Your Bernie / Hillary fandom makes people of color invisible

Young Bernie Sanders supporters rallied at Key Arena on Sunday. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Young Bernie Sanders supporters rallied at Key Arena on Sunday. (Photo by Alex Garland)

The white people in my city are committed to purpose-driven lives. They sit on the boards of co-ops. They support small literary arts venues. They compost, even when no one is fining.

But here is a truth rarely acknowledged: white liberals need to believe their efforts are enough. They do not like to be challenged to do more.

I once had a job as after-school care for a thirteen-year-old white boy.

When his white teacher at his predominantly white private school started a unit on slavery, the boy told me slaves who couldn’t outrun their masters deserved to be shot. Each time a slave was murdered in his reading, he repeated this sentiment.

I am a person of color, but I am light-skinned and not black. He was not the first to assume it was okay to be candidly anti-black with me.

The boy’s mother is a good white liberal. She works at a university, championing innovation, and the Democratic Party counts her as one of their heavyweight donors.

Before leaving her home one day, I stopped her by the winding staircase of her four story mansion and asked if we could talk. I delivered my news, terrified:

“Your, uh, son says things that are…kind of racist.”

She cut me off: “I know. You should see how he treats our housekeeper” (a black woman).

“I have my hands full trying to make sure he doesn’t become a misogynist.”

She looked me dead in the eye when she said this. As if we were, most significantly, both women — not a white woman with White House connections and an immigrant woman of color with her job on the line. As if one more wealthy white misogynist in the world should frighten me more than one more wealthy white racist.

This is nothing new. White people like to forget I am a person of color. It is hard for them to remember their experience is not universal. It is hard to remember other people have to fight for more.

Bernie’s platform lets even straight white bros proclaim “the Man” has them down.

The conversations have been particularly dismissive this election season.

In my community, it is down to Hillary and Bernie. My white friends are excited about their chosen candidate. They are either hailing Hillary as the feminist messiah or Bernie as a steward of the people.

They do not acknowledge the ways their candidate has harmed communities of color.

They do not acknowledge the activists of color who put their physical and emotional safety at risk to challenge the national conversation to the point that, finally, white Democrats had to address race.

I had my honeymoon moment with each candidate myself. But both campaigns bring out a side of my white friends that worries me.

Hillary and Bernie appeal to so many in part because they each represent a population of underdogs:

Hillary’s story speaks most directly to the scads of women experiencing gender inequity in middle-class America.

Bernie’s platform lets even straight white bros proclaim “the Man” has them down because they are saddled with student loans and third-rate health insurance. My white friends want to see themselves as the underdogs. They are excited about the candidate that allows them this mindset.

I see white liberals becoming more fiercely protective of their own identities.

Supporters of Hillary Clinton packed Rainier Beach High School's gym this week. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Supporters of Hillary Clinton packed Rainier Beach High School’s gym this week. (Photo by Alex Garland)

When white men are critical of Hillary, I hear white women say, “But you’re a man.” Translation: “The system has oppressed me more than it has oppressed you. Do not tell me what I need. Do not interfere with my movement.”

When people are critical of Bernie, I hear his supporters lump them in with the Establishment, meaning, “I am the 99%. I understand economic need better than you. Step off.”

I acknowledge that white people experience gender and class oppressions. But as a person of color, it scares me to watch factions of white people fight over who is most oppressed. I do not know who among them will win, but I know they are shaping a political conversation that invisibilizes communities of color or reduces us to talking points in their debate.

My friends do not mention how Hillary popularized racist, classist narratives. As first lady, she called black children “super predators,” and as a senator, she defended gutting the welfare system by denigrating people most vulnerable to economic injustice: “…These people are no longer deadbeats.” Hillary legitimized a form of politics that dehumanizes people while claiming to help them.

As senator and secretary of state, she supported or lobbied for violent measures in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and elsewhere (all this and more reported in detail here).

My friends who support Hillary don’t believe black children are predators, nor do they insist on the necessity of war. But they also want to protect Hillary from sexism. They want her to succeed. They say she is a woman in a man’s world and she cannot appear unwilling to make hard decisions.

When I hear white friends say this, I hear that they are angry about the glass ceilings in their own high-profile careers. I hear them say that it is more important for a white woman to break past a glass ceiling in corporate America than for a foreign woman of color to be alive today or for her death to be met with outrage.

My white friends are quick to build up white icons, but they have a hard time seeing people of color to celebrate.

As for the fervor around Bernie, it erases people of color in quieter ways. He joins Hillary in opposing the pursuit of reparations for African Americans, while riding a wave of praise for being the most radical candidate. In ‘94, he spoke out against mass incarceration to Congress, but in the end, he cast his vote in support of the Clintons’ deeply racist crime bill. He has since attempted to explain his vote, but the fact-check raises more questions.

I see how Bernie inspires my friends, how an anti-capitalist candidate gives them hope. But there are no saviors here. He is still a white man who bears some responsibility for devastating communities of color. I am asking my white friends to acknowledge that. When they present Bernie as the anti-racist progressive, I am asking them to remember his campaign didn’t start out with a spotlight on racial justice.

After Black Lives Matter activists challenged him twice last year, he hired Symone Sanders, a black criminal justice advocate, as his press secretary; she confronted him about his response to the activists. I credit Black Lives Matter, Symone, and other staff of color for greatly radicalizing his campaign. Bernie stopped assuming his initiatives for economic equity would translate to racial equity, and he stopped thinking he could list work from fifty years ago when asked for a commitment to racial justice today.

I am happy for people to celebrate his progress, but evolved white men do not develop in a vacuum. Behind every white man’s enlightenment is the work of people of color who advocated for themselves.

Bernie Sanders walked away from the microphone as activists Mara Jacqueline Willaford and Marissa Johnson disrupted a rally in Seattle in August. Sanders has since incorporated racial justice into his campaign. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Bernie Sanders walked away from the microphone as activists Mara Jacqueline Willaford and Marissa Johnson disrupted a rally in Seattle in August. Sanders has since incorporated racial justice into his campaign. (Photo by Alex Garland)

There is a sense of smallness I have learned to internalize as a person of color. I am scared I will never fully unlearn it.

Most recently Hillary had two publicized encounters with young black women who confronted her on her record. In the first video, she does not stop the crowd from yelling at the young activist, and in both videos, the women are ushered away from Hillary’s presence to keep her comfortable. Hillary does not ask either woman to continue speaking so she can listen.

My white friends say Hillary is inherently brash and it is sexist to expect her to be gentler. They want to ignore race in these situations. They want to protect their candidate’s merit.

When my white friends defend Hillary like this, I hear them say, “It is okay that women of color go unheard. It is okay that they are removed from spaces. It is okay that at any moment in time in this country a young woman of color is learning that a white woman doesn’t have to listen to her.”

Of my white friends who are feeling the Bern, many are unmeasured in their statements about him. They say he is the candidate who cares most about people of color.

I do not thank them for telling me this. My white friends speak of him with reverence that I have never heard them apply to an activist of color. They are shaping the narrative to serve whiteness. They are talking about Black Lives Matter activists only to point out how respectfully Bernie treats them. They call disruptive tactics “misguided,” yet they cheer raucously for Bernie now that he is addressing every injustice BLM demanded his supporters recognize.

When my white friends lift him up as they do, I wonder who else they deeply admire. Are their contemporary heroes mostly white?

My white friends are quick to build up white icons, but they have a hard time seeing people of color to celebrate.

They have a hard time seeing people of color.

I think they have a hard time seeing me.

18 Comments

  1. I don’t really get what you’re trying to say. I like Bernie and I’m not white, and neither are most of the people I know that support Bernie. It just seems a little presumptuous to think that you’re speaking for all people of color when you say white people showing support for Hilary or Bernie somehow marginalizes them. I’m very sorry– and truly think it’s very sad– if you have some white friends that make you feel that way, but I don’t think labeling all white people showing enthusiasm for a political candidate as blind to their own inherent racism is constructive at all.

    1. I’m black and this shit pisses me off. The author is the one generalizing, and it’s worse because they are generalizing fucking allies. What the fuck is wrong with you? You should be ashamed. Most of what they said were lies. Bernie was talking about racial justice long before those dumbass protestors decided to attack the only candidate that has been looking out for us for years. Fuck this author.

    2. This is a such a worthless editorial. Just another SJW pissing contest to see who has the most victimization/oppression cred. Bernie’s been there for all minorities and oppressed ppl. Bernie’s supporters aren’t just rich white dudes or white dudes who want hand-outs. Bernie’s supporters are women, people of color, and other minorities, and they want justice for all.

  2. As a white liberal who lives in Seattle, I am confused. It sounds like you have had some experiences with some folks who were less than open and understanding, but at the same time, you seem to be using this platform to stereotype all liberal, Caucasian, Democrats. I’m not sure what your proposed solution is. Should we be supporting a GOP candidate instead? I think that the fact that Sanders has engaged with BLM activists since the incident here last year is a positive marker and a sign that he is willing to listen and learn, and when people tell you that they support him because he is elevating the conversation (thanks tremendously to the people of color who are speaking up, there is no doubt), it is confusing that you would vilify that. The fact is, the only candidate of color left in the race is Ted Cruz and he is not someone I want speaking for this country, so I’m not sure what it is you want. Seattle is a very Caucasian city as compared to other metropolitan areas and so it’s no accident that most of the folks supporting the Democratic candidates are white, but to paint all of those supporters with the same broad brush and accuse them of ignoring people of color is to impose assumptions on their motives that may not be accurate. Further, it seems as though you are upset that your friends, while they “don’t believe that all black children are predators,” also “want to protect Hillary from sexism.” Shouldn’t they want that? Is it wrong to want to call out sexism? And to call out people for worrying about their own “glass ceilings” is odd, too. On some level, we are all concerned with the issues that are closest to us, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be concerned about other issues, too. In the end, I think that trying to understand which candidate is most likely to listen to ALL of the constituents regardless of race, gender, age, etc. and supporting that candidate is going to be beneficial to everyone. And using what we know and see through our individual lenses as human beings to educate others without demonizing them will lift us all.

  3. This piece is incredibly immature and unreasonable. If you’re going to make statements like “He is still a white man who bears some responsibility for devastating communities of color”….please explain how he has done that.

    It would be immature for me to point out that voters in marginalized communities also bear some responsibility for upholding status quo capitalism.

    This whole “you’re a straight white male” hatred needs to stop, it’s not getting us anywhere.

  4. Thank you for this article. I appreciate your insight. I would like to say that I am going to the caucuses as a white liberal woman and will be caucusing for Hilary. But I am not lionizing her. I think she is far from perfect and I am troubled by the history the Clinton have with mass incarceration and welfare reform. I do think her work as a feminist is pushing women’s rights around the globe and access to health care deserve respect and that much of the push back against her over the years has been sexist. That push back does make me feel defensive of her on many fronts but not the one’s you raise. I am supporting her because I think she is being the most honest about what can be done about racial inequality, LGBT rights, and women’s rights as a president without both houses of congress on her side and that is to aggressively prosecute the violation of current anti-discrimination laws in housing, education, and the workplace and push for criminal justice reform which has some bi-partisan support. I haven’t seem as much lionization of Hilary as you describe which doesn’t mean it isn’t there but I have been troubled by the lionization of Bernie. I like Bernie and would work hard for him in general election if he wins the primary but I think his economic only message is simplistic and I do feel uncomfortable with the way those answers allow his white fans to feel they are equally victimized by the system because they are not in the 1%.

  5. I totally agree with the author that there are some strange dynamics going on in the conversation about the Sanders-Clinton race, on multiple planes of relevance. Several of those planes involve race, whether acknowledged or not. Indeed, race (and gender) permeate ALL aspects of our lives, at all times.
    I appreciate the frustration the author must feel about the paradoxes and ambiguities that always exist in human relationships. I, too, have had experiences that have triggered feelings that bring up so many other experiences, such that they seem very interconnected to me. It can be so clear, yet so hard to put into words.
    Painting a vivid picture of a wealthy and well-connected White woman with her four-story mansion, servants and White House connections, and then making a leap to ALL White people based on these horrific anecdotes, doesn’t seem well-justified.
    I have felt this way about interconnected issues myself at times, and have made similar leaps in logic. People have pushed back, and I have learned to either defend my position or let it go. Sometimes there is a connection, and further analysis allows me to connect the dots for the audience. Sometimes, I find there is another factor at play that I hadn’t considered.
    In this case, perhaps there is a connection here in the author’s thesis, but the piece does not connect the dots for the reader. I think a little editorial help from the Seattle Globalist would go a long way toward making this piece more potent and meaningful. As it is, it reads like a blog post from any old click-bait site on the web. I would be sad to see the Globalist go too far down this path. I have come to expect more journalistic integrity from Seattle Globalist.

  6. Really powerful and essential insights in this piece, thanks for writing and posting. Campaigns are supposed to a time where we challenge our candidates, our parties, and one another, not a rubber stamp process for elites and moneyed interests, even thought that’s what it feels like most of the time. I’m a white progressive living in Seattle at times excited by Bernie and Hillary’s campaigns and other times cringing. I’m grateful to Black Lives Matter and other advocates who have pushed and stretched the candidates into taking up positions that weren’t top of their list when they announced – credit to the campaigns for listening (payoff comes when systems are changed, however). Yes, the Democrats are a better prospect than the Republicans on nearly every level – income and gender equality, police accountability, climate justice, campaign finance, etc. – but that’s a pretty low bar given the sate of the GOP these days.

    I think the 99% frame is powerful and effective, because it shines a light on the inexcusable economic inequality that is systemic in America. Though the right cries “class warfare,” it’s potentially unifying and can be used for impactful organizing. However, it’s limited without applying a racial equity lens – there’s layers of oppression within that swath of people. And too often Bernie’s campaign has focused on income inequality (yay!) without calling out America’s deep racial inequality and violence (boo). Kudos to him and his campaign for responding and listening to Black Lives Matter over the course of his campaign, even when it was difficult and awkward (just look at our history for perspective on what’s worse…). Props to Hillary’s campaign for speaking out on race – and for taking up some of Bernie’s populist economic platforms. Again, that’s why conversations – and articles like this – are important. Otherwise, it’s an exclusionary system of focus groups, major donors, and D.C. consultants who help devise campaign platforms. To call out white presidential candidates and white people for erasing people of color, I think, isn’t invalidating our experiences and realities (glass ceiling, student debt, poverty, homelessness, etc.), it’s being honest about how only when white people truly acknowledge and challenge systems of oppression, can we unite. I also feel like it’s an invitation to engage, not retreat or get defensive – after all, isn’t this the season of civic engagement?

  7. I guess I’m confused as to the point of this article. Is it just to announce that neither Democrat candidate is right for minorities? I totally understand that there are white Americans – many even – that are woefully unaware of the plights of minorities in America. However, all this piece does is scold those who are trying to do better – even if their actions are misguided – without offering a better solution. This article only demonizes all white Americans – whether they’re actually harmful to minorities, or are genuinely interested in helping minorities.

    Apparently, neither Democrat candidate is right, because they’re both “still a white [wo]man who bears some responsibility for devastating communities of color.” What about President Obama? What has he done for minority communities?

    “My white friends are quick to build up white icons, but they have a hard time seeing people of color to celebrate.” Except for, you know, when all of us evil white liberals got up and voted for President Obama, and celebrated in the streets when he was elected – TWICE.

    There is deep racism in this country. It is a terrible and ugly thing. And it should absolutely be called out. Especially to those who believe they’re doing good work for minorities. But by making blanket statements such as “they’re white, and so they’re at fault for disenfranchising minorities” doesn’t help further the conversation towards a solution. What would help, is working with everyone who is interested in achieving the same goal – equality for all – and explain what measures can be taken to truly help achieve this.

    I’m a younger white male. To me, I do think Bernie Sanders can help many communities, including minorities. I think he has a lot more to learn about recent plights of minorities in America, and there is certainly more he can do to help, but he needs to learn. And he’s proven that he’s open to that. However, I also truly believe his economic policies will help minorities in America. By raising the minimum wage, taxing corporations, and returning balance to our current economic disparity, more Americans will earn liveable wages. This in turn, will stop some -not all, but some – white Americans who currently blame minorities for their economic woes, to 1) understand that minorities were not the problem to begin with, and 2) make a liveable wage and thus not have to blame minorities as a scapegoat. Bernie’s plan to decriminalize marijuana, reform our justice system and the war on drugs, will have a dramatic impact on improving the lives of minorities – especially those that have been convicted with minor drug crimes.

    Now, in my position of privilege, those all seem like great ways to START helping all Americans, including minority communities. Can more be done? For sure. So let’s have a DISCUSSION about that, instead of blanket statements demonizing those who are only trying to help.

  8. As a person of color, I began reading the comments with some disappointment. I began to think, “They are not getting it, or they are angry, for precisely the reasons the author presents in the article.” I think this goes the way of satire. It is less reliant on humor, and uses generalities to make the intended audience uncomfortable. It is meant to push the reader to self reflect. Despite some angst and confusion, I think some of the commenters are doing just that, self reflecting. Of course the piece uses a broad brush to paint “white liberals.” It’s kind of like an Andy Kaufman approach, without comedy.

  9. “Bernie’s platform lets even straight white bros proclaim “the Man” has them down because they are saddled with student loans and third-rate health insurance. My white friends want to see themselves as the underdogs. They are excited about the candidate that allows them this mindset.”

    What a callous dismissal of the very real suffering of working and middle class white people who are in debt and whose health has been declining due to poor healthcare. I don’t know what politics this writer has, because the article is so politically incoherent — but whatever her political agenda is, please keep me out of it. I want nothing to do with something this devoid of basic human empathy.

  10. Bernie got arrested fighting for civil rights long before running for president, his actions speak louder than words.
    “A rising tide lifts ALL boats” income equality will help us all regardless of color. I am Jewish I know discrimination better than many that is why we stand up against discrimination of others. That is why it makes me angry when I witness a fellow Jew or person of color discriminating against someone who is different they need and must be more sensitive to this behavior if they want it to stop. Once I saw an audience of mostly blacks showing disgust and hatred against a gay man. I spoke up and a black women said “was he paid to be here”? So blinded by there own prejudices after receiving so much of it, this is the exact opposite of increased sensitivity towards ALL forms of bigotry,

  11. I, as an Asian American POC, am so glad that this piece was written. I feel incredibly validated, and the feeling that I have had since #FEELTHEBERN became a thing is explained so articulately here. This is a necessary, incredibly important article to read, one that I must share with all of my well-meaning but unfortunately oblivious white liberal friends. Hopefully, they won’t immediately jump to defending themselves and start focusing on how they feel as if their identities have been unfairly attacked rather than on the points outlined in this article.

  12. Thanks for reminding me why I only talk about the weather, food, and pets around political so-called “allies”. I’ll just keep holding protest signs and work phone banks for causes I believe in, and when I’m done, go hang out with my actual friends.

  13. Seriously, this crap is why in all of my activist circles, after years of working for immigrant justice, BLM, and a living wage, there is one person, ONE PERSON that I met through my activism that I can introduce to you as “My friend, so-and-so”. Everyone else I worked with (and I do mean work, in the impersonal sense of a workplace) demonstrated some level of insufferability, and I couldn’t wait until the march or work session was over. But like a committed activist or a masochist (take your pick), I’d be back to do it all over again. The judgmental Anis Gisele’s of the world make actual solidarity impossible, and are frankly why Republicans keep winning elections and will probably continue to do so after America puts the Trump Train into the mental category of “a thing that happens”. After all, we never learned from ’68, ’72, ’84, ’88, ’04, or ’16, and damned if we learn anything, let alone apply it for ’20. Not that the Anis Gisele’s care; better a noble defeat than a tarnished victory with the likes of me lending a hand, eh?

    THE ABOVE WAS WRITTEN BY A NERD ANGRY THAT SOMEONE WROTE STUFF THAT WAS WRONG. ON THE INTERNET! PLEASE IGNORE HIM AND ALL OTHER INTERNET OPINIONS BECAUSE THEY ARE CANCER. Thank you.

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