My Response To The 2016 Election Results
Three days after the election I wrote a blog post. It had nothing to do with Hillary or Democrats and Republicans, though I am devastated by her loss and what that means for me, my gender, and this entire country. I knew this would be an important post, maybe the most important I’ve ever written. I also knew that few people would read it, so I really considered whether it was worth writing what I really wanted to say. Likely, I’d change nothing and end up just hurting myself and people I love. But I rejected that mindset almost immediately: this wasn’t the time to be selfish, to be comfortable, to be complacent. I felt that if I did something courageous - spoke up authentically and fearlessly - that maybe just one other person might be able to do so too. And that this would have a domino effect I would never see, but that this cumulative courage with words and actions would be part of a greater movement to change this country for the better, to help those whose rights and safety are at risk as a result of this election’s outcome.
I was at a loss for what to write until I started seeing the horrible incidents of racism and violence across the country. I woke up Friday morning with what felt like a clear mandate from my soul: I had to write about casual racism among whites, and in my family in particular. Not because my family is particularly racist—you wouldn’t categorize us as such—but because there was racism in my family, at all. I had to write about how we are unwittingly conditioned in this white, almost culturally acceptable racism and that these small casual acts of racism that seem harmless are what has gotten our country to where we are today. This was a come to Jesus moment. I had to tell my story, because it's the only story I have to tell and because it's only when we tell our stories that change ever happens. Facts, figures--they don't do much. It's when someone speaks from the heart, from personal experience, that we listen.
I made a mistake.
In trying to stand up for those whose dignity has been assaulted by Trump, his campaign, and those who voted for him, I damaged my own family’s dignity. I threw that under the bus. This was not my intention, but in the intensity of these past few days, in the desperate desire to stop kids being called n*****s at school by Trump supporters, in trying to stop the tears of my husband’s students, who are afraid they and their families will be deported, I felt that the only way to act was to be brutally honest. And it was brutal. And honest.
I made a mistake because I didn't write the post well. I don't mean it wasn't pretty. I mean I didn't write it with the care and nuance I thought I had put into it. My words painted a picture of a childhood that was characterized by racism, when this wasn’t the case. My words made it seem as though my family members were only racist. That they had somehow taught me to be racist. My words did not give readers the full picture of the grace and courage and wonderfulness I have seen in every member of my family, time and again. They didn’t explain how each person that had said racist things was a person of character in so many other ways, a person that upheld all manner of values we can all agree on. I didn’t share the lessons I’d been intentionally taught about forgiveness, and the golden rule, and being kind to others. Or the ways I was encouraged to help those in need, fight for those who couldn’t, and use my talents to serve humanity. I didn’t go into detail about how family members supported my interest in learning about tolerance or the times they did speak up when someone said something racist. It didn't give credit to the people who struggled so that I could have important life experiences, so that I could dream big dreams.
My family is upset. They feel shamed, like I’ve dragged them through the mud, dishonored the memory of our dead, and slapped them in the face. The post I’d written wasn’t aimed at them, not some passive-aggressive way to show my hurt and anger. I honestly was trying to just let it all hang out so we could all just talk about racism and show one another how much it is a part of our lives, and how it’s led us to where we’re at today. How our small comments can lead to deep, deep hurt.
But I failed to do that. Instead of opening eyes, I closed them. Instead of breaking hearts open, I just broke them. This is not helpful in making the world a better place. In fact, when I was at my Zen Buddhism class today, my teacher said a famous koan that I really wish I’d known before I posted that blog:
The student asks the teacher What is the practice of a lifetime? The teacher answers, An appropriate response.
I will now think of this koan every single day of the Trump presidency. We can stand up and say no, to say something is not okay, to say something is wrong, but we need to do it with open hearts. Attacking people doesn’t allow for dialogue. The trick is achieving a balance between standing up for what is right and fighting real evil while simultaneously recognizing that everyone is suffering and that people are doing the best they can with the tools they have. And we do not all have access to tools that help one grow in terms of social justice and tolerance. I find this to be a major conundrum as an activist and I’m still trying to figure out what that means. I know I will try.
This post I’d written was a failure on my part as a person and as a writer. I’m sure I will feel the effects of this ill-conceived and inappropriate response for the rest of my life. Writing is the one thing I have to offer, the one thing I'm good at, and instead of using my words to bridge gaps and give the world an opportunity to understand something important, I ended up just making people angrier and contributing to divisiveness. I hurt my family and I think I lost some of them along the way. I can't take my words back and I think it's good that I can't because the way I grow best is when I screw up, and the world needs a Heather that's better today than the one she was yesterday.
I’m not a complete idiot. I knew the post would hurt my family. But I felt like I was being a coward if I didn't tell my story, if I didn't face this head on. I thought it was the best way to stand with those who are most vulnerable right now. I thought it was the best way to fight for my country and oppose a man that I consider to be absolutely vile and unfit for office. In some ways, my post was misunderstood. But mostly, I just didn’t write it well. And part of that was because I was physically sick and exhausted and grieving and scared and angry. I am still all of those things.
Many of the people who voted for Trump are good people who have contributed greatly to society, whether it was fighting for their country, helping the poor and disadvantaged, or simply loving their family well. Many of them condemn Trump for his racism and sexism, but voted for him, anyway. They cite the economy, American security, and anti-establishment leanings as major reasons for choosing him. I don’t necessarily disagree with everything they say. But, I don’t think those are good enough reasons to elect a man who brags about sexually assaulting women, believes in censorship of the press via his endorsement of Vladimir Putin, and is so racially divisive in both his actions and telling silence regarding racial issues that his victory was celebrated by the KKK. For me, the economy will never, ever trump protecting our most vulnerable in society. Never ever.
Hitler was good for the economy too. And he was great for security for quite some time. After the Holocaust the words Never Forget became an important response—an appropriate response—to the evil wrought on the Jews, minorities, and the GLBTQ community, and I don’t intend to forget. Never ever.
I think we are at a point in history where we all need to take a good, hard, long look at ourselves and our hearts and our families and our values. It's hard to admit you are racist--no one wants to think of themselves that way. I'm racist and I'm one of the most well-traveled people I know, have two college degrees, and have friends from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. I live in New York City, probably the most diverse place on Earth. I'm an artist! I love Hamilton! And yet I struggle with racism in large part because of the racism that has been around me all my life, just part of the scenery as a white Californian—at home, at school, everywhere. Because I’m white and many white people say racist things. And we don’t always call people on it when they do. I know there are many times I haven’t, and this shames me. I'd like to just say that not all white people are racist. I can't speak for my entire race. I don't think the color of your skin inherantly makes you any one thing. But many, many white Americans are casually racist and we need to look at our community and heal that. Educate ourselves. Walk a mile and then another mile in the shoes of others.
With my post, I wanted to talk about how my tolerance has been hard won, how it is sometimes a daily struggle to push back against the casual racism that is so acceptable in white American families (and likely in all American families--whites aren't the only people that struggle with bigotry and prejudice). I wanted to show a real example of the intersection of poverty, racism, and the outcome of this election. I still want to write that post, but I want to write it better. I took down the original one because it dishonored my family. So to them I say that I’m truly sorry. I think I’ll be learning a lot of lessons in the days to come, but I hope they won’t be this hard.
I do know one thing: I won’t stop fighting for the most vulnerable in our society, for the country I know we can be, for the values I hold dear. I’ll just do it in a better way.
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