I’ve heard this question a lot lately:
How do we reach Trump voters?
I hear it in my activist women’s group. I hear it over dinner with friends. I see it on Facebook and on Twitter. I read about it in New York Times think pieces. My reactions to this question are as predictable as you would expect.
Anger: Man, fuck those guys.
Philosophical: Let’s examine the existential crises of said Trump voters.
Buddhist: We need to have compassion for those suffering Trump voters.
Marxist: We need to examine the shifting socio-economic labor conditions that led to Trump voters.
And Back to Anger: No, seriously, fuck those guys.
One trend I’ve seen a lot in these think pieces is how threatened Trump voters feel by so-called “identity politics” that leave them feeling “left out” by progressive aims. Essentially, these are a call for BLM protestors to tone it down because, hey, guys, a suburban woman is starting to feel uncomfortable. In essence, placating butt hurt Trump voters is a re-centering of whiteness and white supremacy. Time and again, the “real” story here is why rural Trump voters feel so disenfranchised in Nowhere, Wisconsin…but not how many black voters were disenfranchised in Milwaukee by the voter ID law or purged from voter records in North Carolina. It’s hard to give a shit, honestly. Even as I sit here on my own little hill in Nowhere, Wisconsin and watch as factories close, as technology and robotics take over decent, middle class jobs, as heroin use rises to pandemic proportions, and the jobs that do exist are left to vastly underpaid, exploited, freelance undocumented workers. I need to care. I must care. As a community member, as a citizen, as a Marxist critic, as a Buddhist. And yet, when the question comes up in my women’s group, I have to resist rolling my eyes and heaving a heavy sigh because inside all I’m thinking to myself is…man, fuck those guys.
And it’s not because I’m a cruel, uncaring person. It’s because we circle this question over and over with no concrete answers. The only answers I am hearing is that black folks, LGBT folks, feminists need to chill the fuck out. And, well, I won’t be watering down my feminism any time soon, I can tell you that much.
I called up my BFF, a long-time practicing Buddhist and my personal spiritual advisor in all things Buddha-related. I asked her, “How can we have compassion for Trump voters but still want to dismantle the patriarchy and racism?”
She paused for a moment, and said, “That’s the ultimate question, isn’t it? How do you love a racist?”
She told me a story of a recent confrontation that had occurred in her life. Someone close to her had said something blatantly and unapologetically racist. My friend called her out in a calm way, clearly articulating why that utterance was racist, but the result was this person didn’t talk to her for weeks. It was painful, the tension between them. She finally sat this person down and said, “I told you this was racist not because I’m angry with you. I told you this was racist because I love you.”
Showing up to dismantle the oppressive systems of racism and sexism is the ultimate act of love and compassion. How many of us called off Thanksgiving because we couldn’t stand to be in the same room with our Trump-voting relatives? How many of us have unfriended and blocked people who voted for Trump? How many of us have ducked out of the break room and avoided conversations with our coworkers because we know they voted for Trump? I’ve done it all, and when I sit down and really think about why, it comes back to betrayal. Deep, soul-crushing betrayal. And I can only feel that way because of love. Love! Can you imagine?
Four years ago, I had developed a close and very cozy relationship to vodka. I don’t know how it started, but I can tell you how it ended—with my husband telling me I had a problem. That cocktail on Friday night had somehow crept into a nightly routine. And that nightly routine bloomed from one to four. It simply wasn’t healthy. Of course I lashed out, made excuses, accused him of trying to control me. But he said, “I’m not telling you this because I’m trying to control you. I’m telling you this because I love you.” Sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, et al. are sicknesses of the mind. As addictive and seductive as vodka. The cure for so many personal ills, but ultimately destructive. When we show up to directly dismantle these systems of oppression, it’s an incredible act of love. It’s a commitment to the best side of a person.
But how? How do we do this work? My friend recommended I return to bell hooks, a social critic who writes extensively on racism and sexism AND is practices a fluid Buddhist-Christian path. I sat down to reread Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. I thought to myself, “Okay, here we go. I know bell hooks is going to give me some good strategies.” I dove into the chapter “Teaching Race and Racism,” and I was struck by the extent to which bell hooks works to dismantle her own internalized racism in this essay. She writes how she begins every workshop by working with students on their earliest memories of learning about race and racism. She writes, “I have found confronting racial biases, and more important, white-supremacist thinking, usually requires all of us take a critical look at what we learned early in life about the nature of race” (26). Note the phrase all of us. Teacher and students. Students and teachers. It’s what Freire calls critical pedagogy wherein students and teachers engage in a critical process of the interrogation of ideas. It requires the teacher position herself as the student…and the student position herself as teacher.
The question, “How do we reach these Trump voters?” suggests that teaching racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia are a list of talking points that we can, if gained access by Jedi mind tricks or some other sorcery, we can somehow “deposit” into our racist relatives. If we’re somehow nice, make cupcakes, talk in gentle tones and hypnotize them with a PowerPoint, we’ll somehow convince them to knock it off. But I think the work we need to do first is the kind of work bell hooks suggests. Before we can reach anyone and engage in this critical work, we have to dismantle the racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia in ourselves.
I was recently at a conference with a friend of mine—a woman of color. I watched as she folded her beautiful curls into a bun, and I felt this wild compulsion to touch her hair. Me. After years of reading, after writing a dissertation informed by postcolonial theory, I wanted to touch my friend’s hair. How many times had I taught Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” and pored over the passage wherein he discusses the pain of black objectification? And yet, here I was, standing in our hotel room and suddenly aware of the strange imperialist impulse running through me. It was there, inside of me as sure as my white DNA. Learned, internalized, systemic, and oppressive racism. And if I cannot overcome the racism in myself, how can I reach a Trump voter?
Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh famously wrote, “Peace is every step.” This means that peace can only begin within ourselves. We cannot work for peace when there is a war in our minds. If instead of turning outward, what if we started the work of dismantling oppression within ourselves? What if white people made a goal this month, this year (!) to read or reread bell hooks, Edward Said, Ta Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Debbie Reese, John Lewis, Judith Butler, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Gloria Anzaldúa? What if we took a hard look at the ways in which we have learned systems of oppression and analyzed the ways in which they now play a role in our adult lives? What if the revolution we’re looking for is not “out there,” but in ourselves? And then, and only then, armed with love, we might be able to answer that question.