The independent news organization of Duke University

White liberals: Don't put your feet up

Not long before this weekend’s celebration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s victory, many of us repeated some form of “I just need to make it past the election” or “I can’t wait for the year to be over.” After four years of a president that exploited the existing racism, sexism, xenophobia and other violent structures that this country operates under, we are justified in celebrating his removal. Black and Indigenous organizers in the South who made this win possible, undocumented individuals under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and all other Americans to whom this oust has an immediate material impact especially deserve a moment of communal relief. But acting like “these uncertain times” will be solved by a Democratic administration is harmful, just like blaming the year 2020 for the natural consequences of colonialism, institutional racism, capitalism and fascism. We cannot divorce this moment from the lineages of struggle to dismantle structures of oppression or delude ourselves into thinking the work is over.

From early abolition movements to women’s suffrage and anti-war protests, our country’s progress has long relied on the efforts of those excluded from the polling booths. Spending all our time and energy solely on electoral politics distracts from ongoing movements to uproot the very infrastructures that lead to voter suppression. This year, Black voters’ mail-in ballots were rejected four times more than white voters in North Carolina, and one in sixteen Black Americans were disenfranchised as felons. 

Since we started taking government-mandated standardized tests in elementary school, we’ve been trained in both Scantrons and the myth of American democratic exceptionalism. Filling in a bubble affords just the right amount of governmental agency to stave off more sustained, autonomous efforts that present a threat to the neoliberal, capitalist order. Each election, we are retrained to choose from these limited options and then blindly celebrate if the bubble we filled in wins. What we do once we’ve voted matters much more. This includes acting against racial capitalism and neocolonialism, and personally committing to a lifelong process of unlearning the structures of whiteness, power and capital we are taught to take for granted. 

White people must leverage their whiteness to support—not take over—BIPOC-led movements. We have to remember the Duke alums armed with white supremacist beliefs and upholding white supremacist power structures, who went on to incite substantial harm in positions of power. As current Duke students, we have an obligation to use our power in the name of justice and racial healing, not in further perpetuating harm, which is the default of our existence unless we actively work against it. 

We need to get involved and stay involved, which rests heavily on recognizing our unique position of power as Duke students and being intentional in the ways we support efforts led by BIPOC, striving to take up less space, listen and support. This requires building trust over time and dedicating oneself to forging the intimate relationships necessary to establish networks of accountability. 

As Duke students, we have access to countless resources to spur education and action. We have many opportunities to take advantage of classes on race, gender and cultural studies. You can follow Black, Latinx and Indigenous activists on Twitter and check it as part of your routine (including, but definitely not limited to: @blkwomenradical, @the_red_nation, @ClaudiaJonesEdu, @studyabolition, @BlackSocialists). If you haven’t already, sign to support the demands of the Black Coalition Against Policing presented to Duke administration and encourage your professors and other faculty to do so as well. Take the time to sit down and read, watch, or listen to the many resources that have been made widely available by BIPOC. Listen to the Groundings podcast, Millennials are Killing Capitalism, and the “Seeing White” series produced by Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies professor John Biewen. 

This learning should not be constrained to academic spheres or be overly intellectualized. Critical study must be coupled with deep internal reflection on the ways we fuel these systems in our daily lives. We should reflect on the communities we support, where we spend our money, what we watch and read in order to help build accountability to social justice movements in our daily lives. With an understanding of the ways our identity may glean privileges at the expense of others, we must couple intellectual engagement with direct action in solidarity with those we otherwise inherently exploit even if we do not explicitly choose to. 

If you have access to wealth, plug into the work of Resource Generation to learn how you can use your class privilege to advance the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. As settlers on colonized land, we can join in solidarity with Indigenous people and the fight for land reparations. Learn about and donate to support the work of Southerners on New Ground, #FreeBlackMamas National Bail Out and Survived and Punished. These action items are by no means exhaustive, but they are good places to start. Much of the work is as simple as listening to individuals in your community and supporting their needs, including keeping cash on you to help people experiencing homelessness when you can and supporting mutual aid efforts. 

Voting for more palatable politicians like Biden can be like taking an opiate that breeds inaction and complacency. But it doesn’t have to. Unlike some of our colleagues, we don’t think the answer this year was to vote for Trump or, on the liberal end of the spectrum, exceptionalize him. We must refuse the sedation and mobilize with more energy to subvert the infrastructures that suppress revolution out of us every year. We have to take direct action against the institutional forces that limit the control we presume to have as voting members of our so-called democracy. Even after Donald Trump leaves office next year, people will continue to organize on the ground as they have been for centuries. It is our duty to join them.

Community Editorial Board Member Ezra Loeb (T’22) abstained from voting on this edit. 

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