Yesterday in class, the day after Trump was elected, one of my white students walked over to a Latinx student and tried to hug him. With the most dignity I have possibly witnessed in a 20-year old, he graciously declined the hug. This is a young man who has talked with me about his fear for his undocumented family members. The white girl persisted. He graciously declined. She walked away slightly confused.
Later in the day, in a text exchange with a white friend, I was admonished — in the most gentle but patronizing of ways– for my lack of tears. “How are you?” she asked. “Great!” I replied. “Educating, organizing, protesting. Surrounded by beautiful, fierce resilience and resistance.” She texted back: “You can let yourself cry. Don’t be afraid to cry.”
My response, unlike my student’s, was not the most dignified, and for that I should know better. But oh, I am so uninterested in your pity, and I really, really don’t need “comforting.” It is so disrespectful for you to pity me when you stand-by and allow racist policies to destroy the communities I care about.
By writing this essay, my goal is not to take away your feelings or shut down your voice. My goal is to decenter whiteness at a time when whiteness has reasserted itself as the dominant paradigm. And, decentering whiteness means challenging white fragility– even among our allies.
There are reasons to cry about Trump, I get it. Many women, white women and women of color, are victims of sexual assault. I am myself a victim of sexual assault, and I know intimately that trauma does not obey my brain or surface in a logical way. Trauma sears through my body and emotions on its own timeline and surfaces when it wants. And, my LGBTQ friends are in deep mourning and fear, and for good reason. Trump’s proposed policies are directly targeting their humanity.
Let me put on my “racial analysis hat” for a moment and clarify why people of color may not be interested in your pity, or your sad-face right now. In fact, what critical race theorists have termed “white fragility” isn’t just annoying– it is actually dangerous. I’ll highlight just one issue, but there are many.
I have worked in immigrant-rights now for about a decade and a half. I’ve been a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, informed policy, etc. I am not, myself, an immigrant to the U.S. I got into this work because I lived in three countries by the time I was 14 and felt a kinship to immigrant teens engaging issues of belonging, language and schooling. I felt our hearts could talk together.
Since the mid-90s, policies targeting immigrant communities in the U.S. have exploded. A system of detention centers (mirroring Japanese detainment during WW2) hold women and children (and men) without legal counsel, access to medical care, or family contact. Immigrants have died while in custody. There have been multiple hunger strikes. Women have reported being sexually assaulted by guards with no recourse. These detention centers have a bed quota– meaning, the private contractors who run them *must* fill 34,000 beds a day. Which means– private companies have financial incentives to go looking for people to put into these beds.
Enter Secure Communities, the policy enacted under Obama that puts local and state police in the horrible position of targeting their immigrant neighbors. Many municipalities have reacted against this. Police complain that since they have been positioned to enforce immigration policy, their neighbors see them as a threat and do not turn to them for help with legitimate issues in their communities out of fear that they or a family member could be detained. Forms of resistance, including something called “sanctuary cities”– municipalities where the police have elected not to racially profile and target their neighbors– have emerged democratically. Trump now threatens to end these sanctuary cities, ramp up the system of detention and deportation, and make Mexico “pay for a wall” (which doesn’t even make sense considering that many immigrants are fleeing druglords in a variety of Central American countries and aren’t even Mexican.)
I could go on and describe to you the ways in which teachers have also been mandated to target their immigrant students, the web of laws that break-up families, the backlog of immigration cases jamming up the courts which make it virtually impossible for people to “wait their turn” (fifteen years? really? to not see your child or your mother? c’mon). But I’m going to pause here and get unapologetically teacher-y on you and make a few suggestions:
FIRST, Instead of crying or trying to hug a brown person, do your homework. Read. Get informed on the issues that are relevant to black and brown communities. Policing. Prisons and detention centers. School policies. Follow Shaun King’s twitter feed, read Black Lives’ Matters’ policy statements, attend “teach-ins”.
SECOND, Instead of crying or trying to hug a brown person, march. Find out where the local protests are and attend. Make yourself a protest quota. Attend one march per month.
THIRD, Instead of crying or trying to hug a brown person, contact a local organization that trains white people to be allies and learn how to become one. Stand Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is one. Learn how to talk to racist Grampa Clancy this Thanksgiving.
FOURTH, Instead of crying or trying to hug a brown person, be humble. Learn why there are a slew of magazine articles and documentaries out there addressed to “dear white people.” Read with an open mind and don’t get mad or deny the existence of race. Don’t get annoyed and say– our problems are about economic class, not race. Yes, class matters. But people of lighter colored skin either directly target or are complicit in targeting people with darker colored skin. IT IS RACIAL. When was the last time you heard about the deportation of a white Australian immigrant who overstayed his student visa? You haven’t.
FOURTH AND A HALF: How to be humble. It doesn’t take much. I have done it myself. As light-skinned biracial women I have to take my own inventory regularly to examine my complicitness and check that I am doing everything I can towards racial justice. I ask myself questions like– am I taking up too much airtime? Are there darker-skinned folks who want to speak? Am I jumping in and leading, or am I standing back and allowing others to go first? Am I acting like a know-it-all about issues that are not my lived experience? If so, when should I teach (sometimes we have to speak up), and when should I step back and listen?
Racial justice isn’t about you and your feelings so just … be white. Heal from the shame of that, get over it, and get active. When brown and black folks get mad at you or call you out– just take it. Take a step back.
AND FINALLY: Learn why people of color hate it when you cry. When you cry, you are shifting the focus off of the policies, events, and people who target, harm, and murder people of color– and putting the focus on you and your emotional reaction. It is at best self-centered, and at worst complicit in racism. This ain’t about you. You are not in danger. You may be uncomfortable that we have a shitty president-elect. But those two things are not same same, y’all hear me? Being uncomfortable versus being afraid for your life or your family’s lives are two different, not equal, things. So take a moment–privately, or with your white friends (don’t make your friends of color responsible for your grief). Have your grief. I get it. But then, please stop crying. Go do your homework and learn how to be part of a resistance movement that respects people of color as human beings.