“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

― Audre Lorde, “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches”

If there is anything that the past few weeks have given me, it is renewed respect for my professors. Maybe it’s because I’m taking humanities courses — English, history and drama — but every professor I have has talked about the impossibility of separating our identities from our existence in classrooms, and course material from current contextualization. Every professor has acknowledged the past few weeks and the current climate range from disheartening to dangerous for different people. Many have offered information about University of Michigan resources (which some feel are inadequate) as well as their own personal support.

In one of my English classes, my professor talked about the evolution of our understanding of “truth” as a concept. Truth used to be seen as objective; we now know that truth is relative. But she argued that truth is more than relative — it is positional, meaning that sometimes the only thing separating two people on opposite sides of an issue is the fact that they are on opposite sides.

Hearing that flipped a switch in my brain. Over the past two weeks, my Facebook and Twitter feeds — not to mention classroom discussions — have been nothing but reactions to the election. Most people who supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, even if only because she was better than the other options, seem to fall into two groups. One group advocates empathy, saying that dismissing all Trump supporters is not going to help solve anything. The other group maintains that they owe supporters of President-elect Donald Trump as much respect as they feel those supporters gave them in giving their votes to a misogynistic, xenophobic man with a dangerously homophobic vice president.

Some defend Trump supporters by saying that not all of them are racist and sexist. A common rejoinder to this is that even if they aren’t racist or sexist, they are still supporting misogynistic and xenophobic rhetoric and actions. I think this is where the idea that truth is positional comes into play. Racism, sexism, homophobia — all of these are societally ingrained in us. But not everyone has the toolkit that allows us to recognize the internalization of these constructions. This toolkit comes from several factors: living in a place with a diverse and integrated population, a good education from educators of a variety of backgrounds, exposure to different perspectives through a variety of mediums and a support system that will listen to you and help you educate yourself.

Thinking about this toolkit is especially relevant for this next week. I’ve seen a lot of my peers — especially the people who maintain that the rhetoric surrounding extending empathy to Trump supporters is unfair and misdirected — on Facebook and Twitter talking about how they don’t want to spend time with conservative family members over the next few days during the break. This is where truth being positional is important. The discussion surrounding empathy is an important one, but it shouldn’t be the first. The question that all white allies, or male allies, or straight allies (hegemonic bonus if you’re all three) etc. need to ask themselves first is what separates them from their conservative family members? What separates a straight white male ally from a Trump supporter in that same demographic?

I think that knowledge of the toolkit is one of the main separations. The kind of Trump supporters that most people are talking about — although the whole narrative that Trump’s main demographic was the rural white working class is a myth, he was overwhelmingly voted into office by people with higher incomes, but that’s another column entirely — don’t have access to several tools in the kit I’m talking about. One of my history professors said that what struck her more than anything else about this election was the rural/urban divide, and that’s telling. Living in an urban area will almost always force you into contact with more different kinds of people and ideas. There has been abundant discourse on the resentment of the white working class for feeling ignored by wealthy coastal liberals; some argue that coastal intellectual elites need to have more empathy for them. After all, there’s no rhetoric around “allyhood” when we talk about the lower or working class. There has also been discourse that argues white working class people in rural areas aren’t as exposed to different people and perspectives in the way those who live in urban areas are. Both things are true.

It is not my place as a white person to tell people of color to have empathy for Trump supporters.

At the same time, it is not my place as a white person to refuse to talk to conservative white people who might have voted for Trump.

This is true for the same reason that it shouldn’t always have to be women raising their hands in history classes, when people are discussing whether or not Trump’s policies will be “that bad” for women, to explain that regardless of whether his policies will match his rhetoric, his rhetoric itself — both public and private — reflects a fundamental lack of respect for women. It’s the same way that members of the LGBTQIA community shouldn’t have to take a deep breath and explain why Mike Pence’s moral and monetary support of conversion therapy for gay teens represents emotional torture and a suicide risk for teens. Muslim women shouldn’t have to be the only ones talking about why this can make every day feel unsafe.

The whole point of being an ally is leveraging the privilege you have in one identity (male, straight, white) to help amplify the voices and the concerns of marginalized communities you don’t belong to.  It is not to co-opt the pain of a group of people, which it sometimes devolves into when I hear white allies saying they don’t want to talk about issues with conservative family members. It is not to give yourself a voice in an arena in which you otherwise wouldn’t have one. It is not to receive a stamp of approval from the community you are trying to support. It is to use your voice when it’s safer for you to do so than it would be for people who inhabit the identities with which you are standing in solidarity.

One of my English professors told us a few days after the election that it might sound cheesy, but we all have to take care of each other out there. I think that this — keeping in mind what it really means to be an ally, and trying to spread the tools in that toolkit as far and wide as we can — is the one of the only ways we’re going to be able to do it.

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