Speaking Out Against Trump: What Elementary School Taught Me About Right and Wrong

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Back in elementary and junior high school, I sat through a lot of school assemblies. I learned from Nancy Reagan not to do drugs. Smokey the Bear told me that only I can prevent forest fires. I was told not to smoke, and while I wasn’t taught abstinence, there was a healthy dose of sex ed mixed in as well. One of the assemblies, though, had to do with bullying and what it meant to being a bystander to inappropriate language. We were told that if someone makes a “joke” or says something that is demeaning about another group of people or a person, then we have a responsibility to stand up and say something. If we don’t, then we are equally complicit in what was said. I’ll admit, more than all the other things I learned in assemblies, this lesson was the hardest for me. It’s difficult when a bunch of your friends are making a “joke” and you don’t want to seem like the “Debbie Downer” in the room. I distinctly reminder, not long after this assembly, standing next to classmates who were making jokes about “retarded kids,” and yet I said nothing. I smiled weakly and shifted my feet, but my words got stuck in my throat. I didn’t want to be the uncool kid who was going to call them out. But I clearly felt guilty at the time for not speaking up and that feeling has stayed with me ever since.

Flash forward to today, and we are witnessing the inability of many Americans to stand up and speak out against denigrating speech in this country. We watch mutely and listen to the President offer tweet after tweet in which he demeans immigrants, people of color, and transgendered individuals (to name just a few groups). In his most recent tweet, he suggests that four U.S. Congresswomen, who happen to be women of color, “go back” to the countries from where they came (this despite three of them being born in the U.S.). This is bald racism and even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called Trump out on this, rightly noting that “Make America Great Again,” is little more than “making America white again.”

Like many Americans, I have been disturbed, angered, and repulsed by so many of Trump’s tweets and statements, but in some ways, as much as I find him personally vile, my antipathy is not for him, but for the countless other Americans who are not speaking out against him and are supporting him. In fact, many Republican politicians are not speaking out against him as they fear angering the President or his base. Like the hesitant kid in the schoolyard, they don’t want to anger the bully on the playground.

No one likes to be called a “racist.” It immediately raises people’s hackles and they become defensive. And yet many “upstanding” Americans who voted for Trump are keeping silent whenever he issues such statements. Many such Trump supporters claim that they aren’t racist, but if that’s the case, then why aren’t they saying anything? Are they not embodying this very basic lesson that I was taught back in elementary school which is that if you don’t speak up against something, then you’re part of the problem?

After the 2016 presidential election, we heard more and more about Trump’s base: non-college-educated white voters. But non-college-educated individuals don’t own the monopoly on racism. In fact, last time I checked, not being college-educated doesn’t make you a racist. There are many Trump supporters (suburban white women and well-heeled businessmen, to name a few) out there who voted for Trump and/or support him now because they believe in his fiscal policies; these Republicans are fiscal conservatives, and that’s fine. But if these individuals are repulsed by what he is saying about people of color and immigrants, then it is their moral duty to speak up. It is their duty to call their Republican representatives and say, “this is not okay.” The demonizing and denigration of groups of people for the sake of “fiscal conservatism” is not acceptable.

Many Democrat voters are incensed over Trump’s many utterances. We can call our Democratic representatives to do something, but we’re preaching to the choir. Rather, it’s up to the Republicans to speak up. If you’re not racist, xenophobic, transphobic, etc, then SPEAK UP. It’s not enough to shrug your shoulders. You voted him and other Republicans into power. If Trump’s statements and actions don’t reflect your morals or ethics, then SPEAK UP. While I don’t identify as a Republican, I know enough that being a Republican doesn’t automatically make someone a racist or a bigot. But if you standby and condone such language, you’re not much better than the person who uttered the statement to begin with.

If elementary school kids can learn this basic difference between right and wrong, then I think we can as well.

Warren Hoffman is the author of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical and The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture.

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