For many, Trump evokes images of the bigot incarnate: ignorant, belligerent, violent. As Donald Trump rose from one of 17 GOP primary candidates to become the nominee, political commentary essentially revolved around a single idea: How could such a rancorous man be so popular? His values hearken back to a time when the nation seethed with prejudice, a time from which we’ve supposedly progressed — or at least that’s what we thought.
But I wasn’t surprised. Of course a racist man could rocket to the top of the political arena. Of course a sizable number of citizens would agree with his backward views. Of course people of color would be the target of their hatred. After all, racism is alive and well in this country. As a black woman, I’ve never been able to deny racism’s prevalence: It’s part of my daily existence. Seeing your people brutalized by the police, being followed around in stores, having your appearance fetishized and/or degraded — all of these experiences leave a psychological imprint of trauma. My blackness and the burden that comes with it are inescapable. How could I be shocked?
I noticed a trend among all the think pieces declaring disbelief at Trump’s popularity: Most of the people who were actually taken aback by Trump’s ascent, who were confused as to how the intolerance he embodies could still exist, tended to be white. Those who have never been affected by discrimination are simply blind to the reality that many people of color still face. They’ve never been treated with a lack of basic human decency because of their race, and are able to avoid the shame and stress that comes with being nonwhite in this country. White Americans seemed to forget that racism thrives in our nation simply because they didn’t (and still don’t) have to face it.
The hostility leading up to this election has ended the fever dream of post-racial America. Trump and his followers have made racism rear its ugly head from beneath the surface of polite society. This could be a learning opportunity for white Americans, a chance to discover how they may have participated in a culture that led to a blatantly racist man running for our nation's highest office.
Unfortunately, many are choosing to forego self-examination in favor of self-righteousness. Instead of questioning and challenging their own behaviors, many white Americans seem to view condemning Trump as an opportunity to parade their own progressiveness. It’s very easy to point toward an obviously bigoted man and call him out on his faults. What’s harder is to acknowledge that you may have a thing or two in common with him. I know a boy who uses the term “colored people,” and have heard another casually say “nigga.” I’ve had friends dress up as sugar skulls, appropriate black culture, and use the r-word for those who are developmentally disabled. But despite behaving this way, they passionately critique Trump’s insensitivity — and fail to recognize their own.
Millennials are supposed to be the generation that will bring about change, that will rectify mistakes of the past. But Trump has shown us there’s still a large gap between where we ought to be and where we actually are. For example, a 2015 poll found that around 30 percent of millennials believe blacks are lazier or less hardworking than whites. Plenty of millennial men are apt to engage in sexist behavior better off left in the 1950s according to another study, and yet another found that white millennials believe that about the same amount of work must be done to solve racial inequality as do Gen Xers and baby boomers. In other words, our generation isn’t all that progressive compared to those who came before us.
This is the paradox of our generation: We seem to be more progressive in our purported political views than in our day-to-day social behavior. In an age in which a presidential candidate calls Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, accuses Muslims of hating America, and brags about sexually assaulting women, the things we say and the way we behave on a daily basis matter. We haven’t been vigilant enough about confronting subtle forms of bigotry, and they have therefore become normalized and permissible. We need to stop only taking action when discrimination is overt. While veiled prejudice might seem harmless, it’s important to remember that Trump’s ideology and its followers didn’t spring out of a vacuum. Ignorance begets ignorance, no matter what form it may take.
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