An Open Letter To White People From Two Professors Of Color: Step Up!

03/21/2017 03:07 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2017
“Dream 9” immigration rights activists in July 2013, wearing their  school graduation caps and gowns to show their desire to
Samantha Sais
“Dream 9” immigration rights activists in July 2013, wearing their school graduation caps and gowns to show their desire to finish school in the U.S.

Now that reality television star Donald Trump is the president of the United States, many Americans have begun experiencing life in a vertigo of disbelief, embarrassment, fear, and anger. Many find it galling that he was elected, despite evidence that he likes to touch women without their consent. However, others were outraged long before that evidence emerged because he had so consistently denigrated people of color, people with disabilities, and Muslims. As much as we would like to sympathize with those who were outraged enough to show up at Women’s Marches in impressive numbers, we cannot escape the knowledge that some of us were living in Trump’s America long before he became, as Koritha insists upon putting it, Predator-in-Chief.

For example, long before the “grab them by the p—” recording surfaced, Trump repeatedly called Venezuelan model Alicia Machado, the 1996 Miss Universe beauty pageant winner, “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.” Especially given the latter insult, it is clear that racism and sexism worked together to ensure that those defending Machado would be few in number and would largely be ignored by the mainstream media. The silence around Machado’s mistreatment was quite familiar. Still, after seeing the massive crowds at Women’s Marches across the country, we had to ask: where was the general public’s outrage in Machado’s case?

Sadly, Trump’s name-calling was deemed to be laughable, an instance of Trump being Trump. This widespread tolerance, even if accompanied by eye rolling, revealed that Trump’s behavior is in line with mainstream attitudes toward women of color. American society during Trump’s political ascendency has therefore proven to be similar to what we have always experienced—and found in our research.

Yet, what makes the Trump era feel so familiar to us is also what should further mobilize white women. It is time for pink hat-wearing Women’s Marchers—and the many progressive men who cheered them on—to recognize what U.S. history makes crystal clear: wherever there’s an investment in controlling women’s bodies, you will also find hatred for black and brown success. And wherever there’s hatred for black and brown success, you will also find an investment in controlling women’s bodies.

Even privileged women participated in inauguration protest marches because they understood what brought this administration to power: the fact that many Americans want to see women in their “proper” place. White Americans voted in significant numbers for Trump, and support was even stronger among evangelicals. Ultimately, even if they did not identify with Trump’s extreme lack of decorum, they held their noses and voted for him in order to secure a more conservative Supreme Court that would target abortion. (The nomination of Neil Gorscuh shows that Trump intends to give these voters what they wanted.)

What fewer Americans understand is that efforts to constrain white women and to limit the life chances of black and brown men and women have one thing in common: they increase whenever these groups seem to be succeeding. In the United States, black and brown people and women of all backgrounds (and whether cis or trans) encounter aggression because of their success, not because they’ve done something wrong. In short, this election was an answer to women’s success in securing legal recognition of their right to reproductive health services, including access to safe abortions. It was an answer to the success of DREAMers in persuading other Americans that they are not criminals, but human beings. It was an answer to black and brown people who recently began assuming that the White House and the government should work for their benefit, too.

By voting for Donald Trump, 63 million Americans communicated their belief that successful people of color, especially women, had forgotten their “proper” place. His election (and the hate crimes that attended it) only reinforced a truth that was already painfully clear to us: in the United States, the success of marginalized groups inspires aggression as often as praise. American society is designed to facilitate the success of straight white men, so the achievements of other groups are diminished and the populations themselves are stigmatized.

Even with a wealthy white woman in the spotlight, the 2016 presidential election was a case in point. It was the first time that a woman represented a major political party in the race for the presidency, so gender was front and center. Attacks on Hillary Clinton were often misogynistic and sexist. A position of power is simply not a woman’s “proper” place, and everyone was reminded of this fundamental American belief.

The new regime’s stance toward women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, migrants, immigrants, and refugees exposes a reality with which we were already familiar, that “America” is a white racial project that both produces sexism and relies on it. The idea that white men deserve to lead—whether they are qualified or not and whether they are decent or not—is nothing new. Still, it seems to have intensified, pushing the nation toward what many recognize as fascism.

As professors of color, we regularly face the realities exposed by Trump’s hate speech and his administration’s hateful policy plans. In fact, to do our jobs well, we must challenge the assumptions that made hate speech a winning campaign strategy. We equip students to question their taken-for-granted notions of who we, as women and people of color, are. As important, we equip students to think critically about the favorable assumptions that society encourages them to make about white men.

While we do this work in the Trump era — which began when Hillary Clinton and her supporters were put in their “proper” place — we address gender dynamics head-on, which has also led us to address immigration. American attitudes have been and continue to be anti-migrant and anti-immigrant, thriving on misguided understandings of migration. Powerful people (like Trump) who get rich off of the global movement of people and products, encourage the public to believe that migration and crime go together. Mainstream conversations focus obsessively on walls and illegality and encourage hate and fear. Too many Americans believe that brown people from other places exist only to take jobs and commit crimes, and millionaires are happy to have them believe that forever.

Trump fanned the flames of fear and hate with his comments about ethnic-Mexican migrants, but the tiniest spark would have worked just as easily because anti-Mexican sentiment is very American…and has been at least since the nineteenth century. Trump could use this particular “genre” of hate speech to launch his bid for the presidency because such speech has deep roots. No wonder countless citizens were energized by his message. No wonder so many people have been emboldened and inspired to commit crimes against black and brown Americans.

Please recall: on the very day he announced he was running for president, he got his populist campaign off to an enthusiastic start by claiming that Mexicans are rapists. This sort of language only picked up steam as he conjured up images of “bad hombres.” And this resonated with the GOP’s habit of labeling Latina mothers “drop-and-leave” culprits and calling their children “anchor babies.” Importantly, much of this language centers on gender, stigmatizing Latinos and Latinas as a reproductive threat that will bring about the much feared “browning of America.”

A lethal combination of racism and sexism led to Trump’s electoral triumph, and it has already translated into intensified terror for those vulnerable to ICE agents and police. However, this terror must be understood as a continuation of the daily violence of white supremacy. Many of us were familiar with that violence long before Trump’s political ascendency.

Still, the hostile messages that black and brown people have always received have become more explicit, and all Americans must finally be absolutely honest about the gist of mainstream conversations. The widespread claim is that none of us people of color belong here—this is not our country. But, our research forces us to reject these ridiculous notions. For the United States was built on the backs of all marginalized groups who have been displaced, enslaved, raped, lynched, and exploited. We’ve sacrificed for this country. Indeed, it is more likely the case that we are most responsible for producing whatever is “great” about “America,” both socially and economically.

Because we recognize the urgency of this moment, we ask white people to own up to all that the Trump presidency means (not just the anti-woman part). You belong to the demographic that overwhelmingly supported him. Not just “working-class” white people; all kinds of white people, including many women.

Despite rampant voter suppression, people of color tried to save American democracy. That didn’t work, partly because not enough of you had difficult conversations over the years with your family, friends, and neighbors. You know, the uncle who’s always saying something racist at Thanksgiving or the co-worker you never challenge when she makes racist or homophobic jokes.

We’ve therefore brought a bit of our classroom to you here. Groups that are being targeted even more intensely than before need you to actually listen when we speak and both literally and metaphorically stand beside us. You can make this country less hostile for someone who isn’t living under your own roof. Democracy requires no less.

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