Last week, Donald Trump was elected to be the next president of the United States. Some Americans are ecstatic. Some are utterly horrified, shocked, and afraid.
For many white progressives, the election of Trump was a wake-up call, a distressing reminder that this country is far more sexist and racist than they realized. But for many black people, Trump’s election was just a cruel confirmation of the America we’ve always known: a glittering paradise built on the foundation of slavery and white supremacy.
In the wake of Trump’s election, we’ve been trying to figure out how to move forward. We live in a deeply divided country, one in which both liberals and conservatives alike fortify themselves in rhetorical echo chambers that make no space for different perspectives and experiences. By all means, we need to figure out a way to bridge the gap.
But, please: stop asking black people and other marginalized people (who are genuinely terrified about the next four years) to “empathize” with Trump supporters.
Articles about how to “heal” America and bring us all together have cropped up all over the internet. The New York Times ran an op-ed explaining why we should “stop shaming” the working-class whites who voted for Trump. The Washington Post ran a pre-election piece about the lack of empathy for Trump voters. The schism we’re witnessing has been chalked up mainly to the dissatisfaction of the white working class, who feel bullied, misunderstood, and unnoticed in the current political climate.
First, the economic and social anxieties of the white working class does not absolve them of buying into and supporting a racist campaign. Second, yes, there are poor white people who are hurting and deserve to be listened to, but it’s a false narrative to keep implying that they alone elected Trump. It wasn’t just poor white people who voted for Trump, but also the economically privileged, including 45 percent of white, college-educated women.
It is not the responsibility of the disenfranchised and the oppressed to assuage the fears of white people.
These appeals towards uniting with the other half of America who voted for Trump seem to conveniently side-step the reality that they voted for a man who ran a campaign based on racism, sexism and xenophobia, who was endorsed by the KKK, who emboldened self-professed white supremacists, who has appointed a white nationalist (Steve Bannon) as his chief advisor.
Donald Trump tapped into a subset of white America’s latent distrust of the other, and until we reckon with that, the idea of asking black people to empathize and understand the people who voted for a man who has continuously dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement, downplayed the reality of police brutality, and conflated the black community with the “inner city” is ridiculous.
People have real fear, and that fear should not be dismissed in the name of unifying a broken country.
During a segment on Anderson Cooper 360 following Trump’s win, Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany accused fellow commentator Van Jones of “stoking the fears” of people because he shared an anecdote about a Muslim woman who said she was afraid to stay in the country.
Jones shut that sentiment down, though. “You need to have a little bit of empathy and understanding for the people who are afraid because your candidate has been one of the most explosively provocative candidates in the history of our country, and there is a price to be paid for that,” he said.
Watch a clip of their exchange below.
In Trump’s America, who and who isn’t worthy of empathy? Who has access to empathy, and who doesn’t? How are black people expected to empathize with people who have never returned that empathy? Empathy that only works one way, that only humanizes those already in positions of power and privilege, does not heal. It merely silences.
As Alex Quan-Pham wrote for Rookie last year:
We can’t talk about empathy without talking about how systems of oppression influence who gets empathy and who doesn’t. And we can’t demand that empathy be given to all people while ignoring the fact that some people are still denied their basic humanity.
It is not the responsibility of the disenfranchised and the oppressed to assuage the fears of white people, to soothe white anxiety, to extend an olive branch to people who either voted because of or in spite of the racist rhetoric that defined Trump’s campaign and will likely define his presidency.
We are constantly catering to white feelings and white fragility. Some have argued that Trump’s win is a backlash against liberal bias and liberal rhetoric, an obsession with “political correctness” and the alienation of white people who feel uncomfortable every time the dreaded R-word (racism) comes up. But the truth is: actually being the victim of racism is far more painful and harmful than being called a racist.
Empathy that only works one way, that only humanizes those already in positions of power and privilege, does not heal. It merely silences.
It is a luxury for someone to be able to easily accept Trump’s America even if they didn’t vote for it. Black people don’t have that luxury. At the end of the day, white people are less likely to be directly impacted by the racist and xenophobic policies Trump proudly boasted about during his campaign. The emotional labor it takes for us to be gracious to people who support Trump, who do not understand why we are upset and afraid and unwilling to remain silent, to empathize with them, is exhausting. It is soul-crushing.
Now is not the time for empathy, for normalcy, for “moving on.” Complacency is not an option for all of us, and therefore, it shouldn’t be considered an option for any of us ― especially for those who consider themselves “allies.” Now, more than ever, we need to start doing real work towards actually engaging with the racial division in this country, rather than sweeping it under the rug.
The dismissal of the fears of people of color from Trump supporters is expected. But, white liberals: when you ask us to “see it from their side,” when you suggest that it was our fault for not "listening," when you say it might not be "that bad," you are complicit in the racism that resulted in Trump’s election. You are complicit in the dehumanization of black people and the indifference to black lives and experiences. You are complicit in the silencing and the normalizing of what’s to come.