During the 2016 election, a friend said to me: “There’s no one running who represents me.” He was middle-aged, white, with a successful business—hetero, educated, and well-traveled. I thought—What the fuck are you talking about?
Okay, maybe his political views were not represented by any one candidate. But, whose are? When you choose a President, you are not choosing someone who is going to represent you specifically. You are choosing the person most capable of improving the system as a whole, the person most able to weigh everything out and offer fair, just legislation that makes everyone’s lives better.
Yet, so many people think and vote like my friend—even though those people tend to be the ones who have everything they need already.
I want people to be better. But how can they be when we live in a system that insists on competition as an ultimate good? When we are literally competing every day for the money to buy our basic human rights—food, shelter, healthcare— it’s no wonder a “me” society exists.
Thomas Sankara, revolutionary and powerful leader of Burkina Faso, condemned the capitalist system as “structurally unjust and periodically unhinged.” As people fight against the injustice of police officers who regularly murder innocent black people in this country, those words stir the imagination and beg the question: Are we, even on our best days, systemically unhinged?
Yesterday, I saw a picture of a homeless black man holding a sign that read, “When You Are Silent, You Allow Violence.” It made me wince. The last time I heard the phrase Silence=Violence, it was being shouted at me by “R,” a white guy I know with a good job and a nice home.
It’s a long story, but suffice to say R had done something awful to me. When I attempted to speak to him about it, he quickly slid into deeply offensive attacks on my person, attacks that were hurtful, manic, and compulsive. So, I stopped talking to him. It was all I could do to keep myself protected. At first perplexed, then deeply offended, and finally outraged by my silence, he berated me in emails and called me abusive and violent for not returning his calls—even titling one email “Silence=Violence.”
R is the kind of toxic white male who has been given respectful audience and an easy ride his whole life. His free leg up the ladder allows him a sense of entitlement he will fight like a dog to maintain.
But I admit I was surprised by his vicious and aggressive reaction. R is someone who considers himself woke. I know he is marching for Black Lives Matter today. I am sure he is having many energetic conversations about how George Floyd was wronged and about the terrible state of racism in this country. R has a Bernie sticker on his car and attended the women’s march. He will sit at the dinner table and lobby against toxic masculinity in a gentle voice with a look of deep disapproval and concern, an act I bought at first.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Here in western Massachusetts, R lives in a community of mostly Democrats. They feed him, so he stays in their camp, repeats their mantras, and then settles himself in for a life without struggle and with the means to pontificate when he wants.
In his essay “Corn Pone Opinions,” Mark Twain quotes a slave he very much admired who said, “Show me where a man gets his corn pone, and I’ll tell you his opinions.” The idea is that in a capitalist society, we align ourselves and our values by who gives us our sustenance and self-approval. R is the perfect example. If Republicans fed him, there he would be, the same man doing the same things.
Of course, my silence was not violence, and he was in no danger at all from me. It was absurd. Yet, when confronted with the absurdity of it, R repeated the phrase over and over, as if it was a truth so true I couldn’t possibly understand.
This appropriation of language is right out of the narcissist’s playbook and the same tactic used by dictators and politicians from the beginning of time. James Baldwin wrote about language subversion, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.”
Clearly, my silence threatened Rs reality and sent him into a tailspin. But think of All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. Like those co-opters who purposely reconstructed the Black Lives Matter slogan to shame blacks for standing up for themselves, R wanted to shame me and rob me of my power. For a moment, it worked. I felt a deep pang as if I had done something truly wrong, and I questioned whether the silence, meant for my own self-care, could be considered abuse.
Today, I watch as so many people try to explain to All Lives and Blue Lives people why their new slogans hurt. It’s an absurd display in which the victims must school the perpetrators about their own hate and abuse.
Words alone are that powerful. Look at how Trump manipulates language. We all know he is doing it, but the language itself is so impactful, we doubt ourselves in the face of it, and its misuse creeps into our consciousness. The two men are the same in my mind, whether they hold up a protest sign or the Bible or whether they are on the top of the biggest heap or just on top of the one I’m on.
I’ve spent a good part of today wondering how R is reacting to the Silence=Violence signs everywhere just now. Does he acknowledge to himself that he stole it and abused it? Or does he march proudly with his chest puffed and his own sign high, knowing he is untouchable?
A few days ago, after many months, R texted me “I love you”—words again used so dramatically out of context, all I could do was shake my head. What could possibly be their use?
I’ve been moved by the recent videos shared by black Americans on social media in which they explain, with such elegance, the truths about racism to a white audience. As an empathetic person who considers herself almost totally white, I cannot begin to understand the full scope of that trauma.
My DNA goes back to Spain and Mexico, but I was adopted and raised by white people. My skin is olive toned, my hair is dark brown, and I do occasionally get reminded that I might not look like the average white person, mostly by men who want to know my “heritage” as they look me up and down. If I have been discriminated against more than that, I have been almost too blind to have noticed.
But I have a 21-year-old son. He’s darker than me with beautiful brooding dark eyes and long curly hair. He looks like he could be Hispanic or Mediterranean or possibly Muslim. He grew up in Greenfield, MA where most people accepted him as white and where he identified, for the most part, as part of white society. But now he’s older, and he tells me that when he walks down the street outside of his hometown, people look at him aggressively. No one smiles as he passes, but they often scowl.
During his first semester away at college in Baltimore, he returned to his dorm room after class to find the campus police searching all his stuff. They said there were reports he was selling drugs, and they interrogated him for three hours. He called me afterwards in tears completely clueless as to why he had been singled out. When I called the administration to complain, they told me he was lucky they didn’t find anything. I called and left long messages on the voicemails of the president and other head administrators for weeks. I wrote emails and contacted the ACLU in Baltimore and was met with more voicemails. My son couldn’t go to class. He was traumatized. And, no, he wasn’t selling drugs.
Luckily, the student body rallied around him, recognizing the injustice, and he found in his friends some great relief.
But two years later, he decided to study abroad in Prague. Study abroad is mandatory at his school, so off he went. Immediately, he was faced with living in an apartment with a group of white kids from California, who had traveled together with the plan of partying till they dropped. My son is an artist, a feminist, and someone whose artist/teacher parents are not rich. In our first phone call after he arrived, he told me with disappointment that his new roommates pumped their fists and hollered every time one of them had to pee and constantly talked badly about women and the Czechs.
He knew right away he couldn’t hang with them. So, alone in a foreign country, he made his way. He figured out where the grocery store was, where he could buy some cool clothes, and where the skate park was while other students participated in school trips and outings, which cost upwards of $500 a weekend, that he couldn’t afford.
One day, he was in the grocery store when he noticed some Czech men standing outside the grocery window staring at him at the checkout. Alerted, he got his groceries, put them in his back pack, and headed out the door, careful to not make eye contact. But the men stopped him anyway, shouting in his face, pushing his shoulder, and making wild aggressive gestures. He was terrified and confused and made his way back inside the grocery store for help. The teller just shrugged, and when he went back out, the men accosted him again, this time pushing him up against a wall.
Eventually, a man in fatigues who spoke English came over. He apparently worked at the store and said that those men worked for him and were just “messing around.” My son cried all the way home, got a fever, and didn’t leave the apartment for five days. Two weeks later, he had a massive panic attack alone in the apartment when all the rich kids had gone away on holiday. Three days later, after reaching out to a girl in his class and sleeping on her couch because he was afraid to go outside, he quit the program and came home to deal with the anxiety the trauma had caused.
Because we live in the safety of the Pioneer Valley, it took us some time to put together the pieces. My son was being targeted because of his color, whether for being perceived as Muslim or hispanic or what I am still not sure. But, like a slow dawning that becomes clearer every day, I realized, with horror, that the world we thought was safe for us is not. I sometimes wake up in alarm now from dreams where he is being taken into custody or beaten on the street because of the color of his skin, those beautiful dark eyes, and gorgeous hair.
What’s worse is I don’t have any advice for him as he goes out into the world. I can’t tell him what tactics disarm white people walking down the street or how to stay alert without experiencing panic or falling prey to one’s self-doubt. With growing dread, my eyes open, and I can feel just a little bit how traumatizing, how utterly crippling it must be to be born black in America.
Three weeks ago, I had another encounter, less traumatizing, but that’s the point. A landlord in Easthampton had an apartment for rent priced much lower than market value. He said he wanted to help single mothers who were struggling financially, a miracle for a single mother of two in a pandemic. But when I met with him, he spent 45 minutes barking at me about all the different ways he could evict me if I didn’t live by his rules, puffing his chest and raising his voice to prove his own value. Literally, 45 minutes without asking anything more than my name. Near the end, he said, “We’re good people. Not Trumpers.” There again: toxic masculinity parading as moral high ground. But this time I saw it. After his display was over, he said we “looked” like good people and could have the apartment. I thanked him, got in the car, and never looked back.
A year ago, I would have given R my ear. A year ago, I told my son he was likely being paranoid while he walked down the street. A year ago, I would have given that landlord my money and bowed to his demands. And my friend who votes for those candidates that serve his interests–is no longer my friend.
The Trump presidency has at least opened my eyes. I can quickly identify examples of toxic inequality when before I let them slide by. I’ve also been lucky that my life is always balanced by the good. In my recent search for a place to live, so many friends reached out to lend a hand. I am always in touch with a kind and intelligent community that teaches me something new about awareness, equality, and generosity every day. I’ve been able to write and feel deeply loved and, besides the coronavirus trips to the grocery store, generally safe. I don’t think this has anything to do with privilege. I think it has to do with the fact that while we all are, at some point, unhinged by the systems we’ve created, many of us are also still holding on to decency and clarity of mind and spirit.
But on this day when thousands march in the streets and white police officers beat them down with tear gas and batons, I want people to be out there and rage. I think rage is a normal and necessary response. I want us to fight like we’ve never fought before for Black Lives and for a full-scale systemic healing and restructuring. It’s what we desperately need.
But to be honest, I don’t know whether I have hope for that or not. Not with so many Rs in the world, not with the kind of complacency going to the hairdresser allows, not with the kind of distrust and competition we deem normal.
I’m reminded of Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” when in the final paragraph, she likens human beings to identical bags filled with different broken bits of this and that, all so similar that you could change the contents without any noticeable result.
I’ve loved how that metaphor proclaims our sameness. But today, I think only of the broken bits themselves.