As a white woman from a conservative Pennsylvania town, I was disappointed but not shocked to learn that 53% of white women voters chose to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. My hope at the time was that those women would pay close attention over the next four years to the ways that Mr. Trump’s decisions impact the lives of other women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups of people. Recent polls suggest that maybe they have been paying attention, and maybe that will impact the outcomes of the 2020 election.
According to the AP News, “many professional, suburban women — a critical voting bloc in the 2020 election — recoil at the [President’s] abrasive, divisive rhetoric.” In response, the Trump administration has launched a nationwide campaign to mobilize and solidify the support of suburban women.
Despite the fact that the suburbs are becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, for most people in the U.S., the phrase “suburban women” brings to mind the image of a white woman. And in fact, that is exactly who the Trump administration is referring to by using this coded term. So rather than using the dog-whistling term “suburban women,” I’ll be using the more accurate term, “white women.”
It may surprise some that the 2020 elections—and the risk of continued attacks on many people’s safety and quality of life by the Trump administration—rests largely on white women. But in the context of U.S. political history, this is not new. Since 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in what is now known as the United States, white women have been silent bystanders to and, sometimes, explicit enactors of racist violence. Whether a slavemaster’s wife was looking on while her slaves were beaten, or a theater-goer laughed at Black people being forced to perform in blackface, or a white mother calls the police when she sees “suspicious” behavior from a Black boy, these acts have enabled racism to become the foundation upon which American society is built.
I have seen the silence of white women manifest as racist complicity throughout my life. As Italian-Americans whose ancestors arrived in the U.S. about 100 years ago, it’s easy for my family to see ourselves as removed from American racism. “Our grandparents had nothing when they came here,” one might say. Yet, in the 1960s, my grandparents were able to leave the predominantly Black east side of Youngstown, OH, where they were born, and get a mortgage on a house in the suburbs. This gave my father and his sisters access to education, stability and social networks that helped them begin generating wealth. Their Black counterparts were forced to remain in Youngstown due to restrictions placed on them by brutal Jim Crow segregation laws and redlining.
Today, nearly 37% of people in Youngstown live in poverty, compared to less than 3% in the suburb where my dad grew up. My family may not have owned slaves; our ancestors may have suffered from poverty; but there is no denying that we have benefited from racism. If it were not for Italian-Americans’ ability to claim we are white, I would not be sitting in a comfortable chair in a New York City skyscraper writing this piece.
And so, where one benefits at the expense of others, one has a responsibility to exercise their power to change norms and shape a more humane nation. Living Cities supports its staff to build our anti-racism competencies in a number of ways. I have access to an Employee Resource Group to connect and process with other white women throughout our racial equity journeys. I have a professional development fund I can use to deepen my skills, and I actually have time built into my work plan to read, learn, and hone my analysis about how racism is embedded into American life.
The journey to being an anti-racist white woman is not easy, but it’s necessary. As white nationalists expand their reach and put their energy behind Mr. Trump’s presidency, the opposition to their hate must be even more enthusiastic. That starts with us, white women. We have a responsibility to organize against the white folks in our communities who are enabling hate and violence toward our friends and neighbors of color. There is no playbook for how to best do this work, but I’m offering up some starting points based on my experience.
Start with yourself. Regardless of one’s race, every American has internalized harmful notions of race from messages in our textbooks, pop culture, the way our cities are designed, and more. Start by questioning your assumptions. If you see a family that looks and behaves differently than you, take note of where your brain automatically goes, and ask yourself why you think what you think. If you complement this work with consumption of new knowledge about race, you will slowly begin to see how our political, economic, and social systems were designed to benefit white people while making life incredibly difficult for people of color. I recommend starting with the NY Times’ 1619 Project, but there are hundreds of anti-racism lists that include fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art, and more. Here’s one. (Prioritize sources written by people of color!)
Transform through relationships. The more we understand the plight of people of color in America, the more distressing it can feel. Join or start a discussion group to learn and process in community. When you’re ready, expand your reach by knocking on doors, talking to people at your kid’s school or your church, and engaging your coworkers. Personal transformation happens best when we feel grounded in trusting relationships.
Take action and be patient. The vast racial divides in outcomes (health, education, wealth, etc) are 400 years in the making. We can’t “fix” racism overnight, so remain patient. But find urgency in your patience. Be persistent in talking to other white people about the harm and violence people of color experience due to the actions of the Trump administration; call out racist “jokes” that perpetuate harmful narratives; show up to protests organized by people of color-led groups and follow their lead; encourage your neighbors to vote and demand that our political leaders make commitments to dismantling racist policies and narratives.
It is time for white women to rewrite our narrative in American life and take responsibility for shaping a more just, safe, loving society where anyone–regardless of race–can thrive. Are you ready?
If this post inspired you to act but you need more support, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I might be able to point you in the direction of helpful resources. And if you have stories of how this post or other Living Cities work has inspired you to deepen your anti-racism practice, let us know at email@example.com.
1 AP News