Article Lead Image

Photo via monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

How white liberals can help people of color: Talk to your Trump-supporting family members

Do more than tweet #NotMyPresident.


Tiffanie Drayton


Posted on Nov 12, 2016   Updated on May 25, 2021, 2:39 pm CDT

Right after the election of Donald Trump, the hashtag #NotMyPresident flooded Twitter, and the sentiment was not confined to the digital world. In cities around the country, hundreds of thousands of protesters have been carrying signs that read “Not my president,” decrying the racist, xenophobic rhetoric of our president-elect. One such protest in New York City saw an overwhelming turnout. Interestingly, that turnout was also mostly white—highlighting a strange juxtaposition, and intersection, between the white progressive sector and the white conservative one responsible for voting Trump into presidency.

“My mom, aunts cousins all voted for Trump,” Adam Reilly, a white politically left-leaning millennial, told the Daily Dot. “I’m pretty sure everyone in my immediate and extended family probably voted for Trump.”

Like Reilly, many white liberals have family members, friends, and neighbors with whom they are intricately bound but who may also stand on the opposite end of the political sphere. “Personally, I have been dealing with my family members for so long, and I’ve had these conversations with them since I was college-aged,” Reilly explained. When he recognized that his conservative Christian family would not accept his sexuality and realized how damaging it was for him to maintain a relationship with them, he distanced himself.

“For a chunk of my life, I excommunicated myself from my family,” Reilly continued. “But when my sister died, I was thrown back into the family situation, slowly trying to rebuild relationships with them. But in 2016, I didn’t engage with them, especially not about politics. Maybe this was my mistake. I was just tired after all these years of getting into it with them.”

This lack of desire to stand against white conservatism is a widespread and relatively understandable sentiment among liberal white people. After all, many white liberals who find themselves dissociated from the politics of conservative family members have struggled with this divide for years, even before this presidential election. It is socially understood not to “not talk politics” at the family table. For mental health and self-care reasons, many don’t want to engage with family members whose opinions they feel they cannot change. In fact, many progressives remove themselves from the environment permanently.  

However, by moving away, progressives somewhat feed the division that happens in rural areas—both ideologically from cities and racially within themselves: When young, white liberals escape the discomfort of conservative white spaces to flood into more “progressive” hubs, their original communities remain stunted and regressive, inevitably replicating the conditions that made a Trump win possible. And when people of color are simultaneously pushed out of these gentrifying areas and into more affordable spaces that may border those very same ones that progressive whites left behind, the marginalized aren’t often afforded that same privilege of escape—whether it’s because of educational opportunities, jobs, socio-economic conditions, family responsibilities, or systemic racism.

“What white liberals have forgotten is that they share a culture, a history, and a socio-political positioning with white conservatives—and one that white conservatives hold dear: whiteness.”

Melissa Petro escaped from Midwestern conservatism when she moved to New York City from Ohio, but she understands the important connection she has with where she’s from. For Petro, talking to a close family member who was an undecided voter in a relationship with a Trump supporter broadened her understanding of the complex relationship between white people who back Trump and those who do not.

“She was in tears when she called me right after the election,” Petro explained of her family member who lives in a Midwestern suburb where the majority of its residents are pro-Trump. “She was surrounded. If she didn’t support Trump, she would have no community that will support her or her daughter.”

Still, Petro recognizes she has distanced her herself from her home state and feels somewhat responsible for its political outcomes.

“I felt a lot of regret after Trump was elected because my husband and I went to Puerto Rico to celebrate his birthday,” she explained. “We could’ve gone to Ohio and canvassed instead. I think I could’ve done more to speak to white women.”

Petro makes a valid point, one that many people of color are making: Who better to reason with white conservatives but those of their race, culture, and perhaps even from their same states or towns? Though white liberals may not feel connected to their family members while standing on the other side of a political divide in such impactful moments as Trump’s election, what white liberals have forgotten is that they share a culture, a history, and a socio-political positioning with white conservatives—and one that white conservatives hold dear: whiteness. And that’s where white liberals could make the most difference as allies to people of color.

“Trump is the definition of white maleness,” Sietes Saudades, a black millennial who believes white liberals are also complicit in Trump’s victory, told the Daily Dot. “And they mostly were silent or preaching to the choir—other liberals like themselves—about how problematic his positions were, instead of to their own fucking families who were going vote him into power.”

Francisco Pucciarello is white and a longtime activist—and he will readily admit the shortcomings of white liberal politics, most specifically, its lack of desire to tackle issues of racism. “My view of other white liberals is they are very loud when they are involved in protest or group think, but when you are one-on-one with them, they are quick to recede from those views and be more conservative in their speech,” he said.

If white liberalism truly wants to wage war on the current stronghold that conservatism has on the nation, it must begin to organize against racism—even when the conditions are uncomfortable. And that means acknowledging that, yes, in Donald Trump’s America, white liberals are still safe and they still have little to lose. They are, in fact, still white.

For white liberals, the hard work entails taking risks greater than a hashtag, greater than surrounding themselves in the streets with other liberals. “The most fundamental thing white people can do is get to know themselves and what their skin color means in their environment,” Pucciarello stressed. Saudades agreed: “They should be working to dismantle their whiteness and supporting us in our activism.”

This means standing up to fellow white people, including close friends and family whose ideas are bigoted, and canvassing in areas where Trump reigns supreme and it is dangerous for people of color to go. And it will only end when white liberals come to terms with their conservative roots—and try to close the gaps with actual effort.

Because for the next four years, exhaustion and avoidance are privileges that only white people can afford.

Share this article
*First Published: Nov 12, 2016, 10:00 am CST