I had planned to publish this prior to the election. But I waited and processed a lot and now that Trump is President elect I want to publish this as a reflection on my past, trying to understand where I come from and the forces that formed me. We’re all formed by generations of family and friends: whether by reacting against and making new politics or falling in line we are formed by our social spheres. So, please, take this as a reflection on place, people, as an attempt to process rather than any firm or fixed philosophical/political position. I’ve been thinking a lot about whiteness and identity and I have no set answers. But this is me trying to give voice to what I think my ethical duty is: as a white person to fight the anti-Blackness in my communities but also to fight the ways in which capital harms these communities too. This is my attempt to be worthy of the life I’ve been given, of the place I’ve been located in. And to struggle with identity and the fact that if anyone ought to combat folks like Richard Spencer it needs to be white people like me. Listen, understand, resist, argue accurately and articulately…I guess these are what I see my task as being.
“Obama’s a Muslim.”
“Clinton got someone killed.”
“You need to change your degree, hun, cause you aren’t gonna get a job.”
Three things I forgot about while abroad, three things I was reminded of when I spent three some hours in Hartsfield-Jackson. Two older, white, Baptist women telling me why they hated Obama, Clinton, and my decision to study German and Philosophy. Two women who probably meant relatively well and who, for good or ill, are probably not going to be understood by a lot of college aged students. I’ve heard that Obama is a Muslim, that Clinton is evil, that my degree is worthless (“What the hell are you gonna do with that?” is a common retort in the states) for a while now. And that interaction served as a rather sudden reminder that I’m not in Europe and that maybe the Europe I experienced this past summer (or the Germany I experienced) wasn’t so different from the America I grew up in.
I’m a college student. I’m a second generation college student. My father was the first member of his family to attend college, followed by his brother. Now there’s me, my brother(s), and some of my cousins. I’m also a dual citizen (German and American citizenship, more on this later). And I study Philosophy and German at a relatively liberal but devoutly Christian college in the Midwest. I grew up all over the US. I was born in Pennsylvania and lived there till I was nine. My family then moved to Tennessee for two years (where being a Florida Gators fan and being a “damn Yankee” weren’t to my advantage). Following that we moved to Virginia for four years, then Colorado, then Ohio (where I graduated), and now I’m in Michigan. From second grade till the end of my tenth grade year I was homeschooled. Initially, it involved co-ops (Richmond co-op/homeschool culture was a lovely clique), speech and debate, and eventually online classes.
While homeschooled, I lobbied for a constitutional amendment titled “The Parental Rights Amendment,” took part in speech and debate, did ballroom dance, played hockey, wrestled, etc. I was a relatively normal high school student surrounded by pro-life advocates, fans of traditional marriage, and conservative background. It’s not worth going into at length but I grew up in a culture that hated Obama’s presidency, saw very little good coming from it and so on. I give this excessive background to explain to some extent that I had a relatively normal life. I grew up middle class, I had a family that loved and supported me, and I had a social life (shocking I know). But this election has me thinking about my mom and dad’s families more. My mom’s family is German but working class. And my dad’s family is as working class as you can probably get.
My mom grew up in Nordrhein-Westfalen, the German federal state where Köln, Dortmund, Dresden and other relatively well known cities are located. Her parents owned a bar, worked in factories, and made a decent life for themselves. Neither my mother nor my aunt nor any of my cousins on that side of the family went to college. My mom did an Ausbildung and worked with an oral surgeon and as an insurance auditor. My aunt worked in an army kitchen and as an independent insurance agent. Eventually my mom left Germany as a first generation immigrant to America, married my father (who she’d met while he was stationed with the army in Germany), got a green card, had three kids and has worked as a stay-at-home mom for most of my life. My aunt still lives in Germany and works at an Imbissstand, my one cousin works as a roofer, and the other in construction (his wife is a nurse).
My dad grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and was the fourth of five kids. His father owned a garbage route (which my cousin still owns) and he grew up playing sports and working. He was the first of his family to get out of Williamsport. While in college he joined the ROTC and was sent to language school for Dutch directly after and ended up in the Netherlands.
All of this is to explain: I have a family with a working class background, a background whose sensibilities were passed to me. I have a family on one side who are generally Democrat but hold Republican values. And on the other I have a family who feels screwed over by Merkel and misunderstood by the politicians in charge. In some ways, there’s a lot of overlap between both sides of my family. Disenchantment is real. My family couldn’t give a shit about what most millennial/college students seem to care about currently. Pronouns, affirmative action, all these things are generally not high on the priority list of my family’s concerns. I won’t speak for my family but I know enough to say those aren’t really meaningful issues to them.
And here’s the thing all this is leading to, the thing I’ve been obsessing over for a while: race and class. More broadly, I don’t think anyone should be surprised by the Trump phenomena (if you are you might be willfully ignorant/part of the problem). And if I’m being deadly honest I get the appeal of Trump. The appeal makes sense (at least abstractly). But I’ve been more or less stuck on something Austria’s prime minister said, in an interview with Falter (it’s behind a paywall, otherwise I’d link), that boils down to: the Left has failed the working class. This article in the New Yorker highlights this with regard to the Democratic Party in the US. While I don’t share the article’s optimism about Clinton and the working class it does well to highlight the anger in white working class America. What it doesn’t get and what I think it’s time to admit to myself and to others in my sphere: we’re the target of anger, or at least partially.
This isn’t guilt or anything but reality. The people who voted for Trump, the people who are working class Americans probably see me as irrelevant to their concerns. I care about police murder of Black persons, about misogyny being prevalent in culture, about LGBTQ+ persons, and the list goes on. Most persons in my peer group care about similar things. We have our in groups, our found family, our communities where we’re safe. The same goes for my dad’s family who couldn’t give two shits about what is happening in LA or Seattle or NYC. They care about their family and friends and community. It just so happens that the racial makeup of this community is over 80 percent white. It’s been that way for years. And for many of the working class, college students who haven’t (seemingly) worked hard for where they’re at, who somehow have forgotten where they came from, etc. are part of the issue, are contributing to division.
Whether this sentiment is fair is a different question. But I know that I care about things which aren’t particularly relevant to my family, to the people I care about, to the places they come from. Or, at least, they don’t care in the same way. The Germany I worked in this summer was a small vacation town where I met average Germans who were sometimes racist, sometimes not, but all angry at Merkel (she was called a “Fötze” frequently) and her policies. There was anger that the poor Germans under the bridges in Hamburg were off the radar of their government but a refugee who came in was being paid and had a roof over their head. It’s an anger that comes from feeling disconnected. It is a racialized anger. But it’s an anger that also, I think, makes sense. And the only reason I think I can get why their is anger at the elites who want to (allegedly) undermine America rests on one simple fact: I am the child of working class parents who passed on a love for America and its goodness. My mother is an immigrant who loves America and has called this country home for 23 years. My father is a man who worked his ass off to get where he is. There was no prior financial leg up that he had. Sure, does my parents being white give them benefit in this nation, yes. But I only understand my father because he gave me an appreciation for certain values. My anger at elites on the coasts has nothing to do with the Marxist literature or classes I have taken in college. But it has everything to do with the sensibility that maybe if I work hard enough I can succeed, that those people who are representing me don’t represent me.
I don’t know what to do to bridge this gap. I don’t know if it even should be bridged. But it’s stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot.
I don’t know what the point of this. I have no means of articulating well what I’m trying to say. But it is worth saying that just throwing platitudes of care at the white working class isn’t going to work. Just saying we need to start caring more is absurd if we don’t actually find ways of caring. There’s a cultural divide among college students (who will remain the focus of this since I am one) and the people they don’t seem to get and vice versa.
That white woman who told me to change majors was speaking from a legitimate concern for my well being. I have no solutions but I do know just talking about class abstractly won’t help. Poverty affects and harms numerous ethnic groups, not just white people. Poverty is a larger concern. But in the US, if we want to curtail the rise of some kind of right wing populism in 2020 we might as well face reality: the working class are being eliminated slowly. Jobs are leaving the country (whether through federal policy decisions or company head’s going for cheaper labor production elsewhere, ultimately, due to federal policy), there is a truth to working hard to get what you want, that possibility does exist (not just pure nihilism), and that people’s neighborhoods are emptying or the demographic is shifting. Denying this isn’t helpful. Denying that the demographic shift in communities is scaring (often) white homeowners isn’t helpful. Admitting these realities that white (often working class) persons experience is not to condone or welcome it. But it is to try to figure out how to hear them and their experience.
Again, no idea what my goal in writing this is. It’s more a reflection on my background and that I’ve started worrying and caring about my family more and more. That after spending time in Germany for a summer and listening to the anger at the government (very rarely were refugees actual focus of anger), of fears of becoming a minority in one’s own country, after all of this I can’t just ignore frustration. When a tour guide can’t even express pride in being German without saying “But I’m not a Nazi!” there’s a problem. White pride isn’t an answer, white nationalism isn’t the answer. But some kind of communal identity might be. Whatever that community might be it can’t simply be one predicated on suffering as a (singular) tool of sense-making, as the only way to make your life make sense. Finding pride in what you do, in the community you’re in, in your family and friends, isn’t bad at all. It’s dangerous but not intrinsically evil.
Identity is hard, it’s not reductive, it’s not clear cut. But it exists and to deny people the right to be proud of their community is absurd to me. Do I want people to expand their contact? Yes, of course. Do I want people to be welcoming, gentle, gracious? Absolutely. But I don’t think denying people any sense of pride is the answer and it only hurts the chance to care deeply for one another. The World is shit, it’s geared against the living but the living find ways to make life under this and some of those are better than others; some advance and worsen the World (white pride and nationalism), some help the World trudge along as it is with an illusion of change (naive liberalism/cosmopolitanism), and some refuse the World.