Dear White People: It’s Time to Stand in Our Discomfort

I have known since I lay down Tuesday night that I would write. I started composing something in my head that night as I lay in bed, alternately trying to block everything out and find that “happy place” inside–that inner peace that could exist completely independently of whatever was happening outside me, the closest I can occasionally get to meditation–and starting essays in my head. My heart was literally breaking. The feeling was physical, visceral. I had to turn the TV off around 9:30 PM, when it was looking likely that the orange devil would win Florida, North Carolina and maybe even Michigan. I physically could not bring myself to watch any more. I kept telling myself I had to go to sleep one last time still believing things might be OK.

I had bad dreams all night and woke up repeatedly. One time I would wake up thinking, Oh my God, what has happened? We are doomed; the next time I would wake up thinking, There’s simply no way this could really have happened. When I turned the TV off it was still early. Things could have changed. They must have changed. I heard text messages coming in; I refused to look at them. Maybe it was good news! If so, I would have something wonderful to wake up to in the morning. If not, at least I’d get a few more hours of sleep of the innocent. I plugged the phone in in the bathroom, far out of my reach. My best friend in California called me around 4 AM. I heard the phone ring, got up and went to check who it was; I did not answer it. I didn’t want to hear the news that the knot in my stomach told me I would hear. I wanted to be able to believe he was actually going to tell me it was OK, Hillary had won after all. If I could tell myself that for just a couple hours more, I could sleep. I could wake up not knowing.

When I say the reaction was visceral, I mean I puked. I woke up around 6 AM with a migraine after a long night of fitful sleep punctuated with nightmares. As I sat on the toilet peeing, I decided to finally let myself know the truth. I opened my email on my phone and immediately saw the headline in my daily New York Times digest. I began weeping. Uncontrollably. Big gaspy sobs and pouring snot. The full-on ugly cry. Right there on the toilet.

I could barely get out of bed the rest of the day. I threw up. I spent much of the morning in fetal position. I barely ate anything, and felt sick every time I tried to. Every hour or two, I had to retreat to the bedroom to throw myself on the bed sobbing.

What I was writing in my head Tuesday night–when nothing was certain yet but the feeling was foreboding/apocalyptic–was: “My heart is broken, even if Hillary wins, that so many people around me could possibly vote for the most hateful, racist, narcissistic, misogynistic, xenophobic sociopath ever to bully his way onto the national stage. He is a demagogue, a pathological liar, a con man and a sexual predator. It is hard to know which of those identities is the worst. He is the single most unqualified candidate we have ever had in a general election; he ran a campaign based purely on hate and division; he is endorsed by the KKK and neo-Nazi groups. Still, half the country said this was what they wanted for their leader.” And on and on and on.

Wednesday, I knew I would write, but I couldn’t quite do it yet. I couldn’t do much of anything. I could barely talk to anyone about it. I didn’t look at social media. I didn’t watch more than five minutes of the news. Just seeing his hideous orange face on TV made me nauseous all over again. I was in complete and utter despair. That terrible, hopeless kind that could drive you to suicide if it continued too long unabated. I think it might be the most desperate I’ve ever felt in my life, and I have had my share of moments of desperation and dark depression.

Thursday, I finally let myself look at social media again, read a few articles, watch a little TV. On Facebook, I see people I respect making kind overtures to their orange devil-loving Facebook friends, asking them why they voted for him, seeking to understand; others seeming almost to apologize to their orange devil-loving friends, promising to love them despite this terrible thing they had done. While I understood what they were trying to do–and prove–it still filled me with silent rage. It does not matter what reason they give for casting that ballot. Of course they’re not going to tell you, “I did it because I hate Muslims and Mexicans and black people.” They say health care was too expensive under Obamacare (because it was super-cheap before Obamacare, right?). They talk about Hillary’s emails, about Benghazi and a remark (taken out of context) she made during the hearings. Apparently, these things justify voting for someone who built an entire campaign on hate speech and inciting violence—against protesters, against his political opponent, against women, against reporters, against entire groups of people, against other countries—who had absolutely no experience, no qualifications, no interest in learning, no empathy, no understanding of policy or the Constitution, whose personal and professional life has been the definition of moral turpitude and whose political ascent was predicated on pushing the racist lie that our first Black president was not actually American.

I don’t care why you say you did it. It doesn’t matter if you marked your ballot with hate in your heart or just thinking, “He was so cool on Celebrity Apprentice!” It amounts to the same thing. You said the lives of others were worth less than your privilege.

So I don’t care why you say you did it or even why you think you did it. You voted for white supremacy.

When I ventured out of the house Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I felt my whiteness more acutely than I ever have in my life. I went to the hardware store and wanted to tell the staff who helped me—all people of color—“I didn’t vote for him!” I wanted to apologize to every person of color I saw. I looked suspiciously at every white person I saw, wondering, Did he…? Then I would realize that others were probably looking at me thinking the exact same thing, and I wanted to retreat to my bedroom to cry all over again.

Friday was a holiday. My husband had had to go back to Venezuela unexpectedly—his mother, who has been very ill for the past year, had taken a turn for the worse. I was left alone in a very dark place psychologically. I tried to keep myself busy and decided to do something nice for myself to take my mind off it, even if just for a little while: I went to get a manicure and pedicure.

I felt quite determined to stay away from it for at least that hour and a half. I brought a book with me (In Order to Survive, written by a defector from North Korea—a little light reading to cheer myself up); I promised myself to stay away from social media while I was there so that I could finally relax a little and feel normal again.

They had the local news on the TV in the nail salon.

I tried not to pay attention to the national news, but I looked up and saw the orange devil standing next to my president at the White House. I had to look away fast. I didn’t want to say anything there. I didn’t know where anyone stood, and I didn’t want to have to talk about it or even think about it while I was there.

But if you’ve ever watched local news, you’ll know that if you watch it long enough, the same story will come back on. So that one kept coming back on. Finally, I shuddered and made some remark to the effect that he made me sick. Conversation began. I unloaded. It made me feel better—a little bit, at least. I suddenly didn’t care where anyone else who was there stood. If they were supporters of the orange devil, they needed to understand that we were not on their side.

The other thing I paid attention to on the local news was the protests. There was a huge protest in downtown Miami. I was in the middle of my pedicure when I saw it, and had dinner plans with a friend in a little over an hour, so I wasn’t going to make it to that protest. But they said the protests were expected to continue over the next few days, and I vowed to myself to go to the next one.

I did. I was fortunate enough to have friends to go with. I’m glad I went. It was a much smaller one than the one on Friday, but that made it all the more important that I was there. We marched all through Wynwood, through Midtown, and nearly all the bystanders seemed to show support. Lots of cheering, honking, raised fists of solidarity. It felt so good to march with this group of people of all ages, races and ethnicities and scream that this was not our President, that he did not speak for us. It was cathartic. Productive? It is always productive to voice your dissent loud and clear. This time in particular.

Today, I went to see a screening of 13th hosted by Dream Defenders, the New Florida Majority, SEIU and Freedom Flicks. I have wanted to see it. I could have watched it on my couch on Netflix without driving forty minutes to sit in a folding chair. What I wanted was to be in community. I wanted to meet other people here who also care about these issues. I wanted to see what they were doing and how I could help. I just moved back to Miami after four years in San Francisco, and, especially in light of this week, I am anxious to find ways and places to get involved. And I met some interesting people I hope to see again.

Driving home, it all came together. My complicated feelings around that desperate, compuslive need of mine since Tuesday for the world to know that it wasn’t me, I didn’t vote for him. Not just my friends and coworkers and people on Facebook—they’ve all known that all along—but people walking down the street, working in stores; specifically, all the people of color I saw. I have never been so conscious of my whiteness. I have never felt so mortified by it. Tonight in my car I named it and let it sink in.

Yes. It’s right that I feel this discomfort. It’s right that I feel vulnerable, that I feel exposed, that I feel judgment in everyone’s glance.

White friends, I understand your grief, and I know it’s real. I am living with it too. We are grieving together–mostly for the death of a rosy vision that many of the people around us, people we know and love, never had the privilege of believing in. Now it’s time for us to stand in that discomfort and feel it. Really feel it. And think about it. And talk about it. Not just to each other, but to everyone. To other white people specifically.

These past few days, my fear has been that people targeted by the most hateful presidential campaign in the modern history of the U.S. will judge me; that they will see me and assume that, because I am white, and a majority of whites—even of white women!—voted for the orange devil, perhaps I am one of them.

The fear of that judgment has been a terrible feeling. One that has made me crawl in my own skin; that has made me reluctant to go out in public.

So far, no one has given me the slightest indication that they have reflexively judged me as a bad person meaning them harm. When I say so far, I don’t mean since Tuesday. I mean in my entire life.

That is white privilege.

What would be the possible consequences of that judgment I fear, even if it were to happen? What would actually happen to me if people of color saw me and thought, Oh, you’re white, you must be one of those racist Trump supporters?

Nothing would happen to me. Nothing at all. I would go on about my business and they would go on about theirs, most likely without ever saying a word to or about me, and that would be it.

Meanwhile, they are judged every single day. Every time they walk out their door. They are judged when they walk down the street. When they drive a car. When they go shopping. When they go out to eat. When they knock on your door to connect the cable. When they go to buy a house or rent an apartment. When they go to a job interview or even submit a resume. When their children walk into a classroom. Every. Single. Day.

What are the possible consequences of the judgment they face?

Police harassment and brutality for minor infractions that I have repeatedly been given warnings for, like speeding or having a taillight out. Felony convictions for things that my friends and I did all the time–drugs, shoplifting–that in states like the one I live in can result in losing the right to vote for life (not to mention all hope of a good job). Being passed over and/or paid less for jobs. Housing discrimination (like the kind the orange devil was sued for). Disproportionately harsh discipline in school, up to and including arrest.

In the worst of cases, death at the hands of a vigilante or a police officer, sworn to protect and serve.

Those are real consequences.

What will happen to me personally under the authoritarian reign of the orange devil? I will suffer whatever economic repercussions face the middle class. I may face diminished health care for a higher price. Like everyone on the planet, I will face the consequences of criminally negligent inaction on climate change. I will face the dangers of possible nuclear war, as he has signaled his willingness to consider using nuclear weapons and has essentially encouraged nations who do not currently have nuclear weapons to obtain them. I will face still more judgment when I travel abroad, as the world demands answers. As a woman, I will likely lose some fundamental rights; at my age and station in life, even this would probably not have a huge effect on me day to day. In short–I have plenty of legitimate reasons to be fearful for my own fate, but that fate is inextricably entwined with the fate of the entire country and, in many respects, the world.

What will not happen to me? I will not be targeted for hate crimes. No one will confront me in a parking lot with racial slurs, threatening me or even physically attacking me because of what I look like. No one will spray paint racial epithets on my car or the side of my house. My parents will not be deported or run out of town by vigilantes. I will not have to fear my neighbors, bosses or coworkers might call ICE and report me. I don’t have kids who will be the subject of taunts in school like “Build that wall,” or “Your parents are going to be deported.”

This is what white privilege feels like. When the moment that you’re the most conscious of your race you’ve ever been is when you worry that strangers you’ve never met and will probably never meet again might think you voted for the same demagogue 53% of the women of your race voted for.

And like that, I have gone from never having been so conscious of my whiteness to never having been so conscious of my white privilege.

I have also seen and heard from many people of color in the last few days that they are not surprised. I was surprised. I could not allow myself to believe that a majority of the people who looked like me were still that racist. I knew they benefited from white supremacy, but didn’t believe most ascribed to it. They just didn’t know. They didn’t realize, they didn’t understand, they were uneducated, they had been sheltered by de facto segregation, brainwashed by the way they were raised; but there was no way they could possibly vote for this fraud, for this pathological liar who was so hateful, so vile, who flouted law as if it didn’t apply to him, whether tax law or sexual assault law. Sure, there were those deplorables Hillary had rightly called out during the campaign; but they were not a majority of Americans. No one who ran a campaign that sounded more like Hitler than anyone else in modern history could win the highest office in the land.

People of color knew better.

Even those of us white people who were very conscious of structural racism didn’t understand the problem in the American mentality was this deeply entrenched, this widespread, this vengeful.

We were wrong. We were shielded from the truth by the bubble of privilege surrounding us, that bubble that let us float around our daily lives without being reflexively judged inferior, less worthy, less dignified, criminal. Not just by people passing us on the sidewalks or in supermarket aisles, but by employers, loan officers, politicians, teachers and administrators, judges, police.

I know now the bubble distorted the view from inside it, but it was always transparent; the truth was always right there, in front of me.

It is high time I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, and think about what that means—really means—and why I will never, can never, feel it the same way I would if I were not white.

White friends, I ask you to do the same. Stand in your discomfort. Feel it.

When people who have been targeted tell you they are not safe, don’t tell them these people didn’t mean it, the orange devil doesn’t mean it, none of that will happen. This country has a long, bloody history of slavery, repression, genocide and grievous human rights violations. There is no reason in the world to believe that it will not happen now–especially if we all sit here and pretend like it’s not possible. This new narrative that well, maybe he didn’t really mean any of that, maybe he’s not really so racist and xenophobic and misogynistic, it was just for TV, we should keep an open mind and see what happens before judging—please, just know that in 1922, the New York Times reported that reliable sources said Hitler wasn’t really anti-Semitic, it was just red meat for the hungry masses.

As if we needed confirmation that he was serious about what he said about Muslims, Mexicans, and just about every racial, ethnic or religious minority in this country, the orange devil just hired Steve Bannon as his senior adviser, specifying that he will have equal power to his newly appointed chief of staff Reince Priebus. That’s right, Steve Bannon of Breitbart “News.” The head of the white nationalist conspiracy theory website (and infamous Twitter troll) will now be perhaps the most powerful person in the western world—in other words, the most powerful person in the world. Let that sink in as we are told we are exaggerating, blowing it out of proportion, being sour grapes because our candidate didn’t win.

People in the groups targeted in his campaign have every right in the world to feel afraid of what might happen to them next. History teaches us that, if we care to look.

History also says that if we, white people, sit on the sidelines quietly and say, Welllll, it’s what the majority of people want, and they’re kind of intimidating, and some of them are my family and friends, so I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut, we are going to be regarded about as highly in history as all those Germans who knew that what was happening wasn’t right, but didn’t do anything, because it wasn’t happening to them.

I will not be one of those people.

Right now, it is not the responsibility people of color to rise up and protest in the streets–though they are doing it and will continue to.

White people caused this disaster. It is not up to people of color to fix it. As white people, we have a moral obligation to stand up to this.

Not after we “give him a chance” or “see what happens.” Not after January 20. Not after he deports the 3 million immigrants he’s promised to since Election Day. Not after he bans all members of the largest religion on earth from entering the country. Not after he sends gay people to “conversion therapy” with federal tax dollars (of all those taxes he never paid).

We have an obligation to stand up now.

Because we can.

Because it’s still safe for us, and probably will be, at least for a while.

Because, even if we did not vote for him, even if we fervently and ferociously campaigned against him, people we know and love voted for him. Show me the white person who doesn’t have a family member or dear friend (or two, or five, or a hundred) who voted for him, and I’ll show you a liar.

Because we have benefited from the same white supremacy we are now (rightly) protesting, whether we asked to or not.

This is not the fault of Black and brown people who didn’t vote or couldn’t vote, nor of the handful of them who voted for the oppressor. (For the record, there have always been members of the oppressed who choose the side of the oppressor for whatever selfish or complex motive; that almost 30% of Hispanic voters apparently cast ballots for him does not make him less racist or less xenophobic.) This is not the fault of “the Millennials” or the Bernie supporters (who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary). This is not the fault of those who voted third-party (though their votes certainly did nothing to help the outcome). This is not even the fault of Hillary Clinton or the Democratic Party. Neither is above reproach, but neither Hillary’s flawed candidacy nor the DNC’s shadiness is ultimately the reason we are facing a minimum of four years of racist, authoritarian “leadership” under a demagogue making a cruel mockery of our most valued democratic institutions.

We are facing a minimum of four years of racist, authoritarian “leadership” because a majority of white voters decided that a narcissistic billionaire who bankrupted his businesses and hasn’t paid his taxes in 20 years was the candidate who best represented their views and interests. And that includes 53% of white women.

Because they found it preferable to vote for a vile demagogue, who incites and promises violence against those with the least political and economic power in the country, rather than for a woman with extensive experience, albeit a mixed record, who carelessly used a private email server.

Because at the end of the day, protecting white supremacy superseded all else, whether they admit it or not.

Each time there is a terrorist attack, Muslims across the world are expected to denounce it publicly, as if they were personally responsible for the actions of someone they had never met. Every day, white people place an expectation on minority groups that they be accountable for the actions of every single member of their group, no matter how tangentially the offender was connected to their group, no matter whether they knew them personally or not. When a Muslim-American commits a horrifying mass murder, it’s called “radical Islamic terrorism” and white politicians and media pundits call on the entire Muslim community to speak out in condemnation. When a white person commits a horrifying mass murder, he is called a “lone wolf” on TV, a “disturbed loner with a history of mental illness.” No one calls on all white people in the country to either publicly condemn his actions and ideology or else be perceived as aiding and abetting the terrorism.

Now it’s time for us white people to take responsibility for the words and actions of our people. After all, we’re not even talking about the words or actions of one individual. We are talking about 60 million voters. It’s our turn to feel judged for the words and actions of the most reprehensible among us. People of color have every right to be angry, to feel threatened, to look at us with suspicion, to expect us to prove that we are serious about fighting this.

In the streets, at work, at school, at the ballot box, in the newspapers, on social media, we have to stand up and say, No. Not in my name, you don’t.

 Trump does not speak for me. This country belongs to all of us. We will not stand for this.

 White people built this beast. White people must slay it.

 

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