Optimism as a substitute for action.

In the wake of Trump’s election, I have to admit: white privilege makes it way easier for me to delay panic and temper fear. I understand why other people are now more actively wary – terrified, in fact – but from my still cushy perspective, not much has really changed. At least not yet. Not in a physical, visceral way that makes it so I feel it in my bones. My body is not under siege. It never has been. I don’t suffer the indignity of being a constant target of other people’s unquestioned hatred. I don’t suffer.

Trump’s ascendancy has activated a uniquely American brand of racial hatred that was always there, fundamental to our country’s inception, construction, and persistence. (And it’s more than racial hatred, so I don’t mean to conflate the myriad social justice issues into that alone. Consider it convenient shorthand for the rhetorical purpose of composing a brief blog post.) So while “Other-ized” bodies were still threatened under Obama’s leadership, the translation of abstract ignorance to concrete violence was on hold (not entirely, of course, but relative to the current political transition). We – who brand ourselves as more “woke” than most – took for granted the resilience of White Fear under Obama’s aegis. Huddled in our enlightened enclaves, we mistook our micro-culture as Culture and figured we were on a steady path toward ever-increasing progress and equality. We knew the system was still heavily problematic, but we never imagined it would turn so sharply against us and our ideals. And when I say “we” here, I mean “I.” I took for granted what America was and is. I believed America was moving forward with everyone in tow, and if America (an abstract concept that I shouldn’t attribute such agency to) was taking care of the dignity of my fellow human beings, then I didn’t have to do anything about it. America served me as a superhero. I was content to be an ordinary citizen.

I’m still content to be an ordinary citizen. Or at least a huge part of me wants to keep being self-centered. Defaults aren’t easy to break. But that’s a comforting excuse that I can use to hold on tightly to my default settings.

Change happens slowly. We have to care to change. I tell myself I care about other people, but I mostly take care of myself. Trump hasn’t changed my life, so my caring – beyond a remarkable leap of empathetic imagination – is limited by environmental cues that communicate to me tribal safety. I may not consciously choose to identify with the white male tribe, but I’m certainly settling all too comfortably into that group’s reward system. Ample rewards, no labor required. A deal too good to be true. A deal too true to be good.

I’m not seeking anyone’s empathy or sympathy here. I’m just trying to express where I am right now, which is not where I’ll ever be again. Again, right now, I can still be optimistic. When I read about Trump’s interview with The New York Times, I’m mildly encouraged; e.g. he finally disavowed dangerous people who have treated him as a cult leader. Unfortunately, he didn’t see his connection to their new feelings of empowerment. And besides, he’s consistently shown how adept he is at saying what people want to hear, so I can’t really trust his words. He’s demonstrated that he’s a more skilled politician than politicians in that regard. Regardless, I’m eager to adopt Dave Chappelle’s “give him a chance” attitude. Perhaps things aren’t as bad as we want to believe they’ll be. We are narrative beings, and casting Trump as Evil gives us a better shot at being Good.

(Or I’m just being ignorant. Being White.)

We can’t afford to wrap Trump (and ourselves) up in a story. But I can’t call for compassionate activism if I’m busy sitting on my throne of privilege. Right now, I see a heightened anticipation of doom, and an increase in racial tension manifesting as racist action, but for me, it’s happening out there, not in here. I’m not – I don’t think – admitting a dearth of empathy, but a reservoir of cautious optimism that I, as a privileged white male, have been permitted constant access to.

So what?

So what will I do with this awareness? I don’t know. The question came up constantly in my teaching, and I would always throw it aggressively at my students. It was a problem for them to solve.

After all, those who can’t do, teach. I hope I learn how to change that.

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