We’re going to start with a story and end with a reading list.
At some point in my childhood, I over heard a conversation between my mom and her mother. I don’t remember when, and I certainly don’t remember what they were discussing. All I remember is one of them turning to me afterwards and telling me that not choosing was making a choice.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Not just in terms of politics and elections and the United States, but in terms of how I’m living my life. I’ve written before about how I don’t want to live passively, or out of fear, or from despair. What becomes us? Action.
I don’t want to live in a world where my friends feel their very identities and experiences completely dismissed by the leader of our nation.
It is absolutely no secret that I supported Hillary Clinton in this campaign, but I’m not here to argue why she should have won the presidency (and you know, did, by the popular vote). I’m also not here to yell at everyone who voted for Trump, whether I know them or not. In my experience, yelling at people tends to make them more likely to do exactly what you’re telling them not to do.
And that, I think, is the heart of the problem. Telling. Yes, this election was entirely vitriolic, and yes, we were steeped in it for well over a year, which was far too long. The primaries were bitter, and the election itself was even worse. But even the most vitriolic of campaign ads–and there were plenty on both sides–aren’t what I’m getting at here.
What I’m getting at is this: The moment we stop listening to those with different experiences and accept our own struggles as the only truth is the moment we lose the war.
As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy. How do I connect with the people who read what I write? Do I understand other view points and recognize their validity? What impact does another person’s experience have on me and on my writing? How do I experience their opinions? Do I recognize they have different opinions? How do I communicate my own experiences in a way that draws people in rather than shutting them out?
I want to be clear on two things. The first is that I am not advocating that people of color have to sit down with racists and teach them how to be better people. I’m not asking POC to babysit white Americans. That would be ridiculous.
… the second thing?
I was not surprised by the results of this election. Disappointed, yes, even horrified–but not surprised. If you want to tell me you voted for Trump because you didn’t want four more years of the same old (although from an employment rate and national deficit point of view, Obama’s done pretty well), and not because you’re racist or misogynistic, then… fine. We’re never going to agree on Obama’s presidency, but that’s not the point. Keep reading, please.
Like I said, I was disappointed but not surprised with this outcome. Perhaps this is cynical, but I have always believed that human beings are inherently selfish; we care primarily for the interests of ourselves and our immediate surroundings. The reality of the situation is that a large majority of white Americans–especially those without college educations–feel alienated from our country. Feel they don’t have a voice and they aren’t represented. Feel like nothing is working for them. Feel like Donald Trump speaks like them and for them. The second thing is just this:
That is a valid feeling.
We cannot dismiss the concerns of middle class white Americans; their emotions have merit, even if they sometimes feel more like the concerns of dying white privilege than of legitimate suffering to our own (privileged, probably college educated, probably upper middle class or city-dwelling) minds.
Here’s the catch: every single person of color I know has experienced these problems every day in this country. Acting like you (if you are white) are the only one not being heard by your government is not only ridiculous, it’s small-minded and self-centered.
As a Christian, I believe we are all equal in the eyes of God. As an American, I believe we are all equal in the eyes of the law. As a realist, I recognize the latter isn’t actually true.
Most people growing up in white suburbs probably don’t spend the next fifteen years of their lives in major metropolitan areas learning how to think about race and intersectionality from their peers. When you move from suburbia to spend most of your adolescence split between two of the largest cities in the United States, you end up surrounded by a lot of diverse stories that are (naturally) different than your own. A lot of that difference seeps into you: sometimes only if you’re paying attention, but a lot of times by necessity and choice. I learned different behaviors, different cultures, different beliefs.
I learned to check biases, reject stereotypes, and open my mind and heart up to those around me. I have said stupid things, done stupid things, and learned to ask forgiveness and change my ways and words. I have lived a very privileged life, and I am aware of that.
Forgetting even for a second that Christians profess a faith that calls us not just to love our neighbors but to care for the oppressed and lift up the downtrodden… I don’t want to live under a president whose entire rhetoric hinges around denying the statue for which our country is so famous:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
I don’t want to start a blog war here.
But if we’re going to change this country of ours–and whatever side of the argument, I think we can all agree we need a change–we cannot sit this out. It is our responsibility to listen to each other, and I don’t mean in a it’s Thanksgiving dinner so I have to put up with my racist uncle or overly liberal aunt sort of way.
I mean in a constructive, critical way. A “working to understand each other’s fears and working past them” kind of way. A “don’t let Trump ruin our work to save the environment” kind of way. A “deconstructing racism and smashing the patriarchy” kind of way. (Does that make you uncomfortable? Let’s talk about that. What part makes you uncomfortable? Why?)
An “asking questions and actually listening thoughtfully to the answers” kind of way.
Racism is alive and rampant in America, and hey, White Americans? we need to listen humbly and carefully. Let me say this one time, just in case you hadn’t thought of it: WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE VICTIMS OF SYSTEMIC RACISM.
So if you’re white, and you voted: look around you. Did you speak up? Did you try to explain? Did you listen to the other side? Remember that not choosing is a choice. Remember that our silence makes us complicit. Did you know Donald Trump won the election with fewer votes than Mitt Romney had when he lost in 2012? Yeah. That happened.
If you’re a person of color: I know we are past apologies, but I am sorry. I am here, I am listening, I am learning as best I can. I promise you, I am going to milk this white privilege for all its worth in as many ways as I can. I admit I’m new at this, and I’m sorry for that. I’m usually side-liner to the drama in politics.
But democracy doesn’t just belong to those who show up. It belongs to those who make others show up, too.
So no, I’m not proud to be an American tonight. I’m not particularly pleased to be a white protestant woman tonight, either, and frankly after hearing Hillary Clinton’s concession speech I pretty much want her to be our president now more than ever.
I realize that’s not going to happen. She had her chance, and she didn’t win it. I’m still going to stand with her, though: we are stronger together than we are divided.
Republicans: there is a lot of weight on you in this. I disagree with pretty much everything Trump stands for, and I’m horrified about what he could do for our work to quite literally save our planet. I wish you wisdom and patience and success in leading our country well. Democrats and everyone else: this is not the end. The presidency exists with a set of checks and balances for a reason. Policy changes take a lot of time, and mid-term elections are less than two years away.
These years are not going to be easy on any political party. Everyone has some major regrouping to do. But these years are going to be even harder on all minorities, from people of color to the LGBTQ communities to any and all with disabilities. We need to listen. We need to empathize. Change starts on the individual level, within each of our communities. We are still Americans, whatever our thoughts on Trump’s presidency, and if we want to keep this messy country of ours moving forward instead of slipping into the past we need to pay attention to who our neighbors really are.
And if all our neighbors are exactly like us–whether that means entirely liberal or entirely conservative–we need to think about why that is and what it means.
It’s been a long day. Since I’ve already admitted I think we’re all selfish, I might as well admit that I’m really glad you can’t see me right now. I’ve been crying on and off all day and despite the bubble bath I took in an attempt to soothe my body (if not my spirits), my eyes are swollen and blotchy and itchy and red. I am sad, and I will weep a while longer.
But tomorrow is a new day, and despite what I count as discouragement and despite what I believe about human nature…
I intend to choose that good and fight for it with all of my might.
I’m not a politician. I’m not old or particularly wise. I’m a twenty-four year old well-educated girl whose heart feels rather battered today and who’s worried for a lot of her friends.
All I have is a bundle of regrets from this election and, hopefully, a few sticks of hope that haven’t quite been snuffed out yet. Our country is built on more than just the presidency. If we want the next election to be different, this cannot be our Burn Eliza moment. We cannot, as we might wish, flee the country and take ourselves out of the narrative if we want for anything to change. This cannot be our Wait For It moment.
This has to be our History Has Its Eyes On You moment. Our Who Tells Your Story Eliza moment. We have to recognize that the world is watching us and waiting to see what will come from this. We have to put ourselves back in the narrative. We have to show up.
So when, with me, you’re done weeping a little longer–whether from joy or sorrow–let’s stop wasting time on tears. Let’s live another fifty years. This is not the first time our country has been torn apart by an election, but if we work to educate each other, build empathy, and stop considering each other as terrifiying, perhaps–perhaps–it could be the last.
In the mean time: I’m going to take my normal tools and throw them at this quandry until they stick. Stay informed. I’ve done a pretty measly job at this over the years–I prefer fiction to non–but life isn’t about what I like to read. Escapism doesn’t solve problems.
Modern America: A Post-Election Reading List
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips (also the Fresh Air segment on NPR)
- Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
(I know most of these are focused on the African-American community and experience; if you have works about the experiences of other minorities in the US, let me know! I’m compiling a list and I want to read them all.)
If you’ve stuck it out with me thus far, thank you. This is a mess of feeling and concern for our country and our communities that is not solely rooted in our president-elect, but decidedly exacerbated by it. If you have any insights you want to share: I am listening. I want to do better. We have so, so much to talk about and so, so much to learn from each other.
Remember–the President speaks on behalf of the American people, but he cannot speak for the American people. Speak up loudly and frequently.
Somewhere today, a girl was watching Hillary Clinton concede the presidential race. And maybe, just maybe, she thought–one day, I’m going to be president. Somewhere else, another girl was thinking the same thing.
Maybe one day they’ll run on the same ticket. Maybe one day they’ll run on opposing tickets. Either way, they’ll take the world by storm.
Whatever happens, however long or short it takes, I want to be there to see it.