Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office were marked over the weekend by a 200,000-person march for climate justice in Washington, DC, multiple solidarity actions around the country, and a plethora of news stories marking the new administration’s blunders and decisions. It is fair to say, even if the world isn’t completely different than it was 100 days ago, the presence of racism, science denial, misogyny, wealth-worship, consolidation of corporate power and overall crudeness in mainstream behavior and political discourse has gained new acceptance.
At the same time, collaborations among activists and progressive groups are happening at higher rates, along with deeper agreements on the intersectionality of complex struggles. This is good. What is not good is a creeping sense of normalcy that threatens to anesthetize the outrage and shock felt by many late on the night of November 8, 2016. Trump’s administration did not create anything new — it merely highlighted and normalized an ugly side of the US zeitgeist. But still, 100 days later, it’s important to remember how we felt in the hours after the election, the days surrounding the inauguration, the early weeks of executive orders that struck fear, anger and despair in the hearts of families all over the world.
That’s why I’d like to share the piece below, a half a year down the line from the US presidential election of 2016. We must resist a new “normal” that pushes us backwards on the path to justice; we must embrace hard conversations and commit to transformation. More simply, we must all decide — and really believe — that together we can make a better world.
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White Complacency and the Subway (November, 12, 2016)
This morning, I saw a woman on the subway wearing an Indians cap. Not the innocuous “C” for Cleveland cap, but the cap with the cartoon rendition of an Indian brave, bright red with a leering, big-toothed smile, flanked by a feather. The cap-wearer was a white woman, like me, wearing earbuds and sitting alone.
Like many New Yorkers, I woke up on November 9, 2016, with a sick feeling in my stomach, a despair and disbelief such as experienced after the death of a loved one. But I got up, rode the subway and found comfort in the diversity of the city, the multiple languages spoken, the clothes, the music, the viewpoints, the spices wafting out of food carts and restaurants. I also found great comfort in the thing New Yorkers are often reviled for — the bubble we live in. I felt supported by the knowing half-smiles exchanged with strangers, the exasperated eye-rolls, all seeming to say, “We are in this together.” We live in this city for its inclusions and freedoms, and we enjoy them so much it’s sometimes difficult to understand why anyone would be angry about that, or want to take them away.
And then the woman in the Indians cap. A couple of months ago, I might have just glanced and gone back to my iPhone. But in the week following the election the hat seemed more meaningful; this was not just a woman trying to get from A to B, but a white person unapologetically sporting a racist symbol, penetrating my progressive oasis with impunity, pride and even vindication. In the context of the white supremacist movement rejuvenated and fomented by ourpresident-elect, the days of a hat just being a hat are over.
Some are making the best of it. Even President Obama implored the country to support the transition to the new regime, calling this an “intramural scrimmage” we all need to move beyond so we can work together. But I can’t shake the feeling that some fundamental threshold of safety and compassion has been crossed. For white people anyway.
In conversation with friends and colleagues of color, it is clear that threats of violence, both insidious and overt, are nothing new, having been woven for centuries into the fabric of their everyday lives. Even though a president-elect endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan should be terrifying to all, this might just be a more sinister shade of an America many people of color are already used to experiencing.
For white progressives, one reason this election might be hitting so hard is we’re not used to daily confrontations with the more hateful histories on which our country was founded. That’s the crux of white privilege — walking through life with the assumption that we are more or less safe and more or less welcomed, more or less wherever we go. White privilege is that chip we cash in all too often, that choice to remain silent, that ability to separate a racist image from our politics, our feelings, our conversations with our kids. Something we don’t often talk about is the responsibility that comes with it: the duty to name ourown white supremacy and bear the burden of shutting it down.
But whites help no one if we show up in the wrong way, freshly enlightened, still carrying the old entitlements that got us all in this mess to begin with. Learning the right vocabulary is not enough; no one will be proud of you for screaming “Black Lives Matter” from a lamppost with a roiling crowd below. White men in particular will be challenged in the next four years to dismantle what they were taught, because from them, simply being present and standing in solidarity is often what’s needed most, and the first step toward unlocking their own liberation will most likely be a step back.
Sitting on the subway, I looked — really looked — at the grotesque image on that Indians cap, and I thought about the integrity of the allied Indigenous Water Protectors who are putting their bodies on the line to stop the Dakota Access pipeline from ripping through the land of the Standing Rock Sioux, and from putting the area’s water supply in grave danger. I thought about the centuries of resistance that came before this stand, the courage it demands today, and how from Flint, the Gulf Coast, fracklands, the borders of Texas and California, communities of color are hit first and worst by the ravages of unchecked extraction and environmental degradation. I thought about the connection between poisoned environments and racism, between extraction and riches, and the platforms that continue to propel ourpresident-elect.
And then we rolled into 59th Street, and the woman got off the train. I’ll never know how she would have reacted, or what both of us might have learned had I been courageous enough to move to her side and just ask her about that hat she was wearing. But what I did learn was this: The time for avoiding those uncomfortable conversations is over, for white people in particular. That’s the least I can give, but it’s a start. The time for listening is now, the time for solidarity is now, as is the time for stepping back so that we may all step forward.