White People, It’s the Bigots Where You Live That Need You the Most

To address the bigotry that helped elect Trump, White people might consider the work ahead in their own families and communities.
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Photo by Nilesyan /istock.

In Michigan, the day after Donald Trump won the election, White students at a middle school in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak harassed Latino students during lunch, chanting “Build a Wall! Build a Wall!” A video of the incident went viral. In it, an adult can be seen standing in the aisle, making no attempt to end the derision. That same day, at another suburban Detroit high school, a White student called an African American female schoolmate a “ni**er b**ch!” The incident wasn’t videotaped, but it happened to a friend of my close friend’s daughter.

Several other occurrences of racial harassment, including physical violence, took place across the country that day. And they continue. But before I could process those acts of ignorance and hatred, my son called me. He’d just left a protest on his mostly White college campus in Pittsburgh. While he and other students, Black and White, were upset about the election results, they were the minority on campus. The gloating by the students who supported Trump was insufferable to him.

“How am I supposed to go back to class with these people like everything is ok, knowing they voted for Trump?” he asked. “I don’t even feel safe here.” Like many parents this week, I didn’t know what to say to my child right then.

Later, I found an answer. I told him it was everyone’s responsibility to forge ahead with the work we were already doing to better our own communities, no matter what Trump’s presidency brings. Stay informed and make wise decisions in local elections. Support organizations and individuals making a positive impact, and businesses and institutions that keep money circulating locally. And continue to build relationships with others who have access to resources and can help influence policies that benefit everyone.

Most of what I said to him describes the world I live in here in Detroit.

Detroit has a history as a union town and home to Black nationalist movements. It’s easy to become politicized here. Even “new Detroiters”—a local euphemism for White transplants from the suburbs and elsewhere—came to town with their sleeves rolled up, ready to work alongside lifelong and longtime residents in the struggle against racist policies that were dismantling our local institutions. Many of them left their homes in neighboring suburbs because they couldn’t take the bigotry and racism in their families across the border—that’s 8 Mile Road, the street that separates the urban core from its wealthier northern suburbs.

In an “Undoing Racism” workshop in New Orleans two years ago,  I learned that those former Detroit suburbanites were not the only White people leaving home to escape the intolerance of family members or neighbors. White participants from New York to California told similar stories.

What I wondered then, I am wondering even more so now: Wouldn’t it have been better for race relations if those woke White folks had instead stayed in their intolerant communities and worked to make them better, one family member at a time, one neighbor at a time?

Polls show the nearly 60 million people who voted for Trump were overwhelmingly White. Many them are relatives of White people who did not vote for Trump. What difference might have been made if those people had worked hard at truth-telling and undoing racism and healing bigotry in their own circles?

More importantly, I wonder what difference still could be made.

Recently, I’ve talked to a number of racial and restorative justice activists who have participated in truth and reconciliation processes. I learned of two occasions where those processes have had success.

In Maine, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to investigate the kidnapping of Native American children who were placed in foster care with White families. Recommendations from the commission are now being implemented. In addition, White allies of the Wabanaki tribe held a workshop to talk about how White privilege has benefited them and negatively impacted Native people.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the Truth Telling Project works with the community to address police violence, and supports other communities, some White, with their approach to truth-telling and unlearning racism. 

This is what I mean by “doing the work” in your own community.

Initiate truth-telling circles around the shared histories of your community, city, and state. Ask what happened to—directly or indirectly—reinforce White supremacy and racism. From there we can move to a place of understanding and start to work together. This will strengthen the existing White-Black alliances as we continue to rally and protest together, supporting policies that benefit under-resourced communities and rejecting those that don’t.

Now’s the time to do something different. And I think it should start in our own communities.