Race came up a few times during last night’s Vice Presidential Debate. While I’m not shocked by either candidate’s standpoints, their words made me reflect on attitudes toward “white guilt” that Trump has tapped into so heavily throughout his campaign. To me, white guilt is an ugly term used to slander any white person who wants to promote social justice. The Trump campaign wants everyone to see people like me as some kind of brain-washed liberal who thinks it’s cool to complain about white privilege.
Mike Pence was a good spokesperson for Trump, sugarcoating all of his faulty logic and racism. Pence can at least sound reasonable, and I even think he came across as more polished than Tim Kaine at times. Take for example the moment when Pence lamented what he sees as the vilification of police, probably a sideswipe at the Black Lives Matter movement, saying, “enough of this seeking every opportunity to demean law enforcement broadly by making the accusation of implicit bias every time tragedy occurs.” Pence actually agreed with Kaine that our nation needs criminal justice reform. He went on to say that the nation needs “to do a better job” of reforming systems that reflect institutional bias.
A savvy professor like me notices the straw man move here, though. I don’t know anyone personally who demeans law enforcement. Do you? Pence never defined what he meant by this comment about demeaning law enforcement, and he didn’t give a single example. On social media, of course, we see trolls on every side of the racism debate. Trump himself has built his entire social media campaign on trolling and stoking flames.
I’ll admit, I don’t look like someone qualified to say jack about race or discrimination in this culture. A few weeks ago, I even started to grit my teeth a little when some white graduate students at an academic conference made some remarks about race at a lunch banquet where about 490 out of 500 people were white.
But then our keynote speaker took the lectern and gave a gripping talk about race in higher education. He criticized white academics for talking a great game about diversity but then hardly ever following up. He gave statistics and anecdotes, even laid out a plan for our professional organizations to start doing a better job.
This guy got a standing ovation. Afterward, I nervously approached him and shook his hand. “That was a compelling talk,” I said. “Thank you.” And then I left, because I didn’t want to be one of those white people who stands around and talks about race all day without doing anything.
So what makes me qualified to say anything about race, and what have I done? For starters, I’m a sociolinguist by training and practice language rights. I don’t blame African-American English Vernacular (AAVE) for my students’ problems in writing or analyzing literature. I teach respect for all forms of English, and have my classes read a diverse range of authors. Does that sound like bullshit? It’s not. Scaffolding respect and helping students negotiate ethnic diversity is my job every single day. I could’ve done a lot of things with my life, but I chose to forego a career as an Instagram model to make a difference, even small differences, for my students. When they’re broke, I loan them bus money. I donate food to our campus pantry. I write encouraging comments on awful papers. Every now and then, I help a student see that it’s quite fine to do research on the representation of black female bodies in music videos.
I’ve also taught a range of colleges, from big universities to historically black colleges. One time a student even said, “You’re black as far as I’m concerned.” I don’t really know what that means, but I’m pretty sure it’s a compliment.
My time at the historically black college taught me a lot about race. On that campus, I was the minority. I was also seen as a kind of informant to my students about whiteness and white attitudes.
Before and after class, they would feed me all kinds of questions, like one student who asked, “Why do white people listen to hip hop and then turn around and say racist shit to me?”
I thought for a minute and said, “Well, are you surprised that a racist would also be a hypocrite?”
He nodded silently for a few seconds. “True, true.”
Last year, I got a tenure-track job and wound up moving to a bigger and more diverse city. A few of my new colleagues flipped their lids when they found out where my spouse and I had decided to live. It was the working class side, downtown, the kind of area (according to them) where we were likely to get mugged or robbed. “I’d definitely not go for your runs around there,” one of them said.
A year has gone by, and we’re fine. People wave to me when I run past them on the sidewalk. A couple of times someone has asked me for change, but when I say sorry they just move along. Or if I happen to have cash, I give it over because I want to live in a world where we assume if someone asks for money, it’s because they need it. A couple of people have inquired how much I pay for rent here. Otherwise, it’s been uneventful.
The only strange interactions, in fact, have happened with white people. For example, I was out for my run about seven months ago when a truck slowed to a crawl beside me. A window rolled down, and a bro stuck his head out. “You’re running by yourself out here?”
“Yeah,” I breathed.
“You sure that’s safe?”
“I’m fine, but thanks.”
He eyed me, almost suspiciously. “Well, be careful!” And then he trailed behind me for a good block or two until, I guess, he realized my runs lasted a while and no bad guys could probably keep up with me.
A few months later, I left the apartment to find a guy eating fried chicken on my back steps. This was not a big deal. Often, people will just sit on the steps and drink something or have a cigarette. The area has a fair deal of foot traffic, being downtown and all. Over thirty years, I think I’ve learned to tell if someone means me harm or not, and if someone actually scoots out of my way and nods, like he did, that usually means peace. I just eased past him toward my car.
As I opened my driver’s side door, a neighbor I’ve never seen before waved at me from his porch. “It’s okay,” he said. “I called the police.”
The patrol cars rolled up right then, as if on cue. This was a few days after a police shooting, so right or wrong I thought I should greet the officer.
I said something like, “Hey, it was my neighbor that called.”
The officer was making his way toward the back steps, hardly noticing me. “You’ve got a problem back there?” he said.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “He was just eating chicken.”
I started to say more, but then I became acutely aware of my race. I was a small white girl, and there was a medium-sized black guy where he shouldn’t be. I don’t know anything about this officer, good or bad. But what I knew in that moment was that I posed no physical threat to him at all. He wasn’t even listening to me. His attention was elsewhere.
So I just hopped in my car and drove to campus, listening to NPR and stopping off at Starbucks of course. I sipped on espresso and wondered what was going to happen to this guy who had the police called on him for eating chicken. If you don’t understand white privilege, this is a perfect example. The only way I could’ve gotten in trouble was by remaining on site, filming the interaction on my phone, or otherwise pursuing the incident with the police. Instead, I just kept my eyes and ears on the news. When a few days had gone by with no headlines, I relaxed.
Finally, a few months after that, a white couple called up to our apartment around dusk. They said something like, “What kind of car do you drive?”
I made a face at my spouse, who opened the blinds and peered down at our guests.
I said, “Why?”
Silence, muffled voices. Then the woman said, “Someone left their lights on and we just wanted to let you know.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
The woman insisted, “Is it a black sedan?” I paused and did that cute sign language thing with my spouse that couples develop with each other.
The woman said, “I mean I’m looking right at it, and the lights are definitely on.”
I said thanks and hung up. We watched them stand around a couple seconds then finally walk off.
I’m assuming their plan was to solicit my car’s make and model, lure me outside, then bash me over the head and then steal my ride. Do people actually fall for this trap? I suppose so.
So, white people can be creepy as hell. Maybe this is the reason why black people give me strange looks when I buy Red Bull at the gas station in our neighborhood. They’re not thinking, “I want to mug her.” They’re thinking, “What is this white girl doing here? What is she up to? Is she going to freak out and pepper spray me if I stand too close to her at the register?”
White people can also demonstrate the most profound cluelessness. The other week, I happened across a social media group that describes itself as an organization dedicated to promoting the white race. Their website blooms with images of pretty white families at picnics, girls in white dresses hugging dads in white shirts. Yeah, I guess another one of their goals is rescuing us from the rule against white after Labor Day.
According to this group, one of the greatest problems of the past generation is white guilt, and a belief in the inferiority of whiteness. They believe in building the confidence of young white people, and protecting them from critiques of white privilege and institutionalized racism.
Floating this ideology in 2016 would be laughable if we hadn’t seen so much violence the past several months—unarmed citizens killed by police whose judgment was tainted by fear and racism. Many who support Trump are so quick to rush to the police’s defense, either shouting in the faces of protestors or trolling people like me from the comfort of mama’s basement.
I’ll probably get trolled for writing this by people who think I suffer from white guilt complex. I don’t. There’s no way for me or anyone else to change history. There’s no way for me to predict what kind of person I would’ve been a hundred years ago. However, I know racism exists. I also know that I have some small control over the present and the future. Change only happens when enough small people use their little bit of control over a long period of time. I imagine many of our historical heroes died thinking this same way.
Even if Trump loses, this man’s legacy will remain with us for decades. He has mainstreamed white supremacy in a way American politics hasn’t seen in a generation. Michael Pence holds these same views; he’s just more practiced at hiding them. Even Paul Ryan, perhaps the poster child of the new Republican party, a seemingly compassionate conservative, has disappointed me in his decision to endorse a candidate that he himself once called a racist. The only silver lining here is that Trump’s complete absence of filter has caused him to accidentally shine a bright light on all of the deplorable views we’d like to sweep under the rug of history. So: Thanks, Donald?
Featured image: Transformer18 via Flickr.