Essay: “On Family and White Liberalism after the Election” by Justin Brouckaert

In the days after the election, Twitter became a madhouse of pointed fingers—who to blame, who to follow, what to study. Shocked and numb, I scrolled through every thread my liberal echo chamber deemed a “must read.” One in particular, by Marco Rogers, actually was.

White liberals, Rogers claimed, have “systematically and deliberately separated themselves from their conservative family and friends.” In short, we spend more time denying the reality of racism to people of color than we do confronting the racism we encounter from the people we love. We’ve walled ourselves off from the racism in our own communities—both on Facebook and at the dinner table:

“They want to badly to not be associated with the rest of whiteness,” Rogers said. “They want to stand on our side and act like they can’t believe it. Not only do you believe it. But you know exactly where it lives. You know these people better than PoC ever will. They are your people.”

His description fit me perfectly.

For the last eight years, my brother-in-law’s Facebook wall has served as a right-wing echo chamber for him, his family and his military co-workers: conspiracy theories, racist Obama memes, fake news about Hillary Clinton. Between pictures of his three children are couched threads in which he and his friends slander and encourage violence against “libtards” like me. I unfollowed him so long ago, I can’t remember the last time I considered engaging.

I’ve pushed back against my sister in less hostile environments, offering calm, practiced answers for questions like, “Why isn’t there a white history month?” and “Don’t all lives matter?” But when she told me she thought President Obama had used his two terms in office mainly to “promote Islam,” I was silent. When she and other family members made crude jokes denigrating homosexuality or people of color, I cringed, changed the subject or exited the conversation in favor of a kinder, simpler one with my nephew or niece.

I’m the lone Democrat in a family now entirely based in rural or semi-rural Michigan. Our tacit agreement has always been to avoid politics, mostly, for the purpose of keeping our relationships intact—or, more accurately, for them to take only a few cracks before chuckling and holstering their racism, lest their humor offend me.

I even avoided posting about politics on Facebook, though most of my friends and colleagues share my own political beliefs, just to avoid the headache of daily arguments. A waste of time, I used to think when I saw my fellow liberal writers spending hours in partisan arguments with the handful of people—racist aunts and uncles, I assumed—who verbally opposed them.

Now that clean agreement between me and my family has been ripped up and burned. The morning after election day, my brother-in-law was gloating on my wife’s Facebook wall. My sister balked when I pointed out the president-elect’s white supremacist ties. My uncle, texting me to recommend Dinesh D’Souza, learned after his casual reference to “democraps” (a slur only insulting for its lack of cleverness) that I was, in his words, “of that other party.”

I know a few confrontations with family members is nothing compared to what people of color and LGBTQA+ communities faced after election day. But I’m ashamed to admit this election was a wake-up call for me, when I should have been woke long ago.

If and when Donald Trump officially appoints a climate change denier as the head of the EPA and pulls out of the Paris climate agreement, it could mean disastrous consequences for our planet. His chief advisor is an anti-Semite and self-proclaimed “Leninist” with explicit goals to crash the U.S. economy. Minorities, LGBTQA+ people and women have every reason to fear physical and legislative violence against them. There are more than a few warning signs that Trump’s reign could be more autocratic and kleptocratic than democratic.

All of these fears lead me to think about families, the way his looming presidency will test, threaten and destroy them.

Rogers’ point is clear: it’s a privilege to avoid these conversations in the interest of maintaining peace. Yes, it’s too late to change the outcome of this election. And many Trump supporters will not be persuaded to oppose him, no matter what he says or does. But it’s not too late to break from our white liberal bubble—a term that may rankle or annoy, but that is nonetheless far too accurate for me and many of my friends and colleagues. It’s not too late to show our marginalized friends that we are listening, and that we are prepared to act—not just to talk about acting, not just to act politically, but to risk our physical selves—and, yes, our familial ties—in the interest of equality and democracy.

I try not to let my mind wander down dark alleys, but it can’t be helped: When the time comes, will I have the courage to risk imprisonment or death to stand up for the persecuted? Will my own family members be calling for my death?

Democrats have been asked to “try to understand Trump voters,” and it’s certainly important to know that while all of them chose to put a racist into office, they didn’t all do it because they’re white nationalists themselves. They prioritized partisanship, economic anxiety and other issues over the safety of millions of Americans.

White liberals, explain this to them. Explain what they’ve done, what we couldn’t—or didn’t try to—stop them from doing.

It’s just as important for us to make Trump supporters understand us, too. To let them know why we are protesting, why are so angry and unwilling to compromise. Do it to plant the seeds of empathy—not for us, but for the millions of marginalized people certain to be targeted by the Trump administration in the years to come.

***

Justin Brouckaert’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Bat City Review, and Catapult, among other publications. He lives and writes in Columbia, South Carolina.

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