You know, there’s only one real way I’ll ever really be able to describe last week, Nov. 7-11, 2016. That week was a total dumpster fire, so vast in its width and depth that we can still see the orange glow of flames deep below the bags of trash on the surface. It’s like we threw the world into the dumpster, gathered up every highly flammable thing we possibly could, put it all in the biggest black bags we could find, doused the whole thing in gallons and gallons of gasoline and lit it with a blowtorch.
Depending on how you feel about the presidential election results in the United States, you may find that metaphor to be an understatement or an over-exaggeration. And that’s fine — I don’t really need your opinion to legitimize the way I feel about it. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my family and friends, and every day the shock of the results wears off a little bit. But I’m still sad, and I’m still angry, and I’m still worried. I’ve thought about writing this post for days, but wondered what contribution my opinion would make to the noise and if I could even effectively articulate it.
It’s taking me awhile to sort through all my feelings about my nationality and how the people of this country think about the concept of me, and I recognize my privilege as a white, heterosexual woman in that process. There are millions of people in this country whose lives have always been in much more danger, and this turn in our country’s history has made those lives even more precarious.
I’m extremely nervous about how the president-elect, his administration and the Republican-owned Congress will dismantle the progressive legislature and initiative in this country. But I’m more upset about something else. The vitriolic rhetoric of his campaign made ignorant white people think it’s okay to do and say hateful things about minority groups under the guise of making the country great again. America has never been great for everyone, with a history steeped in inequality and violence. From the very beginning, minority groups have been denied their rights and fought to their literal deaths for just the tiniest sliver of the so-called American dream. Relatedly, one of the things that has stuck with me the most from this election is this passage from a New Yorker article about Trump supporters (emphasis mine):
In the broadest sense, the Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself.
And for the white people who didn’t vote for him or didn’t vote at all, we’re still complicit in that behavior. I feel guilty about living in a liberal bubble, and not truly realizing how ubiquitous white supremacy really is in other parts of the country. I feel guilty about not making an active effort to canvass for my candidate. I feel guilty about not calling out the people I know who supported a racist, sexist and xenophobic candidate. I used to think I was a pretty informed person, but this election has made me realize I have so much more learning and work to do.
That’s more than just wearing a safety pin on my clothing, or getting caught up in this endless cycle of shared Facebook posts — which, by the way, is really just “performative” activism. I want to be a better advocate for the causes I believe in, and a better ally to marginalized groups whose lives are in incredible danger. I need to be more diligent at calling out racism, sexism and homophobia when I hear and see it. I must remember that social progress is a 24/7, 365 kind of deal beyond the markers of an election cycle.
So what do we do now?
All of us can stay informed about political issues, and pay more attention to our local and state elections. We should donate to the causes we believe in, whether that’s in the form of money or time. We must refuse the normalization of our president-elect’s language and past behavior, as well as the normalization of his supporters’ language and behavior. We need to make more space for people of color, the LGBTQ community and women in the political and cultural spheres, and treat their perspectives with dignity and respect. We have to support the dying investigative journalism industry that does such important work. And we will continue to make art for the voiceless, the disenfranchised and the past generations of people who fought for equality. You know this is an arts and culture blog, and I believe with my whole heart that art and the humanities will be our solace for the next few years.
And more than anything, we need to make sure that we’re also doing the support work in our private lives, and channeling our feelings into something productive. As someone who works in higher education, I now realize that it’s more important than ever to dutifully serve the students at my institution, and make them feel welcome and empowered.
It’s been absolutely incredible to see the visceral reactions people are having to the election results, and I hope we don’t lose the momentum or the power of those emotions. The future is scary and uncomfortable, but I am ready for the responsibility.
Toni Morrison, in a reflection after the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush, said:
I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine—and you?”, I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….” I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”… There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
It’s time to get to work, and it’s time to put out that dumpster fire.