The day after the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times published an editorial by journalist Nate Cohn titled “Why Trump Won: Working-Class Whites.” The Guardian similarly released an article focusing on the white working-class in Ohio, and countless other newspapers, media sites and blogs followed suit. It has become common knowledge that dispossessed whites were the chief player in Donald Trump’s victory (despite the fact that Trump voters as a whole had higher incomes than Clinton voters). Consequently, the lesson that Liberals and those on the Left learned from this election was the necessity of addressing economic issues impacting working-class, post-industrial white America. But does this realization go far enough? It is my responsibility, and that of other white people, to examine the easy explanations given for Secretary Clinton’s loss and to question whether or not we are also implicated in the wave of discontent that flooded through the ballot box and into the White House.
It is not a novel suggestion that there is a massive communication divide between the Right and the Left.
The few things on which the two sides seem to be able to agree center around vague concepts—like “freedom” and “liberty”—for which each side has a different definition of and perspective on. This divide seems insurmountable at times.
How often have those of us growing up in predominantly white, Conservative, rural areas spoken of our longing to get out of their small town and into a (preferably urban) environment that accepts our progressive views? How many times have we silently rolled our eyes when we hear our relatives talk about what Bill O’Reilly told them about the previous night?
Not only is there a massive communication gap between the poles of political ideology, but we who are perhaps best situated to break down this barrier—the children and relatives of traditionally Conservative people—are often the least inclined to attempt to do so. Particularly when these issues are those of race or of other oppressions by which we are not disempowered, we are demonstrating moral failure every time we simply cannot be bothered to fight for those who do not share our privilege to those closest to us.
It doesn’t feel like we do nothing when we’re going through those moments; it feels like a huge test of endurance, and who would willingly make that worse for themself? So often we afterwards tell a friend about how exhausting it was to simply share a space with a family member espousing those views. Sometimes, if we want “social capital” or if we want to feel affirmed in our righteousness, we tell a Black friend, or a friend of color, or a gay friend, or any friend who is a member of the communities that we did not defend to our relatives.
And we expect them to reassure us that they would have stayed silent in the situation too, that we were really quite brave for enduring what we had to endure at the hands of our family.
But what does our silence actually do? It does nothing of value. It tells our relatives that we either agree with them, or that we think their points are unanswerable, or–and this is usually the closest to being correct–that we have deemed ourselves too superior, too ideologically pure, to bother interacting with their thoughts and ideas.
To a population that has felt ignored and ridiculed by those of us who have clamored to escape our hometowns, this behavior on our part simply serves as confirmation that they are misunderstood and under attack.
And so we go home for holidays, we silently endure dinners and we try to say as little as possible about what we think. We hope topics of social justice never arise in conversation. When they invariably come up, we look down at our plate and we remember all the times we have heard Black people, people of color, other marginalized people say “it’s not our job to educate.”
We silently apply that to ourselves, lightly skipping over the fact that we, as white people, are in no such position with regards to our families.
We go up to our rooms or go out with friends as quickly as possible, thinking back to Seth Meyers’s most recent political segment, or wondering what exact wording Jon Stewart would use to mock and to rip our grandparents’ views into shreds. After all, if a viewpoint is too ridiculous to take seriously, then there is no reason to bother contesting it.
The constant ridicule and superior, self-righteous manner with which many of us engage (or do not deign to engage) with the ideology of our family and those from our hometown do not go unnoticed. Our families firmly believe their way of life is being attacked, and we, largely, are doing nothing to explain why certain elements of society desperately need to change.
Fox News is never going to expose viewers to the reasons why white people as a class are being called racist, why defending “the American way of life” is viewed as bigoted. It only says that the viewers, wherever they are, are under attack, and the “PC society” is condemning them for defending themselves. In what world do we not have the responsibility to fill in the blanks willfully left by the newscasters? Engagement with family will not immediately save the world, but it has the potential to start stemming the tide of fear that is so easily exploitable by the Donald Trumps of the world.
Talking with family instead of talking around them (or passive-aggressively at them) is also essential if we expect any change at all to take place in their thinking or the way they understand the world. When it is so common to post on social media how waiting for the older generation to die off is the only cure for society’s ills, do we think those whom we are talking about cannot see? Do we expect to be listened to in family discussions if we do nothing but indicate to our families that their views are so beneath us that we view it as a burden to even be around them?
There is no set script for us to follow in all of our interactions with white family members— widespread political communication in the age of specialized news sources and commentators is next to impossible. There is no single argument, no news report, editorial or political candidate that has the potential to convert huge swaths of the white, Conservative Midwest to the causes of human rights and social justice. Those days are gone, if they ever truly existed in the first place.
Our responsibility now, as the white children of our families, is to put ourselves on the line in ways that nobody else can, to engage with our families, listen to the ways that they describe their pain or anxiety, learn about their struggles and help them learn about the struggles of those who do not share their identity-based privileges. Some family members will certainly be adamant in their beliefs, but others might be open to honest dialogue with no pretenses or condescension. If we don’t even try to engage them, what is the point of our socially just convictions anyways?
If it is simply to feel self-righteous in the face of opposition, then our convictions are worthless. If the point is to fight for the survival of our non-white, non-straight and otherwise marginalized friends, however, then we must come to terms with our responsibilities and we must go to work.