The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
This American moment is a very mixed one.
On one hand, winning this election is as exciting a moment as we’ve collectively had in (what feels like) ages. In the hour following the calling of the race that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would be the next president and vice president of the United States, I made an ever-growing playlist, blasted it in my house with all the windows open, and almost got emotional. I showered, watched spontaneous celebrations around the world, and popped a bottle of rosé champagne that my refrigerator has spent way too much time with. That feeling was incredible.
But, I’ve also been clear that I was leaning into this euphoria hard because we know that there is ugly coming. The Black people in my life have almost all been using the words “race war” when discussing the time ahead. There’s a growing concern about the ways this president has emboldened his white supremacist, anti-Black, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, bigoted following.
As an aside: I’ve long abandoned the “not all of his supporters are racist or (insert egregious worldview here)” rhetoric. If you continue to support this president and do not denounce his behavior, you’re not absolved from his beliefs, his actions, and his impact. Being a sympathizing supporter makes you complicit, the silence is a harmful acceptance.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends in recent days — and watched way too much cable news — and it all helped me to shape the way that I look at the challenges ahead of us.
One friend pointed out, poignantly, that America(n white people) will have to deal with the fact that, save for COVID-19, America would’ve likely re-elected this president to a second term as president of their United States. It was devastating enough to see so many people vote for the bigotry in 2016, but it’s been quite another to see what this country has lived through for four years only to see a record-breaking 70+ million voters see him on the ballot and decide they wanted more.
Now, as we begin to figure out what rebuilding this country looks like, there’s an important question a friend asked: How do we ever trust Republicans again? He’s a congressional staffer who asks himself, “When Republicans have something to say about oversight, about standards, about what’s OK and what’s out of bounds, how do we trust them after what they allowed and co-signed with this president?”
They, the party who lays claim to patriotism and honor, put us in danger with his nomination, and shackled us there for four years by never saying “no,” never replying, “That’s too far,” never standing up and saying anything about how “this is America and we don’t this.” But, when it comes time to govern under a Biden/Harris administration, they’ll have all the insight into what’s right? They’re the people that we’re supposed to look to as a check on power?
How does an exhausted and battered America ever again rely on Republicans to be the balance when they’ve completely abdicated their responsibilities of governance, ceded their claim on any kind of moral authority, and completely betrayed the values they profess all in the pursuit of power?
When Trump allowed Russians to put bounties on the heads of our soldiers, they said nothing. He took those who dreamt only of arriving on our shores — to live our eponymous dream — and ripped their breastfeeding children from their arms, putting them in cages with no way to figure out how to return them to their parents or their home countries. They said nothing. He enacted policy that told our dedicated soldiers in uniform that they were unfit to serve because they identified as transgender. They did nothing. He denied the existence of systemic racism, calling the rallying cry of a people simply asking to be treated as human beings “a racist movement,” identifying them as terrorists. Time and time again…
This president and these Republicans have demonstrated, in great detail, the ways in which this system of government is fragile. Our institutions aren’t physical structures that stand on their own, that have a foundation from which to stand, or a structure that maintains their integrity. Our systems rely on us to keep them together and Republicans did nothing to hold up their end of the bargain.
Those across the aisle have shown us not only exactly who they are, but what they’re willing to allow, to do, and not do in service of their own power.
And once again, it was us who had to come and save America from itself. It was the Black American who was called on to save Joe Biden’s campaign. It wasn’t the states of Michigan, Georgia, or Pennsylvania that showed up and saved the day. It was the Black Americans of Detroit, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. It was the Black women who were the single largest voting bloc that supported ousting this administration and ushering a(nother) new day for this nation.
For a country that wrote laws, fought against our rights in court, closed or moved our polling places, purged us from voter rolls, enacted literacy tests on us, made us ⅗ of a human all so we couldn’t have a say, it was once again Black people who’ve made this country live up to who it says it wishes to be despite its greatest efforts to be who it has always been.
Now, the discussion is about reaching out across the aisles. Pundits, journalists, pollsters and others talk day and night about how we, progressives and liberals, need to spend more time trying to understand the voter on the other side.
“Who is this voter? How do we reach them? What do they want?” they continually ask. “Why do they feel the way they do?”
If I could interrupt their train of thought for just a moment: Black and brown folks have spent our entire lives in this country working overtime – to our detriment and harm – working to learn, to understand, to analyze, to adjust and to assimilate to who these people would have us to be for their comfort. We code-switch at work, in the grocery store, and wherever else we’re in mixed company. We wear our hair this way instead of that way because they literally made it into workplace policy. Plenty have changed or abbreviated our very names just to make it easier for them to feel more comfortable in the midst of our silent discomfort. We’ve reconsidered wearing hoodies when walking down the street, we submit ourselves to the police, and for generations performed all manner of respectability to make ourselves less threatening and more Euro-centrically pleasing. And for what?
We’ve not only reached out across the aisle, we’ve gone to the other side and sat quietly, patiently while being told to just be grateful if we were given a seat at their table.
Those days have come and gone.
If there’s anyone who needs to do some analysis of who the other side is, it’s white people. (Note: I’d say “conservatives,” or “conservative white people” but the only group who majority voted for this president not once, but twice, was white people. Also, I acknowledge that there’s nuance even in that, as support of the outgoing president is overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, white.)
When have white people ever been forced to look in the mirror to do what they’ve always expected of us? When are they expected to reach across the aisle, across the table, across the ideological spectrum, across the street, across the train tracks, or across town to try to figure out who Black and brown people are? When do they get tasked to ask: Who are queer and trans people? Who are the people who hope to come to this nation from continents that aren’t Europe? Who were/are the people native to this land? Who are the people who don’t look like them, think like them, move like, have like, want like, dream like, live like, worship like and believe like them?
This reaches back to conversations about the concept of “allyship” and the fallacy of this year’s discussion about how Black people really need their white allies to show up and support ending systemic racism and anti-Blackness. That very idea is inherently flawed. Black folks don’t need white people’s help ending what white people created. That’s not Black people’s work, that’s white people’s work. We can be their allies – if, when, and where we so choose.
Similarly, it is no longer the work of (Black and brown) liberals to try to (further) understand white people who have spent so much time working to oppress us, deny us, erase us and generally make our lives more unduly difficult. It is the work of Conservatives to try to understand the people they’ve resisted at every gift-wrapped opportunity. It is the work of Conservatives to try a little bit, for once.
Try to understand the Black people who live across the way, even if they speak, dress, or simply look differently. Try to understand the immigrant family who’s struggling to learn English, so they can live a better life here. Try to understand the queer or trans people at work, who simply want to live, exist, and love themselves, each other, and their families without someone else’s opinion affecting their rights to do either. Try to understand the poor person who doesn’t have the good choices you might, but is choosing from a list of undesirable options that you may never have the burden of understanding.
Reaching out across the aisle to understand has been our lives, but is not our work. And it never was.
But, we do have work to do.
Our work is now to hold our new leaders accountable, make clear our needs and demands, and never waiver from making sure that the most marginalized among us can feel seen, can be valued, and is free.