Liberals, myself included, are in a well-documented crisis. Friction between progressives dominates my news feed more than arguments across ideologies. Divides have opened between focus on identity politics and economics, pitting Democratic outsiders versus insiders, Sen. Bernie Sanders versus Secretary Hillary Clinton. Where we go from here, and what the future of the Democratic Party should be, I do not know. However, I do know that Donald Trump picked up millions of votes from the Midwest, a union-clad Democratic stronghold since the time of George H.W. Bush. I am from the Midwest and have heard the stories of people who voted for Trump; they don’t inherently hate minorities, want to subjugate women, or think gay people belong in conversion therapy. In my experience, conversations with these voters often come to the same conclusion: they say or think something that is implicitly racist, and we use that to discount what they are saying wholesale. This doesn’t change anyone’s mind or vote.
Jordan Peele, known for acting in Key & Peele and directing Get Out, said in a March 7 interview with PBS Newshour, “the way we talk about racism is broken … because we think of racism as this unacceptable evil thing that I couldn’t possibly have within myself.” In my experience, the best way to have conversations with people who disagree with me—from a feminist who hasn’t heard of intersectionality yet, to someone who has watched the racial composition of their neighborhood change drastically—is not to end the conversation after they say something they don’t even realize is racist. As Peele said, we must try to reframe racism and investigate its roots to truly stamp it out.
Earlier this semester, my friend’s ex-girlfriend, whom I’ll call Jane, referred to both my friend and Barack Obama as “gorillas.” I found this to be overtly racist and inherently despicable, and resolved to confront her about it when I saw her again. The next day, as Jane and I crossed paths, I stopped her, calling her out for her comments, saying they were racist, and telling the friend she was with what Jane had done. Jane persisted that it had been a joke blown wildly out of context by myself and by the people my friend had talked to about it. I repeated that it was racist and continued back to my dorm. Days later, hearing what Jane had told people about the incident, the two of us had fundamentally different interpretations of what happened. Suddenly, I was a screamer, a pusher, a force-you-to-stop-walking-so-I-can-deride-you irate liberal preying on her because of an innocent joke.
The interaction proved productive for neither of us.
We each saw the other in starkly different lights than we each had intended, and neither of us learned anything about the other from the experience. As a white, heterosexual male who strives to be an ally, I feel my role is to communicate my values of liberalism, inclusion, and political correctness to those who look like me and may not be as receptive to the same message from someone they perceive as different. For all intents and purposes, I had failed.
In a fantastic podcast from This American Life, the hosts venture to St. Cloud, Minnesota—a town about two hours from where I live. In their interviews, residents are almost flagrantly racist, discussing the flood of Somali immigrants that has settled in Minnesota. However, their intentions are not what they consider to be racist. Residents mention how they feel they have lost control over their community, how Somali children bully their kids on the playground, and how they have heard that towns across the country are converting to Sharia. What they say is racist, but it comes not from a place of hatred, but rather from fear and uncertainty. Residents are upset that their community is changing and have heard countless falsehoods about what their new community members believe, how they act, and what they want. The residents fall into a natural recourse of shrinking from the unknown.
When having conversations with these white Americans, as will be necessary to bring prevailing political sentiment back to a semblance of liberalism, I urge you not to end your conversations by saying “that was racist.”
Rather, refocus. Look at why the person said what they did and what the social situation leading up to that was, both in the situation preceding the comment, and in the person’s overall background. In St. Cloud, the residents feared for their children and grandchildren because the small town they knew was rapidly changing. Jane thought she was speaking within a private community when she made her comments, and she was raised thinking that with some people, these comments were okay. She was angry, both at her ex-boyfriend and at a president she saw as piloting her country straight into an abyss.
To Jane, to the worried residents of St. Cloud, and to a majority of Trump voters, this is a rational fear, but they feel like no matter how they express it, they will be labeled as racist. This fear has led to the widespread backlash against political correctness and characterization of liberals as “snowflakes” that was so prevalent in 2016.
I grew up surrounded by people like those in St. Cloud. I know Jane has a diverse and intelligent group of friends. Racism is not the end goal in their comments. So we must ask follow up questions. Why do they think that Somali children are raised to bully? Can they point to evidence against that? Do they know the storied racial histories behind some terms and the effects their words can have? Questions like these try to draw out the reasons behind the racism and can lead to more productive, civil, and empathetic discussions for both sides. For white people, and especially white, straight, liberal men like myself, this is more important than ever.
As a white man, I believe my role as an ally should primarily involve making spaces for the voices that people like me have subjugated for so long. I don’t intend to tell anyone what conversations to have, or how they should have those conversations, and it is my last intention to overstep my boundaries. This is why I write with a specific message, and one that can be especially useful to privileged people striving to be allies: We cannot let “that was racist” be the end of the argument.
Gustav is a freshman in the College.