An Open Letter to Midwestern White People Following the Chicago Trump Rally

Growing up white in the Milwaukee/Chicago area in the 90s and 00s, I was taught both directly and indirectly that institutionalized racism ended in the 1960s, and that it was a “southern problem” from the start.  I was also taught both directly and indirectly that talking about race at all IS racist.  Not to mention impolite.  Tacky.  Rude.  We were all nice, polite, Midwesterners who weren’t racist, and sure there were still some racists down in Mississippi… and yes, there was that whole “inner city” issue we whispered about sadly…

But WE didn’t cause it.  We had a black friend at church, and We volunteered at a soup kitchen and talked to a nice black veteran, and We told off that guy who told a racist joke at work that one time.  We weren’t racist.  We weren’t the problem.   Our ancestors were hard-working Germans, Irish, Poles, Scandinavians, who never participated in slavery and came over in 1916 poor as hell anyway.  We were tired of people thinking it was Us.  We, our parents, our grandparents, and theirs had never done anything but work hard and try to be as Christian as We could be.

(Let me pause to say I’m not blaming my parents or my teachers.  Honestly, I’m just saying… that was life.  We were trying to do what we thought was best.  We were trying to be good and helpful. Christian, even.  We wanted to help, but we were tired of being blamed for the actions of others who happened to, well, look like us.)

Then I became a teacher.  And I moved to a racially diverse area. And I realized, through meeting and interacting with diverse peoples, that the ability to believe that serious, institutionalized racism ended in the 1960s was the definition of privilege.  As was the ability to “whisper sadly” about racial problems, as opposed to having them pointed out to you suddenly in the drive-thru or the line at the bank.  Being able to choose when I thought about racism was my privilege.

Suddenly realizing I knew so little about racial experience in my country while simultaneously being surrounded by people of color for the first time in my life, I became possessed by a selfish desire to not look like an idiot in front of a large group of people. I began to listen to those who wanted to talk about diversity, racism, and classism, trying to humble myself to the best of my ability in order to not look like a complete jackass in polite, racially diverse company.

I already knew that slavery and segregation once happened in our country, that they were cruel and inhumane institutions, and they happened for a long, long time a long time ago.  My loving, caring teachers were horrified by the actions of others and by what happened in America once upon a time.  Things that were so evil and un-Christian. I watched Roots in the 5th grade.  And I still have nightmares about Amistad in 10th.

But the knowledge ended there, and the next step, the step toward real understanding, was to also realize that the effects of these institutions are still being felt today.  And in some cases, those institutions are actually still happening.  There are, after all, more black men incarcerated in America today than there were enslaved in 1850.   

But I’m not going to try and convince you of that.  Not today.  Hopefully after the events of recent years, from the confusing death of Trayvon Martin to the questionable protests that happened in Chicago yesterday, you may not understand exactly what the problem is with race in American society, but you have realized that something is happening.

Ultimately, through listening and learning from people of color in a state far from home, I learned the lesson that has changed me.  I learned firsthand by people of experience that racism still exists, but I don’t have to feel guilty for the Triangle Trade and Jim Crow in order to feel responsible for helping to heal my country.  I learned I’m not guilty, I didn’t do it, I didn’t cause it, and most likely my Northern ancestors didn’t either.  But even if they did, that isn’t what is important.  What matters is that I don’t let myself confuse guilt with responsibility.  Blame with a desire to acknowledge privilege.  What matters is that I stop and listen, that I don’t feel threatened, and that if I do feel threatened, that I stop and think about why I feel threatened, and I try to empathize, and listen, and, when appropriate, to ask questions.

America is a democracy, which means I have a responsibility to participate.  I am Constiutionally responsible for making America great–not “Great Again”, just great as it can be.  Elements of American culture have been great from the start.  Others are in the process of improvement.  Institutionalized racism and classism didn’t end when MLK had a dream, and progress is not natural, it’s hard-won.  We–Upper-Midwestern whites–can’t pretend that those issues have been solved, just because We don’t see them first hand, daily.  Because in the same way that men can’t be fully men until women have true equality, whites can’t be wholly human, wholly people, wholly free themselves, until all races have true equality.  

So as a white Midwesterner from the Milwaukee/Chicago area, no, I am not guilty for what once happened in America, before my ancestors were even FOB. But I am responsible to others, and to the progress of my country.

5 years after my awakening, which unfortunately never would have happened had I not moved away from Milwaukee, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.  I now also know that I will never wholly understand the problem, because I have not and will never personally experience it.  I can’t.  By definition.  But I also know that there are people who have experienced it who can lead the charge.  And I can support and follow their lead.  For the good of my country.  So when they say #blacklivesmatter, I listen.

So if you are white and Midwestern and miraculously still reading this, here is the one and only piece of advice I want to give you: speak humbly, but don’t be afraid to speak.  Okay, no, don’t stop a black lady in line at the grocery store in order to ask her about race and systemic poverty in America today, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and listen if race comes up in “polite company”–as we say.  And please stop looking awkwardly at the floor when I mention that I’m trying to figure out how to get along better with my black, female students.  I’m not being racist–it’s an issue for me.  And try to understand what I am telling you when I laugh about how a group of Asian boys in my 6th hour class are drawing bowls of rice where their names should be on their worksheets.  They are learning how to navigate their race in this country.  And so should We.

I guess my case is a little unique.  I teach 14 year-olds, of diverse races, who are beginning to develop their own vocabularies when it comes to race, class, politics, and history.  From my point of view, it is professionally necessary that I develop an ability to talk about race, as I now teach American history, from the birth of slavery to the Jim Crow Era, to a room of diverse students.  My salaried employment dictates I talk about historical racism with children, so it naturally brings up the issues of modern day racism and inequality.  I figure I could  just keep our conversations in the past, but isn’t it the job of the history teacher to connect the past to the present, to our real experiences?  

The thing is, unlike when I was in school, I don’t need to teach my students that we don’t live in a colorless, classless society.  They are forced to face that every day.  They teach me that we live in a society that is both wonderful and terrible, hopeful and defeatist, accepting and prejudiced.  And that it’s okay to both love America for what it has been, is, and could be, while also being angry and disappointed in America, for what it has been, is, and could be (if Trump is elected).

(By the way, teaching slavery to African American students has been the most humbling, rewarding, inspiring, challenging, and meaningful experience of my life.  I don’t deserve it, really.)

All of this is ultimately to say that I know that my ability to say “hey, white people, let’s talk openly about race, it’s no big deal”  is the definition of privilege.  And I know that I get to shut it off and go home at 2:35 and live in a world where race isn’t that big of a deal if I want to, when most of my students do not have that privilege.  But I’m doing the best I can.  I try to listen instead of speak when possible, and I try to not point out anyone in a minority position and force them to speak for everyone.  I’m privileged, I accept that, I always will be, no one blames me, I’m trying, and that’s all anyone can ask.

Honestly, I don’t know if how I’m going about things is the right way.  Feel free to politely educate me.  (I’m from Wisconsin, and I love everybody, but I break easily when people get angry about anything besides the Packers and cheese.)   But I do know the day many of us decided we were part of a “colorblind” society was the day racism went underground and began fueling the Trump campaign, which makes so many of us uneasy.  

And although I grew up white, I also grew up, for the first 10 years of my life, really freaking poor.  Foodstamps poor.  Eviction poor.  Foster care poor.  Hamburger Helper without the hamburger poor.  And I know that the cards are stacked against people of color and the poor from the start.

The colorless society I was raised in, although well-intentioned, was ultimately an illusion that was accidentally propagating the problem.  Born from a desire to be good and helpful, we were instead being cowardly.  Maybe our ancestors weren’t responsible for slavery and segregation, but by ignoring the issues, by pointing out that white lives matter while someone’s kid is being beaten to death after an afternoon of playing video games with his buddies–that makes us guilty.

How can we solve a problem if we can’t even talk about it?  If we pretend it isn’t there?  Sadly, our insistence that everybody is already the same is what fueled this Trump nightmare into existence.  But, at the same time, isn’t our legendary Upper-Western humility, our compassion, our work-ethic, our Garrison Keillor worshiping, problem-solving intelligence, our strength to withstand the cold while out on the ice, our desire to dig out the neighbor’s car after an average amount of lake-effect snow–all these things that make our culture so giving and great–isn’t there something in that arsenal we can use to defeat a man who proudly promotes racism?  

Our culture is great.  But America has many cultures.  Each deserve respect, but not all are respected.  Let’s leave our comfort zones and do what we do best: have a conversation, then step in to act, working together, without fear. To help our neighbor.

Before Trump wins.

 

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~ by Rachael on March 12, 2016.

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