Zoé Samudzi

Following his stated proposal to prevent future Muslim immigration to the United States, the internet has been awash with white liberal and progressive political epiphanies condemning Donald Trump. He has been consistently located by these narratives as a kind of anomalous boogeyman: a uniquely evil political individual who is almost singlehandedly upending America’s ascension to the post-racial utopia heralded by President Barack Obama’s election. A recent Washington Post article described how “America’s dying white supremacist movement” (italics mine) is capitalizing upon Trump’s xenophobic and racist vitriol to benefit their recruitment drives. A Daily Beast article about his proposed Muslim ban was subtitled “OK, it’s out of control now. When a major-party presidential frontrunner says this kind of bone-chilling stuff, the joke is over.” Even Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton decided Donald Trump’s cartoonish appeal had run its course, despite her own cartoonish and utterly tone-deaf politics, including her attempts to endear herself to black voters and her own track record as a supporter of private prisons and neo-imperialist policies in the Middle East.

Many “good white folks” are finally deciding that Donald Trump is not funny anymore. The alarming part is not just the time it has taken for many so-called progressives to recognize the growing social-political threat posed by Trump, but that they made space to caricaturize him in the first place. “It is easier to laugh because it is harder to acknowledge that Bull Connor’s white supremacy didn’t benefit the KKK, it benefited all white people everywhere,” commented Adam Ciminello. Unfortunately, this flirtation with an earnest confrontation of whiteness and white supremacy stops just short of meaningful in the piece’s final sentences: “Stop laughing at Donald Trump. He is an embarrassment to white people everywhere. And it isn’t funny anymore.” Rather than lobbing any kind of meaningful criticism at Donald Trump’s proposed policies, Matt Taibbi took aim at Trump’s propensity to unleash and peddle stupidity. This is another common tactic of liberal exceptionalism: positing liberalism as not only a moral-ethical, but also an intellectual foil to racism and conservatism. Mockery is his ableist rebuttal of choice:

Trump is probably too dumb to realize it, or maybe he isn't, but he doesn't need to win anything to become the most dangerous person in America. He can do plenty of damage just by encouraging people to be as uninhibited in their stupidity as he is. Trump is striking a chord with people who are feeling the squeeze in a less secure world and want to blame someone - the government, immigrants, political correctness, "incompetents," "dummies," Megyn Kelly, whoever - for their problems. 

At the root of the performative self-flagellation of white liberals (e.g. apologizing on behalf of white people or denouncing obviously racist white people in an effort to be exceptional and thus a “good white person”) lies white ignorance and the epistemologies of ignorance. The epistemologies of ignorance allude not only to knowledge (or a lack thereof), but also to the deliberate and socialized constructions of what one individually or collectively holds to be true. The mythologies of American settler colonialism, for example, sanitize the circumstances of the country’s founding: the idea that Pilgrim settlers came to North America as some kind of religious refugees escaping persecution in Europe (they actually came because they feared their children would assimilate in Holland and they wanted to proselytize to fresh ears, among other things), or that Thanksgiving was about anything other than the colonization and genocide of indigenous North Americans, or that Manifest Destiny was not simply a justification for mass land expropriation.

These epistemologies of willful ignorance play a central role in white liberal and progressives’ attempts to evade responsibility for maintaining and benefitting from structures of racial dominance. Historical revisionism – of America’s history of indigenous genocide, anti-black chattel slavery, and constant antagonism towards racialized groups – is one frequent means of evasion because it enables “good white folks” to position themselves outside of these events. Commentary by Robert Schlesinger characterized Trump’s calls to place Muslims on a state register as “targeting and discrimination [that] is fundamentally un-American,” though American policy has run the gamut from the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to CIA surveillance of Muslim communities in the United States. Rather than recognize that it takes a critical mass of white participation to maintain a structure of white-privileging racial dominance, acts of racism are limited to physical violence and “fringe” extremism in white public consciousness. Many people would fail to see that the Ku Klux Klan is not an extremist group or that Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston was not an extremist act. They may dismiss the militia group that occupied and attempted to claim federal land as anomalous terrorists rather than recognizing Oregon’s founding by white settlers as part of a centuries-old structure of indigenous land expropriation and deliberate anti-black exclusion.

They probably would not recognize white liberal calls for black protestors to “stay peaceful” and “use restraint” in response to state violence as racism. They would also probably not recognize white “allyship” that consistently centers and demands accolades for white participation as racism. Apparently more egregious than participating in discursive violence is being called out for it, because it doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you are not located as a racist. White fragility plays an important role in safeguarding these racialized ignorances. Multicultural education Professor Robin DiAngelo defines white fragility as 

“a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”[1]

In examining epistemologies of ignorance, we see not only the construction but deliberate erasure of, and refusal to recognize as legitimate, certain narratives in order to reproduce dominant world views, even purportedly “good” ones. In one of philosopher Charles Mills’s many discussions of white ignorance, he characterizes it as emerging from white supremacy and involving a tacit agreement of those invested in whiteness to fundamentally misrepresent the world and to subordinate all other narratives pertaining to knowing and understanding.

As such, we see a fairly standard performance from white liberal and progressive spaces. There is the denunciation of a display that is “clearly” racist, Donald Trump. Rather than self-reflexively recognizing how white liberal complacency in the form of humor and mockery gave him unprecedented free press and that white supremacy is so commonplace as to be banal, there is instead the dramatic proclamation that Trump is an “embarrassment” to white people when he merely typifies the dominant ethos of white Americanness. There is an attempt, again, to posture oneself as good and exceptional in the failure, inability, or refusal to recognize how white supremacy operates: that no amount of public prostration will remove structural benefit and complicity.

This performance is still white supremacy in action: it is a part of a greater structure of social amnesia that erases counter-discourses, i.e. the voices of people of color. This form of erasure has been called epistemic violence, because displacing the narratives of oppressed people is a form of violence in itself. White liberalism, in its frequent failure to account for historical origins, to recognize the ordinary nature of white supremacy, or even to recognize the more useful commentary presented by people of color (Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert over black commentators, anyone?) becomes a useful tool in perpetuating white supremacy: a gentler white supremacy, predicated on reforms rather than transformative, structure-shattering change.

[1] DiAngelo, Robin. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3.3 (2011): 54-70.

Image via Politico

Zoé Samudzi is presently research coordinator at UC San Francisco after receiving a masters degree in Health, Community and Development at the London School of Economics. She is interested in deconstructing gender and racial hegemonies, specifically as they pertain to marginalized communities' interactions with structural whiteness. Twitter @ztsamudzi.