It is now well known that anarrow majoritywhite women, once again, voted for Trump in November. There is a lot to unpack.
In my Wonder Media Network podcast,White fence, I dive deep into the subject, exploring the many influences on the identities and politics of white women. What I found was that moving our national conversation about race, gender, and politics to something more constructive requires more than just “shots” on exit polls. We should be concerned about the growth of a shattered base of disinformation and white grievances. But the overwhelming focus on white women voting Republican shifts some of the responsibility from where it belongs: onto the shoulders of progressive white women.
I am one of those progressive white women, and the more I have examined the identities and politics of white women, the more I am convinced that building a more just and equitable nation requires morewe. We need to go further and reexamine some of our long held beliefs about our personal politics.
Growing up in a suburb of Minneapolis / St. Paul, Minnesota, my family’s backyard was often littered with election signs. We were a family of volunteers, activists and political junkies. My father had spent 13 years in a Catholic religious order, and although he left to marry my mother, social justice remained a powerful driver. My mother was a professor of biology and women’s studies. I was the “nerdy” kid who subscribed to Ms. Magazine and dreamed of running for a job.
My interest in presidential politics was piqued when Walter Mondale – former vice president and US senator from Minnesota – chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in 1984. I was ten years old and ecstatic – certain there was a woman about to be the White House. Inspired by Ferraro, I started my own campaign that year: for the representative of the class student council. When I won, my teacher announced it as the “official start” of my political career.
On polling day, I ran home from school, proudly informing my parents that the Mondale-Ferraro ticket had won a resounding victory in my mock election for my class. I sat down to watch the election results, confident I was about to witness history marching.
I did – but not the kind I expected. The 1984 election was a landslide for Ronald Reagan. I remember staring in shock at the blue spots of Minnesota and Washington, DC, in the middle of a sea of red. It was the first time that I realized that my world was nottheworld.
It was an overwhelming disappointment for a young child. But this election instilled in me something else: a feeling of political “particularity”. The story I told myself was that my condition, my community, even my family, were different. We believed in the common good. We have invested in things like public schools, a social safety net, a clean environment. We were a welcoming state. Racial injustice? This is something that has happened in other parts of the country. In Minnesota, we did it “right”.
I grew up, moved, and built a career in philanthropy and politics. But even as I developed an understanding of the depth and structure of the issues facing our nation, I retained that sense of “uniqueness.” Growing up where I lived, when I did, I had a unique insight into what “good” politics looked like.
There is not a single moment that definitely disillusioned me with this notion. But like many of us, 2016 turned my world upside down.
On election day, I went to the polls with my then two year old son. After voting I took a selfie holding my son in my arms. We were both beaming in front of the camera, wearing “I voted” stickers. Things had come full circle. That night, I was convinced that my son would witness the triumph that had escaped me as a child: a woman in the White House. Hillary Clinton as the first female president.
But Trump’s election was not the only event in 2016 that made me seriously question my political history. A few months earlier, Philando Castile had been killed by a police officer during a routine traffic check. His murder happened about a mile from my house. And the following year the officer who shot him was acquitted of all charges.
The truth is, the community of my childhood is plagued by the same injustice that exists everywhere. There was nothing special about us – or our politics. The “good” liberal policies of my childhood in Minnesota may have produced many favorable results in regard toeducation, health and quality of life, but he deeply maskedracial inequalityy which continues to this day. And the self-expanding political history I have built has obscured my own complicity with the status quo.
As an adult, I bought a house near a “good” public school for my son, further reinforcing the segregated housing models forged by decades of abusive lending and redlining practices. I took advantage of the financial support of my parents who helped me with a down payment, thus perpetuating racial privilege and giving my family a head start. My accommodation choices have meant that my family spends a lot of time in predominantly white spaces.
None of these acts was intentionally racist. But as a Prairie View A&M endowed professor of political science andNew York TimesColumnist Melanye Price told me on the podcast, “The complement of your privilege is my disadvantage.” White women – white people – cannot retain our privilege while fighting for fairness.
It can be tempting for progressive white women to rub their backs and see these “other” white women as the problem. But let’s be clear: voting Donald Trump out of office was the bare minimum of what it took to move this country forward. We must also ask ourselves why it is difficult for many of us to cede the racial privilege that remains our birthright. Are we working to ensure that our own children’s public schools are well funded and supported, while not engaging – or even opposing – efforts to equalize funding for schools across schools or districts? Are we advocating for or against housing zoning changes that would allow multi-family housing in affluent neighborhoods? Do we engage in fights for racial justice consistently, or only sporadically, like last summer, when the depths of racial injustice and black suffering become impossible to ignore?
It’s time to change the story of the white woman. To say less about “them” and more about “all of us”. And to intensify the ways that we must, through this continuous political action, alongside and led by communities of color. For it is through this commitment – this continuing practice that goes well beyond any particular election – that progressive white women can take ownership of our stake in building a nation that reflects the values we profess to hold.
Julie Kohler is a Fellow in Residence at the National Women’s Law Center, Senior Advisor to the Democracy Alliance and host of the podcast,White fence.
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