Many school and university teachers around the world have been asking how to discuss the 2016 USA elections with children, young people and students in the aftermath of what has been called the most divisive election in American history.
Wednesday night, in the wake of the election results, we were presented with the timely opportunity to re-tune our planned MA lecture in Sociology of Education on “Racism and Black Feminist Intersectionality” into a discussion about the global significance of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Since the lecture was on Black Feminism, we would naturally be addressing the issues of racism and misogyny and also the deep class divisions that became powerful focal points throughout the battle between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
We value the university setting as a place for open and informed debate among students from a wide variety of backgrounds, both regionally in the UK and internationally – from Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Hong Kong, China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Canada and the USA.
Here are some highlights of our session
We opened by discussing some of the charged language championed by what we call “Trump Pedagogy” – that is a form of seemingly educative speech that is supposed to be hard hitting, honest and reflective of the ‘common interest’, but which we interpret as hate-speech that rejects global equality initatives and human rights. Trump has called women ‘nasty’ and ‘bitches’, and boasted about ‘grabbing them by the pussy’. He called Mexicans “rapists”, told African-Americans they were living in war zones, and suggested that all Muslims posed potential threats to security.
In counterpoint, we argued that Trump’s language should be called out as racist, and that his comments about women are entrenched in rape culture. Our students sought to make sense of the popular embrace of Trump despite of or indeed because of these attributes.
The early coverage of Trump’s win suggested that the disenfranchised of the ‘rust belt’ had voted for Trump out of ignorance, a similar view to the argument that working class Britain had made a ‘protest vote’ with Brexit. However, middle class white Americans (men and women) voted to secure their privilege, joining what commentators are calling a ‘whitelash’. Indeed it was noteworthy that 53% of white women (the ‘shy vote’) were what pushed Trump to victory. White women, especially from the Christian Right, were undisputed Trump supporters because of his anti-abortion rhetoric. These trends automatically raise questions for our students to discuss about which women support feminism and which women are anti-feminists and why?
We were also able to examine social media data showing that Black women in America were the heaviest supporters of Hillary Clinton (a White woman), and these statistics highlighted the importance of addressing the intersections of racism, sexism and class to understand how some women will identify with a misogynistic white male before someone of their own sex. This complicates the very idea of women’s natural commonality, since identity and position are always organised through class, race and gender as well as relative degrees of privilege and oppression defined through access to structural power. Meanwhile, people on the Twittersphere were weighing up whether America is “more sexist than racist”. Why is it is so common for people to say one aspect of identity is more important than the other? Can you actually tease apart these dimensions in the lived experience of Black women?
The group explored what Sampson has called mediated viral contagion, a theory explaining the way mass media repetition of images and words works to legitimise hate through what we are calling ‘Trump Pedagogy’. Behavioural contagion was evident, for instance, when young men at the University of Sydney chanted ‘Grab them by the pussy. That’s how we do it’ on campus directly after Trump’s win.
Our students worried that rape culture would flourish in a context where the man who made the original comment was now the leader of the ‘free world’.
Finally, however, returning to the pedagogical question of how to discuss these issues with young adults, teenagers and children, perhaps the most hopeful aspect of the election was the age demographic, with under 25s voting overwhelminingly in favor of Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Millennials were more repelled by racist slogans and less tolerant of misogynistic comments than were their ‘elders’.
Overall, then, we would conclude that it’s important to encourage discussion of young people’s own views and standpoints, and to not shy away from the idea that powerful leaders may be morally or materially corrupt. We need to place the logic of who leads in our poltical systems under critique and explanation, rather than sheltering young people from an analysis of institutionalised power and inequality.
Indeed we would encourage all educators to enable debate over theses issues so that young people can feel more empowered to engage in the political process. This should be defined not only through a party system and elections but everyday relationships in their lives. We need to keep reminding young people that respect, consent and consideration are tools of communication that they need to champion, even if this seems hypocritical at a time when ‘punch em in the face’ mentailty is being rewarded. Just because something has won out in the popular vote doesn’t make it right.
We concluded our session by invoking the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ and the black feminist mantra ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ (Audre Lorde), along with quotes from Michelle Obama about the significance of the messages of equality we must champion alongside young people.