Just over a year ago, a majority of white Americans across class, race, education, and gender lines voted for Donald J. Trump, a man who ran for president on the promise of reversing the progress made by the nation’s first black president and returning the United States of America to the white supremacist haven so many whites desperately longed for each and every day of Barack Obama’s presidency.
After the election, I went to a meeting meant to give people of color a space to decompress about Donald Trump’s impending regime. At one point, a friend of mine said that they believed that if every single white person had truly put in a concerted effort to convince their racist family members not to vote for Donald Trump, he would have received his slim Electoral College victory.
That stuck with me. There is, to my knowledge, no study confirming this precise theory, but the sentiment is nonetheless important. Donald Trump could have been stopped. But white allies were not willing to put in the effort necessary to stop him.
A study that explains this phenomenon well is Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin’s “Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage.” Professor Crystal Marie Fleming summarizes:
College-educated white people focus their racial cognitive energy on proving they’re “not racist.” The main lesson most whites absorbed from the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t that they have a personal responsibility to fight systemic racism, but rather, that they have a responsibility to maintain a public appearance of being “non-racist” even as racism pervades their lives.
Significantly, when whites censure other whites for racism, Picca & Feagin show that they often criticize whites for *public* racism. It’s the *public* nature of the racist performance that’s framed (by whites) as a problem: not white racism itself or systemic dominance. The same racist comments/behavior whites tolerate or participate in themselves behind closed doors become “problematic” in public. Thus, the problem, for many whites, isn’t white racism or dominance — the problem is a failed public performance of being “non-racist”. Very few whites (indeed members of any dominant group) are willing to lose many of their family or friends for the “cause of justice.” Jane Elliot has discussed how her opposition to white racism has cost her most of her white family and a lifetime of white exclusion. As most whites are not willing to pay this price, white supremacy persists as whites protect their material resources and intimate bonds.
One of the most depressing findings in Picca and Feagin’s study is the fact that those very few whites who call out other whites’ racism and are heavily invested in seeing their white friends and family as “non-racist” even in the act of committing racism.
Dismantling this dynamic is a complicated and timely effort. But today is the perfect day to start. White people: Rather than just letting racist remarks slide at the Thanksgiving table, call that shit out. Establish that racism is not okay and never will be, regardless of who sits in the White House watching Fox News and tweeting about black athletes.
Don’t know where to start? Showing Up for Racial Justice created a useful Thanksgiving guide “to help support white folks in having tough conversations with other white folks — conversations that are necessary if we want to break silence about race in this country.” SURJ even has a mobile hotline that’ll provide “key talking points that tend to come up in these tough conversations.”
Thanksgiving in and of itself is a horrific holiday inextricably rooted in genocide and colonialism. So rather than celebrating the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, take this as an opportunity to celebrate indigenous resistance and combat the racism that brought us to where we are today.