of color. I have watched it with my own eyes. It’s not equal. One recent example. I have a friend – a black man with a college degree, who is smart, accomplished, kind, and respectful. He recently took a trip down south. While he was driving home, he noticed a police officer following him. He checked his speed and made sure that he was obeying all traffic laws. It was dark, and he was terrified for his life. He pulled into a gas station and the cop pulled in behind him and followed him into the gas station and watched him while he was in the store. He had done nothing wrong, except be a man of color. This man is not different than you and me, except that he is black. This experience has never happened to me. It wouldn’t. And it wouldn’t happen to you. But it did to him. This is a reality of how privilege works. So not getting followed by a cop, not getting watched by a cop in a gas station… that is a privilege. You didn’t even know it was a privilege because it didn’t happen to you. But the fact that it didn’t, and wouldn’t, is the unearned (and unseen) advantage. Does this make sense?
I am going to stop here, because I have said a lot, and for this conversation to be fruitful, it needs to take place over time. You need time to digest some of these things, think about them, and come back. But I hope this is a start to an important dialogue…