Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Understanding the Uncomfortable

I’m a white cisgender able-bodied straight woman in New England. I am unlikely to get shot by cops, harassed for my religion, deported, drafted for a nuclear war, or, really, have much worse happen to me under Trump’s administration than have more job prospects disappear, the planet melt, and my access to birth control further limited. My chances of being sexually assaulted are still about one in five, although that may increase if Trump’s ascendancy makes sexual predators feel more entitled. So, largely, I can write safely and compassionately about understanding the white working class frustration that fueled Trump. As I find myself saying frequently, understanding is not the same as condoning.

It’s not, exactly, that I am surprised that Trump won—just stunned and saddened because the rhetoric of his campaign was so vitriolic, and I hate that so many people found resonance with that anger. I suspect that the anger of many of Trump’s almost entirely White voters has more to do with a fear of losing identity, of wanting to make sure that, in a growing and changing and browning and gender-changing America, there is still a place for them, for the life and the values they know.

That fear of being left behind, of losing your place, losing a place, in the world, I understand. My father once stood up in a crowded bookstore, in an almost entirely female audience, to ask Terry Tempest Williams a question. Williams was on a book tour for When Women Were Birds, about her relationship to her mother and the women in her family, and my father’s question was, “where is your father in all of this, does he have a place in this story?”

Williams answered warmly that her father did, and my dad sat down, and I deeply regret that I can’t remember now if I ever told him how proud I was of that moment, what I learned in it. To me, that exchange, crystallized my understanding that as movements for social change go forward, that as Progressives work for equal rights, representation, and opportunities for women, Black, Brown, LGBTQ, immigrants newer to America than ourselves, and non-Christian people, we cannot overlook that to change the country—as I believe we must—this is going to intrinsically make, particularly, straight White men feel like they don’t have a place anymore. That lack of inclusion is a disservice, and as it turns out, a disservice that is dangerous to everyone.

I don’t believe that White America is under an assault, that we need to let straight WASP dudes be in charge again forever because they get sad (or dangerous to everyone else) when they don’t get all the seats at the table, but I do think that, as Progressives, we have been narrow-minded and unkind when it comes to this issue. We have not embraced diversity that did not agree with our ideals. We have not been open-hearted, we have not understood that shifting the balance of power is as out and out shitty for some as it is bold and beautiful for others.

That said, it is an unacceptable response to our liberal idealistic ignorance to have misogynistic, climate change denying, White Supremacist billionaires running the country.

I don’t know what to do about it, exactly, but I do know that I am open to almost all suggestions. I think that Progressives like myself will have to change our tactics, because all of the pot-luck rallies, listening sessions, membership drives, candlelit vigils, direct actions, writing letters to Congress, laboring for policy changes in a corrupt system, Black Lives Matter marches, bike lanes, and all the rest that we—that I—have put such idealistic faith in, believing that by doing so we were curving the arc of history so sharply to justice, these activities have not been enough, this time.

Which isn’t to say we should cease to do whatever both feels good for our souls and is socially effective. My faith in that arc of history is shaken and I am appalled at my own ignorance at how long the arc is, how hard progress is to come by and sustain, but I’m not giving up on justice.

How we go forward has been the grief soaked question of Progressives this week. Real things—a registry for Muslims in America, a climate denier at the head of the EPA, a tacit affirmation of White Supremacy at the highest level of national government, Trump selecting Supreme Court justices—are happening. The fox is in the henhouse, and no amount of good intentioned hand wringing will take it out again. For a hopeful people—Idealists, Liberals, Progressives—we need to grieve, and accept reality. Not submit to it, but accept it.

As an environmentalist, I have long been reconciling myself to the reality that we cannot go back in time, that the damage of climate change is irreversible, that all the best energies and efforts cannot hold back the tides already risen and still rising. We can mitigate the damage, we can build for a more sustainable and resilient future, but we cannot erase what we have done. And, we have done this, but failing to understand the perspectives of those who see the world differently. Everyone can embrace the alternate realities of Harry Potter and Westeros, but we cannot understand our own families, our own fellow citizens, and how they world and their eroding or aspirational place in it differently than our own values and experience?

We cannot change the past, we do not get a do over. Instead, we go forward with the best that we can, we do all the things—protesting, rallying, running for office, stepping down from privilege to let others step up, listening and understanding. And this includes understanding why Trump won—because many people were scared of losing what they have, losing who they are, and finding their beliefs unrepresented in government.

I believe that same fear of loss of identity and power is at the root a lot of the Progressive angst and sorrow this week—we thought the world was leaning one way, our way, and it tilted over “against us.” This may be the most uniting force in our country at present—if we can remember that most of us aren’t evil, we just want to be seen and heard, to have a place and a purpose, and the pride of our families. 

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