My fingers were so cold it made me nauseous to move them. Still, I clumsily marked down the weight and color of each steer, heifer, and cow. I noted pregnancies when the vet shouted into the still air. After hours outside on this cold January day watching cattle move nervously through the chutes, Peggy, the farm wife, and I climbed into the truck, seeking out warmth there. The metal and heater separating us from the outside did not make much of a difference. The night before we had rolled up fence, the same cold stealing any sign of heat. Peggy and Saul, the farm family I was staying with, are in their 70s and do this kind of work every day. Later that afternoon, I interviewed the couple around their kitchen table. At one point, my eyes welled up as Saul empathically said that agriculture is damaging the environment and that farmers should and can do better. It’s not easy, but people must try.
Since the election, I’ve been numb and full of frantic energy. I’m trying to reconcile my year of research in a politically-volatile, divided state with my fear over what the future holds for myself, those I love, and so many people in this country. I have read articles asking for people to empathize with Trump supporters, especially the white working class, and confronting progressive elitism. I have read articles citing the long-standing violence and horrors of white supremacy, that supporting Trump means supporting racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia, which is inexcusable. I have thought about Son of Baldwin’s quote a lot recently, “We can disagree and love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
I tell you the story about Saul and Peggy because I have struggled with how to think about my relationship with them. During dinner with Peggy and Saul one night, Saul brought up visiting Minnesota and how frustrated he was that the public transit there used multiple languages. Under this comment, I could feel more sinister views like, “Why are these people here?” and “They’re taking over the country.” My voice leapt up to tell my hosts how, as a cultural anthropologist, I loved human difference, and I loved being in places where I could encounter people from many different cultures at once. Xenophobia came up a few times during my visit, and it stuck with me. Part of me wishes I had let him speak a little longer, to explore these feelings with him rather than shut down the conversation as I did. I could tell it gave him pause but it did not give him space to reflect on why he felt as he did.
How could I reconcile a man who passionately believed in protecting the environment and made good on it, and who espoused mistrustful, angry views about immigrants?
I don’t know the answer. Racism can be subtle as well as explicit in its violence. It has consequences, and attitudes like Saul’s have enabled Trump’s election and the emboldening of racist, Islamophobic, and misogynist attacks. However, I don’t think dismissing Saul as racist is going to help. I know that many of my activist friends are rightfully angry about the casual way people say they support Trump but not his hateful rhetoric, which for many of us are inseparable as we watch with horror Trump’s cabinet picks and policy plans.
Saul has lived in the same county his entire life, only visiting other places occasionally and always feeling best at home with his wife on their farm. He came back to the farm right after finishing high school. I encountered this often in Iowa: people who have lived there their entire lives and love it fiercely, their way of life, their small towns, the work of farming. What tools does Saul have for encountering and respecting difference?
Thinking about Saul reminds me of many of my students at my majority-white institution. My white students do not have many tools for encountering difference, much less seeing white supremacy. They balk at my discussion of race as a social construct, of race being such a powerful construct it has biological effects if not true biological origins. This makes many people involved in social justice very tired. Ignorance perpetuating hatred is even more insidious than bald-faced hatred.
But in truth, I worked with people across social classes, primarily white middle-class and upper-class farmers, many of whom are educated and often well-traveled. The white middle and upper class, statistics tell us, comprise the majority of Trump’s supporters. The real work is with the most privileged people who do not have to see structural and individual-level racism and therefore don’t. How do white people reveal to other white people white supremacy for what it is? A system that terrorizes and keeps certain groups from living well and keeps everyone from being fully human. White supremacy is relational, unequally so. Dehumanizing others dehumanizes yourself, too.
It’s my goal as an anthropologist to understand that which is most difficult for me to understand. My year in Iowa gave me one such chance. I spent time with liberal and conservative people endeavoring to work together on soil and water conservation in large-scale industrial agriculture, failing as well as creating tenuous connections. Working with politically-conservative people—white, across social classes—helped me see why people believe what they do, whether I agreed with their conclusions or not. The government has failed the farmers I worked with in many ways, whereas corporations have picked up the slack in social services, making capitalism appear to be the solution (and obscuring its violence). Many of them listen to and watch conservative media that heightens fear over loss of jobs and economic security, of religious freedom and morality, and blames these issues on people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and refugees, Muslim people and other non-Christians. This is not right, but it is the reality for many people. This is the kind of context I think we are missing when we discuss racism. Racism becomes essentialist; we have a clear, simple vision of who a person is when we say they are racist. If we are going to dismantle white supremacy, I believe we must know its particulars. We must see white supremacy as it is situated in places and people. I’m not asking for empathy exactly, not yet, but I’m asking my fellow white people to pause. We have to meet people where they are at, and where they are at may be really, really uncomfortable.
I’m a first generation Southerner, so living in red states is not new to me. But I have lived in urban areas, often associated with universities, where I don’t have to confront conservatism if I don’t want to. I ignore extended family that may not be supportive of me as a gay woman or my liberal politics. I can spend most of my time surrounded by people who support and love me, and who think similarly to me. As I consider the election and my time in Iowa, I wonder if this is not the best course of action.
For scholars and researchers, for social justice activists, part of me believes we have to be more creative than dismissing people who do not think and believe what we do. We have to think of ways to engage without alienating people with elitist language. We have to start having those conversations at holiday meals and within our workplaces, social activities, and communities. Sometimes it is a lost cause because people’s minds are made up, but we must make our own position known and firm. I have learned being open and loud about what I believe is right is heard and taken to heart in ways I could not anticipate.
Then part of me wants nothing to do with people who can dehumanize others, purposefully and ignorantly, which I and many others see as supporting Trump. Why should I grant them humanity when they can offer me and my loved ones none?
Cultural anthropology has taught me that people are often ethnocentric. They think their culture is the best. It can go to extremes, where systems such as racism, sexism, and classism become norms. Cultural anthropology has also taught me that ethnocentrism is not the only way to be human. Some cultures welcome strangers as honored guests and believe hospitality is the highest moral value (the Bedouin and other Middle Eastern Arab cultures). Some cultures have socially legitimized roles for what Americans would call LGBTQ people (the Bugis in Indonesia). Some cultures treat women as equals to men (the Minangkabau in Indonesia, the Mosuo in China). One of the reasons I love anthropology is that we get to see different and complicated ways of being in the world, of being human. When I begin to despair about my country and people, I try to remember this.
How do we challenge white supremacy in our daily lives? How do we reveal it to people it serves the most? How can and should we have these conversations? I am asking you, white friends, and myself, to consider these questions a little more deeply and to let these questions move us into action. Undoing white supremacy is not safe for many people of color to do; moreover, I believe white progressives and liberals should do it . We have a chance to confront racism and get at its core. Racism and other kinds of social violence have been unveiled, paraphrasing Adrienne Maree Brown, in the past couple years, and even more in the past few weeks. For many white people, Trump’s election is shocking and surprising. In the 2016 keynote at the American Anthropology Association conference, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry confronted white people about their surprise. “Are we really surprised that racism and misogyny was not enough to disqualify Trump from the consciences of many Americans?” she asked us. “Hasn’t it in fact been a prerequisite in many ways, since before 2008 (and still in place during Obama’s administration)?” We have underestimated people’s fear, anger, and hatred if we are truly shocked. It is critical we stop underestimating, pushing away, shutting down. I write this for myself as much as I write it for anyone. If we want a better world, we are going to have to help make it, and in earnest.
*photos provided by Bri Farber