To My High School Classmates Who Thought My Identity Was Worth Sacrificing

Making an effort instead of reinforcing tropes is a good starting point.

12/17/2016 07:48 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2016

Though I now live in the Chicago suburbs, I was born and raised in rural Wisconsin. My political views have always been further left than my friends’. I am in many of my high school classmates’ eyes, “one of the good ones.” I’m a “liberal snowflake,” but they’d never say it to my face – many a lunch-table conversation in high school was cut off with “let’s not talk politics right now,” to keep the peace. Seeing the aftermath of election night, however, I realized “keeping the peace” had come at the cost of building empathy.

Yet, I haven’t been able to find comfort in “my” side post-election, either. As I attended healing circles, I thought about my parents, who didn’t know if they could even talk about their pain in my hometown. People at their university weren’t any dumber than the people at mine–the majority of them just had no idea what the world was truly like outside their bubble. And inside our liberal campus bubble in the north suburbs of Chicago, neither did most of the people around me. I’m angry at the people who thought my identity was still worth sacrificing even after befriending me specifically ― but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I couldn’t be mad at the majority of my town: We all fear what we don’t know.

And then came the Trevor Noah/Tomi Lahren interview, and all the anger that came with it. Some of the people I admire most slammed the video for presenting a false equivalency of sorts between Lahren’s blatantly wrong and racist rhetoric and Noah’s having to defend his very existence as a Black man. I, too, wish he’d pushed back harder. I, too, am frustrated that so many white “allies” are willing to applaud and accept this feel-good civil conversation as “enough.” But at the same time, people on my newsfeed – some of the same people laughing at the meltdown of “liberal snowflakes” a few days prior – were shaken up by the revelation of their idol’s obvious logical fallacies.

For once, the “liberals” weren’t “sneering liberals” – and as a direct result, for once, they maybe had a point.

The Noah/Lahren video was another good reminder for me: I am not who I was in 2013. I have grown up a lot since coming to my liberal (though still very susceptible to microaggressions) university.

Don’t get me wrong: Respectability politics is complete garbage. It’s stupid to have to validate your own identity, and you’re never going to reach everyone, because you’ll never reach the people who aren’t on some level already willing to listen. And yet, I’ve found that expecting everyone to be on the same level of understanding as you, as if you’ve always been at the level of understanding you’re at right now, leads to a permanent disconnect. Alienating everyone by assuming they haven’t grown simply out of choice – not for lack of exposure – is self-sabotaging. As a good friend reminded me, “We are not in a position of strength that permits us to turn inward and shut out those who could agree with us if we didn’t dismiss them outright.”

I know this is true, because my friends aren’t close-minded blatant racists. I know, because I, too, have been in the other bubble. So if you really want to “Make America Great Again” or “just love everyone,” as the people who I’ve corrected essays for or who ran cross country with do – where do you go from here?

1. Educate yourself on things like white privilege, the myth of reverse racism, and the importance of intersectionality. I don’t live in a naive dream–I know that most people, when faced with hardship, do not care about learning sociological jargon. But if you’re reading a HuffPost article you probably saw shared on Facebook, take a minute to learn, and then pass it on.

2. Recognize that while gaining perspective is important, it straight up sucks to have to explain and justify the essence of who I am and what I stand for all the time. The onus is not on marginalized people to share their stories at the drop of the hat–many of us who feel comfortable doing so have already in stories and articles found online. Google exists for a reason–if you can take two seconds to type out a basic question to me on via Facebook Messenger, take those same two seconds to type it into a search box. Your intellectual labor doesn’t need to come at the cost of my emotional labor.

3. Stop defending yourself with “I’m not a racist” (and the addendum, “I just support his policies”). Intent is only good for theoretical conversations–recognize that the impact of your actions carries a lot more weight, especially when it comes to things like your vote. Dig deeper–look at the impact of policies like the Muslim registry that Trump has said repeatedly he wants to implement. Look at the impact mass deportations would have on the economy. And if your argument is “It’ll never actually happen, he just wanted a dialogue,” look at the impact of the dialogue of hateful rhetoric (hint: it’s about 1094 hate-related incidents and counting).

4. Hold yourself accountable. When you’re aware of yourself and of your impact, white guilt does nothing. Channel your energy into educating other people so we can take a step back when we mentally need to. Join pre-existing organizational efforts, and, even though your voice often has more weight because of your skin color, recognize when to take a step back, and when you’re taking up space.

You will never know exactly what it’s like to be me, and you’ll never fully understand the pain of having half a country invalidate the parts of your identity that you hold most dear – and, no matter how many articles I stuff myself with, I’ll never know exactly what it was that made you think my humanity was worth sacrificing – but making an effort instead of reinforcing tropes is a good starting point.