Columns / Discourse / March 6, 2018

White people must confront their inner Trump

After a conversation with Brother Shabazz, I want to clarify something: in the past two columns, when I spoke of everyone having an inner Trump, I did not just mean white people. I meant every human being. I meant me and I meant you.

That’s important to clarify, because now I’m going to talk about white people.

We know that everyone has this capability, or even tendency, to act selfishly and divisively. There are some things, however, that can exacerbate this problem and one of those things is power. Everyone at some point will “try out” their selfish or malicious actions. While people with less power are more likely to face negative consequences, people with more power will find that their selfish actions are less punished and more rewarded. This teaches those in power, over time, to develop a different “normal” level of selfishness. As expressed in the wonderful recent production of Brecht’s “Learning Plays,” “We particularly ask you, when a thing continually occurs, not on that account to find it natural . . . lest all things be held unalterable.”

As a white person, I have power I did not earn. I am no more equipped to deal with it than any other person, but I have it. Because of this, not only is society less critical of my inner Trump, but my inner Trump can affect even more people when it causes pain. When I talk about breaking cycles of division, I have to acknowledge that my influence in one direction could equal the opposite influence of less empowered people.

Most importantly, I cannot push responsibility for the malice in the world onto the “other.” It would be easy to look at conservatives and say “that’s where the problem is,” especially if the conservatives I look at are those selected by liberals to fit the liberal caricature of conservatism. If I look too closely at real conservatives, I risk finding out that they are a little like me. Then I risk wondering if the problem is in me, too.

And I, as a white liberal, am definitely not part of the problem, right? Sure, I watch “Friends,” and that has a couple racist jokes, but that’s normal. Yes, I listen to artists who probably shouldn’t be using racial slurs, but that’s normal. It’s voting for Trump that isn’t normal. That’s just wrong.

We define normal based on ourselves, but the truth is, the problem is in every one of us. If I define my own moral behavior by the behavior of others, there will always be someone worse than me to make me feel better about myself. That doesn’t, however, do anything for society. Every white person needs to get up in the morning, look in the mirror and confront their inner Trump.

Let me zoom out from white people, back to everyone.

Setting aside race, where do you have power? We are at Knox, meaning we have the power afforded by education. Is it, perhaps, culturally normal to act condescending toward those with less education? I have made jokes about Galesburg that I’m ashamed of. All I can say is that at the time, while I was laughing with friends and desperate for something to do, it felt natural.

Sometimes I have power in counter-intuitive ways. For example, I am a woman. In general, women have their power limited by society, but when I’m in a class and the topic of date rape comes up, I have power. How easy it is, and how natural, to rant about how guys want nothing but sex! If a young man feels he’s being told the only reason he’s not a rapist is because he’s never had the chance, that’s not really my problem. Yes, I over-generalized, but am I not entitled to my lies, after all the pain I’ve endured? And “guys only think about one thing” is hardly my original idea. It’s a normal expression.

Or, could I use my power to ask different individuals how they feel, pay attention and stop the cycle of stereotypes?

It’s very possible that this man contributes to sexism the same way I, a white person, contribute to racism. I have a right to be angry. I’m not obligated to set that aside. But could I? Could I surrender my own righteous anger for the benefit of the whole group’s understanding?

This absolute elimination of divisiveness seems impossible, and it may be. Nothing society produces is free of some inner Trump; I have to draw the line somewhere. Focusing too much on unattainable, perfect harmony can drive me to self-loathing faster than I can say “socialism.” So instead of trying to draw the line way past the horizon, I’m just going to try to redraw my line every day, each time a little more toward the side of peace.

I mean, in theory. I’ll definitely screw up. After all, everyone has an inner Trump.

Tags:  inner-trump racism white people

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