It’s time for progressive white women to do more for racial equalityDecember 20, 2020
It is now well-known that a narrow majority of white women, once again, voted for Trump this November. There’s a lot to unpack.
In my Wonder Media Network podcast, White Picket Fence, I do a deep dive into the topic, exploring the many influences on white women’s identities and politics. What I’ve discovered is that moving our national conversation about race, gender, and politics to something more constructive requires more than “hot takes” on exit polls. We should be concerned by the growth of a base ginned up on misinformation and white grievance. But the overwhelming focus on white women who vote Republican shifts some of the responsibility from where it needs to be: on the shoulders of progressive white women.
I am one of those progressive white women, And the more I’ve examined white women’s identities and politics, the more I’m convinced that building a more just and equitable nation requires more of us. We must go deeper and re-examine some of our own long-held beliefs about our personal politics.
Growing up in a suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, my family’s yard was often littered with election signs. We were a family of volunteers, activists, and all-around political junkies. My dad had spent 13 years in a Catholic religious order, and although he left to marry my mom, social justice remained a strong guiding force. My mother was a biology and women’s studies professor. I was the “nerdy” kid who subscribed to Ms. Magazine and dreamed about running for office.
My interest in presidential politics was piqued when Walter Mondale—former vice president and U.S. senator from Minnesota—chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in 1984. I was ten years old, and I was ecstatic—certain there was about to be a woman in the White House. Inspired by Ferraro, I launched my own campaign that year: for class student council representative. When I won, my teacher announced it as the “official start” of my political career.
On Election Day, I ran home from school, proudly informing my parents that the Mondale-Ferraro ticket had won a resounding victory in my class’s mock election. I settled in to watch election returns, confident that I was about to witness history in the making.
I did—but not the kind I was expecting. The 1984 election was a landslide for Ronald Reagan. I remember staring in shock at the blue specks of Minnesota and Washington, D.C., amidst a sea of red. It was the first time I realized that my world wasn’t the world.
It was a crushing disappointment for a young kid. But that election instilled something else in me: a sense of political “specialness.” The story I told myself was that my state, my community, even my family, was different. We believed in the common good. We invested in things like public schools, a social safety net, a clean environment. We were a welcoming state. Racial injustice? That was something that happened in other parts of the country. In Minnesota, we did things “right.”
I grew up, moved away, and built a career in philanthropy and politics. But even as I developed an understanding of how deep and structural the problems facing our nation are, I retained that sense of “specialness.” That by growing up in the place that I did, in the time that I did, I had some unique insight into what “good” politics looked like.
There wasn’t one moment that permanently disabused me of that notion. But like many of us, 2016 turned my world upside down.
On Election Day, I went to the polls with my then two-year-old son. After casting my vote, I took a selfie holding my son in my arms. We were both beaming at the camera, wearing “I Voted” stickers. Things had come full circle. That night, I was confident that my son would witness the triumph that had eluded me as a child: a woman in the White House. Hillary Clinton as the first woman president.
But Trump’s election wasn’t the only event of 2016 that made me seriously question my political story. A few months earlier, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. His murder happened about a mile away from my childhood home. And the following year, the officer who shot him was acquitted of all charges.
The truth is, the community of my childhood is plagued by the same injustice that exists everywhere. There was nothing special about us—or our politics. The “good” liberal politics of my Minnesota childhood may have produced many favorable outcomes when it comes to education, health, and quality of life, but it masked deep racial inequality that continues to this day. And the self-aggrandizing political story I constructed obscured my own complicity with the status quo.
As an adult, I purchased a home close to “good” public school for my son, further solidifying segregated housing patterns forged through decades of redlining and predatory lending practices. I availed myself of financial support from my parents that helped me with a down payment, thereby perpetuating racial privilege and giving my family an unearned leg up. My housing choices have meant that my family spends a good deal of time in predominantly white spaces.
None of these were intentionally racist acts. But as Prairie View A&M Endowed Professor of Political Science and New York Times columnist Melanye Price told me on the podcast, “The complement of your privilege is my disadvantage.” White women—white people—cannot retain our privilege while fighting for equity.
It can be tempting for progressive white women to pat ourselves on the back and view those “other” white women as the problem. But let’s be clear: voting Donald Trump out of office was the bare minimum of what it requires to move this country forward. We must also interrogate why it’s hard for so many of us to cede the racial privilege that remains our birthright. Do we work to ensure that our own kids’ public schools are well-funded and supported, while not engaging—or even opposing—efforts to equalize school funding across schools or districts? Do we advocate for or against housing zoning changes that would permit multi-family housing in affluent neighborhoods? Do we engage in fights for racial justice consistently, or only sporadically, like this past summer, when the depths of racial injustice and Black suffering become impossible to ignore?
It’s time to shift the white woman story. To make it less about “them” and more about “all of us.” And to step up in the ways that we must, through this continuous political action, alongside and led by communities of color. For it is through this engagement—this ongoing practice that goes well-beyond any one particular election—that progressive white women can own our stake in building a nation that reflects the values we profess to hold.
Julie Kohler is a fellow in residence at the National Women’s Law Center, a senior advisor to the Democracy Alliance, and the host of the podcast, White Picket Fence.
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