I want to tell you some things that might not make sense. I wish an adult would have seen me clearly enough to know I needed to hear similar things when I was 18. Do you know what I mean when I invoke the impact of being seen?
You’re a sharp kid. Like a lot of sharp kids, especially ones in their first semester of college, you know both way more and way less than you realize. I was the same way. So was—so is—every other adult, including every other teacher, you’ve known and will know.
You should accept nothing from us as truth before vetting it against your own inquiry. We do probably know more than you and your peers know about some things. We also tend to indoctrinate young people instead of helping them become autonomous thinkers. Please heed Walt Whitman and “re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”
By “inquiry” I mean deep, active curiosity that includes interrogating your own thinking at least as much as you interrogate the thinking of people you disagree with or consider stupid. It’s very hard work. It’s not just navel-gazing. You will find few examples of how to do it well. Even after doing it for years—after it has helped you learn to discern valid insight from self-serving magical thinking—it will lead you to many inaccurate conclusions because all perception is distorted and opinions can definitely be wrong.
You are and will be wrong a lot. That’s true of everyone, but I’m most interested in calling it out among straight, white, masculine guys because so much of what we’re taught about ourselves—especially the fundamental assumption that we’re usually right and seldom need to wonder if we might be wrong—creates so many serious problems for people we say we care about yet treat dismissively. Very often, we simply take each other more seriously than we take people we deem to be unlike us.
This all relates to the short Donald Trump conversation we had before class Wednesday morning. You asked if I agree with liberals and progressives who say all Trump voters, including you, are racists or misogynists. I don’t. I see no wisdom in labeling what people supposedly are. But I see a lot of wisdom in clearly naming what we do and its effects, and I believe supporting or failing to oppose Trump abets racism, misogyny, and a lot of other oppressive beliefs and behaviors. For a long time, Trump has intentionally used white supremacy and patriarchy to incite violence and build support. He encourages supporters to use violence against women and people of color in his name. Advocating for him or trying to ignore what he does amounts to advocating for those beliefs and behaviors even if you don’t agree with them.
Do you know of Desmond Tutu? He’s an imperfect and badass Anglican bishop from South Africa. He once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I agree. I can’t remember ever not agreeing, but I can remember many times when I’ve acted as an oppressor or chosen an oppressor’s side. Those memories feel difficult to bear, but not as difficult as they must be for the folks whose sides I could have taken but didn’t.
At a Friday-night party during my first year of college, my best friend Greg and I watched an older guy shave the eybrows off a white girl who was passed-out drunk, then use a Sharpie to mark up her face. She was dangerously vulnerable. We weren’t laughing along with the other folks the guy was trying to entertain, but we kept ourselves safe and comfortable instead of telling him to stop and getting called buzzkills. We decided not to help her. We chose his side, and we drove home in ashamed silence.
We saw her at breakfast the next morning. She was hung over and disheveled. She had no eyebrows. She had scrubbed her very pale skin into raw patches by trying to remove permanent-marker drawings of two huge dicks—one on each cheek—pointed at her mouth and the declaration “I am a drunk whore” scrawled across her forehead.
“I heard you guys saw what Dale did to me last night,” she said, arms crossed, voice quavering, gaze steady through red, watery eyes. “Why didn’t you try to stop him? You guys used to seem so nice.”
Greg and I had nothing. We just stood there with her glaring at us and furious, heartbroken, trying not to cry. We felt unspeakably awful, and I promise we still can’t comprehend how much worse, and how alone, she felt.
I know a lot of people who are feeling their own versions of fury, heartbreak, and isolation after watching so many people who could have stood up to Trump choose to support him. Many people actively chose the side of an oppressor who has not pretended to be anything other than an oppressor. Many more people passively made the same choice.
I have so many memories of times in which I knew what was just and chose against it for reasons that amounted to valuing my own comfort more than someone else’s safety or humanity. I’ll spend the rest of my life making amends for those times. You have years of chances to make choices that put you on the just side.
You will also, sometimes, have to make sense of situations in which no side seems as just as you want it to be. I felt solemn and moved when I voted for the first woman who had a real shot at becoming president of the United States. I have no doubt vicious misogyny is what kept her from getting elected to do a job she’s way more qualified for than Trump or almost anyone else is. And I am clear-eyed about the injustices I knew (and didn’t know) I was supporting by voting for her. I’m not talking about WikiLeaks emails. I’m saying I and everyone else who supports Barack Obama and voted for Hillary Clinton are and would have remained complicit in drone strikes that murder children and other brown, Muslim people who have nothing to do with terrorism. We’re complicit in financial, environmental, and educational policies that maintain a U.S. tradition of attempting to exterminate indigenous people, languages, and cultures. We benefit from many situations of injustice in which, because of political expedience, arrogance, or apathy, we actively or passively side with oppressors. Jill Stein and Gary Johnson voters have similar accounts to settle. So do people who chose not to vote.
Whether it’s in a national election or a social scene, none of us can avoid complicity with oppression, but we can all try as hard as possible to be on the side of justice. I’m not interested in feeling morally superior to anyone who makes what I believe are oppressive choices. I don’t feel smarter or better than anyone who voted for Trump. I’m also past the point of choosing comfort when I could be an accomplice to people who are more vulnerable to oppression than you are or I am. I’ve already lost some friends by defying expectations to use or comply with dominance. I expect to lose more. It feels better than the alternative.
The statement Bernie Sanders released after the election mirrors my intentions toward Trump, his supporters, and every other person I know who practices and supports oppression. It says, “To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”
That’s all I’ve got for now. Sorry parts of this message are a bit off the rails. It should still give you some things to think about. Thanks for your time and attention. Please let me know if you have any questions.
See you Monday morning.
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