The morning after the election, a white student teacher in a red state texted me, “I don’t know how I’m going to get through today. I’m pretty sure my mentor teacher voted for Trump, but I’m lead teacher right now.” She wrote me again after school, “My kids were cheering for Trump. Luckily there were a couple adults in the school to lean on but we talked in hushed tones behind closed doors.”
Even though she is from that red state, this student teacher may have felt more at home teaching with me in Manhattan. Most of my high school students and co-teachers are women, Muslims, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, African Americans, people with disabilities, or a combination thereof, and they have been calling out the bigotry that has plagued this year’s presidential race.
So, the morning after over 60 million Americans voted for Trump, there were no cheers, hushed tones, or closed doors in the school where I work as a student teacher—only tears, anger, and restorative circles.
Meanwhile, amid the mourning, self-care, protests, organizing, and petitions on Columbia’s campus, some of us are not only asking, “What now?” but also, “What next?” Like previous generations who came of age under Reagan or Bush, we may shape our futures in opposition to the president-elect by pursuing careers in which we can support ongoing organizing and prevent Trump’s threats from becoming a reality.
Some students have already written op-eds outlining action plans for the next four years. The board members of the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia made the case for policymaking and another student called for “taking up space in a Trump America.” Both modes of resistance are needed, but the best-laid policies of progressives often go awry without local buy-in. And what about people who have been taking up too much space for far too long?
As a white, heterosexual, cisgender man, I have been rethinking my space in Trump’s America. My work as a soon-to-be teacher feels relevant, considering K-12 schools were the most frequent sites of the over 700 incidents of hateful harassment in the week following the election. Now the question is where. Should I teach students who celebrate Trump’s victory like my friend from the red state? Or continue to teach students in New York City who know that the struggle today is the same as the struggle yesterday?
A queer and nonbinary journalism student’s response to the election helped me decide. They wrote, “One of the fundamentals of solidarity/allyship/accompliceship is working within one’s self and amongst one’s communities. ... Many of these self-proclaimed white allies have friends or family who elected Trump, yet still expressed surprise or disappointment, as if the votes and their implicit ideologies didn’t sit at their tables every year for Christmas dinner.” Maybe my role is not to work where I feel most at home, but to work in my actual hometown.
I’m from the white exurbs of Minnesota, where blue counties turn red. Some of my family voted for Clinton. Others for Trump. Only a few miles from where I grew up, high school students wrote, “#Whitesonly,” “#Gobacktoafrica,” and “Make America Great Again,” on a bathroom wall.
I am more interested in teaching those kids than the targets of their racism. As James Baldwin told teachers in 1963, “If I was a ‘n****r’ in your eyes, there was something about you — there was something you needed.” Every child deserves an anti-racist educator, but maybe white students whose families ridicule the Black Lives Matter movement need one more than students of color whose families tell them that they matter.
No matter how badly schools need a diverse staff, many teachers would not feel safe walking into a school with nativist bathroom graffiti, especially on the morning of Trump’s election. That makes it all the more important for me to work there. Most principals would only fire me due to politics, bad teaching, or cutbacks, whereas 28 states permit LGBTQ and trans teachers to be fired for their sexual and gender identity.
I do not need to take up space in schools that are already safe spaces for teachers of all identities. I need to work in the schools that are not accepting and make them safe for everyone, and that includes schools in my own community.
I know most of my fellow undergraduates at Columbia will not become teachers, so to my fellow white students who are committed to anti-racism but dread the holidays for precisely that reason, I say this: Go home. Home is where the hard work is.
Take care of yourself, but challenge yourself to have the tough conversations about “law and order” and “locker-room talk” with family and friends who find Trump’s rhetoric persuasive. Participating in anti-racist affinity groups and reading dialogue guides have helped me prepare for those Thanksgiving moments.
In short, I would rather be a “subversive” in my conservative hometown than a gentrifier in a city that shares my politics.
Some may criticize this attitude as that of a missionary—a white savior for white people—but I call it home work, and I am done procrastinating.
Daniel Bergerson is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and urban teaching. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielBergerson and read more at The Dandruff Report. The Red Pen runs alternate Thursdays.
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