Another day, another white man with a huge platform telling people to get out of their "liberal bubbles" and stop caricaturing Trump supporters as bigots. In his New York Times piece "The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus," Nicholas Kristof suggested over the weekend that Trump's Electoral College win means that campuses ought to try harder to recruit conservative scholars. He says:
"We champion tolerance, except for conservatives and evangelical Christians. We want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us — so long as they think like us."Then, right after acknowledging the "uptick" in hate crimes since Trump's election, Kristof notes that now is no time to be "illiberal" by not tolerating all viewpoints.
It's like I always paraphrase, when fascism comes to the US it will be wrapped in a flag, carrying a cross, and aided along by a million wagging fingers in your face, scolding you for not being tolerant of it.
I realize it's trendy right now for some media elites to pick on academia and college students (OMG safe spaces, what fun targets! And trigger warnings?!), but I argue that a more urgent task is to push back on this narrative of Trump supporter innocence. We keep being told that Trump supporters aren't bigots, yet I find it remarkably odd that all of these not-bigots have mysteriously found themselves in a position of political alignment with white nationalists, the KKK, and rabid misogynists while seemingly having zero curiosity about why.
The mass gaslighting, though, is not surprising, is it? Contradictions are weaved into the fabric of our national history. The white male founders of our political system who told us that all men are created equal are lauded, even when they themselves held people as property or condoned a system that did. The narrative that white men can be great, and by extension their supporters, even if they were complicit in human rights travesties is one of many invisible threads running through our discourse. It is no surprise then that the Everyday Americans* we keep hearing about who supported Trump, but who didn't even own slaves ever, will never see themselves as bigoted.
In an old law review article entitled "The Richmond Narratives," which doesn't seem to be freely-available on Internet, Thomas Ross notes that critics of affirmative action talk a lot about the "innocence" of white "victims" who would be harmed:
"In this vocabulary, the white person is innocent so long as [they have] not committed an act of particular and proven racial discrimination in connection with the job or other interest at stake."There is no accounting, in this narrative, for the ways that white people benefit from racism in ways that are invisible to white people. Coupled with this narrative, as I've said before, is the liberal plea for civility, "We must tolerate the intolerant and not call them bigots." It is written by privileged people for privileged people, so they can feel good about themselves for being so tolerant. Having no skin in the game themselves, they don't have to reckon with the consequences of what tolerating intolerance might mean for those experiencing systemic injustice and marginalization.
With assists from men like Kristof, we remain squarely in a most-comfortable era for the Everday American bigot: "It's worse to call someone one than to actually be one." On this topic, Slate recently ran a conversation, "I Am Not Your Racial Confessor," among Jamelle Bouie, Gene Demby, Aisha Harris, and Tressie McMillan Cotton. I recommend all of it, but they touch on the theme of managing white people's anxieties about being called racist:
Demby: I think one of the things that both Jamelle and Tressie are pointing to is the starting premise of the ask, right? I want to have a conversation with you, but I need to first be assured that the conclusion of that conversation is broadly, unrealistically optimistic.And then, later:
Bouie: Exactly. Which means it isn’t a conversation as much as it is a request for emotional validation.
Bouie: What’s more, there’s often an implicit demand that we presume their racial innocence.
Harris: That “innocence” is really just willful ignorance in about 99 percent of cases, I’d say.Like I said, we hear a lot of whinging about "liberal safe spaces," but less about the Everyday American's request for them, via these demands that marginalized people tip-toe around their feelings. As a result, many people walk through life holding certain "truths" to be self-evident, and among these are:
Nobody is racist unless they belong to the KKK. Nobody is homophobic unless they belong to the Westboro Baptist Church. Nobody is sexist unless they're feminists, because we all know they secretly hate men and misogyny isn't actually a major issue.When Fred Phelps died in 2014, I wrote an article sardonically-titled, "Last Homobigot in US Dies."
Back then, I had been engaged in dialogue with prominent opponents of LGBT rights. I quickly learned that an important ground rule was that I must never, no matter how tenderly I said it, suggest that an opponent of LGBT equality held bigoted views. Calling the opposition to same-sex marriage "anti-gay" was likewise deemed an unfair smear (calling them a "bigot" was the ultimate in "uncharitable" "attacks").
I agreed for these words to be stricken from my vocabulary for the sake of managing the comfort of those who thought I was unequal to them. It is an exercise in degradation, but one we sometimes agree to so that conversations can occur at all, because gods forbid we expect anything from the Everyday American.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton's campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri has noted that, while she's been evaluating lessons from the election, it's also important that Trump and his people, "think long and hard about the voters who rejected them. I haven’t seen much evidence of such introspection from the Trump side. That’s concerning."
Some Trump supporters, like a college Republican featured in The New York Times, have expressed outrage at Clinton supporters who feel scared and sad. A white supremacist featured in the LA Times, describes being on "an emotional high" since the election and explains that he actually considers terms like "racist" to be "antiwhite hate speech." A KKK-member describes how and why he doesn't care for the term "white supremacist."
And, it's all so grotesque.
The prevailing narrative of innocence asks so very little of Everyday Americans. The bar is so low. All they have to do is literally not commit hate crimes and they're golden, and even those who do commit hate crimes are usually granted more humanity than their victims. No further introspection needed. Let's just let the people live guilt-free lives!
What I find insidious about these narratives of innocence (and just as bad, "tolerate other people's intolerance!") is that, as many have noted, Donald Trump merely says explicitly what many Republicans say in more subtle, coded ways. The bigotry behind the words is the same, but rendered invisible because bigots cannot handle being called bigoted. So we find that if no one is swearing or saying "fag" it's deemed respectable talk. Think of conservatives who were upset that Trump said "pussy" but not that he admitted on tape to grabbing them without consent. Think of anti-gays who think it's wrong to protest funerals, but still want to repeal marriage equality.
Republican posturing against Trump primarily seems motivated by the tenor of his speech, rather than its content. So, I have to roll my eyes at some of the privileged person navel-gazing I've seen, "What is bigotry, even?" We know this already. Open your fucking eyes. The only acceptable answer to most people is this: NOTHING. NOTHING AT ALL IS BIGOTRY.
I think often about the silence that is demanded of marginalized people so that other people don't have to feel bad. I think about how much heavy lifting this silence must do in service of false narratives. Everyday white people aren't racist! No one is a bigot anymore, really! I voted for Trump and my black coworker, of whom I demanded emotional management, said it was okay!
On this basis, it seems we certainly do have a a widespread affirmative action and safe space program in effect. The features that define it, and who benefits from it, just aren't what critics think they are.
*Regarding this phrase, Cameron Esposito puts it pretty well, "'Everyday Americans' is the whitest shit I've ever heard & I'm white & I've been to a Dave Matthews concert."