Do You See Me?
By Scott Reed
Perhaps you also are stunned by the election results.
While it is evident that economic anxiety and an anti elite message helped elect our new President, his words and actions during the campaign portend a frightening and unstable presidency.
More significantly — and certainly more sobering to me — is the level of support Americans have offered a man who campaigned with an anti-immigrant, homophobic, sexist and racist agenda.
The America that elected him is not an America that I celebrate and have labored for 40 years to help construct.
The level of his intolerance was embraced by large segments of our country, or at least acquiesced to as they embraced the rest of his message. The question we need to ask ourselves is why?
If we correctly diagnose the impulses of his supporters we may find ways to heal.
There is a huge difference between annihilating whiteness and de-centering whiteness: the former would erase the identities of those whose culture has given them few constructive sources of identity; the latter steadfastly refuses to embrace that exclusionary whiteness, but invites it to a more expansive embrace the full humanity of all. If we are to heal we need to speak into this difference. And we must do so in ways that do not deny that many Americans of all races and ethnicities have come to feel unseen and unheard in our politics.
The demographic trends are clear to all. Any attempt to grasp onto a past where those who were white dominated the political, economic, cultural and social forces will either fail or will destroy American democracy by making some Americans irrelevant and invisible.
Ultimately, the question all of us are asking is this: do you see me? Do you really see me?
White anxiety and alienation showed up in this election. And I encountered deep alienation in poor and multi-ethnic communities that I walked this election season as well. These anxieties and alientations, as different as they are, share common roots in people not being seen.
Perhaps in our response to the current moment, we can draw on a bit of African wisdom. There is a Zulu word used in greeting: sawubona. The word means “I see you”. The response is sikhona which means “if you see me, then I am here”. Perhaps this can help us truly see one another, and in being seen help us to realize that we all belong here.
We can create spaces of radical empathy where we invite and hear stories. It is in the telling and listening to our stories that we can resist the commodification and ‘othering’ embedded in our society today.
Faith institutions — moral communities of all traditions that are intent on helping people make meaning of their lives — have constructed our organizing network. These institutions adhere to sacred texts. The sacred texts of all traditions call for resistance to a false hierarchy of value. This resistance compels us to see one another in all of our glory and through our difference. That is a calling for all times and all places, but perhaps in this historical moment it is a particularly sacred obligation.
It is time our faith communities — and we in our work — more fully embody that sacred obligation. It is time we create spaces where we can see one another, listen to our stories and make meaning of our differences.
Imagine how healing could begin with such a simple act. In times of division, dialogue breeds transformation. Perhaps in a time such as ours, only real dialogue can generate the depth of transformation that we need — which some of our faith traditions call “conversion”, the conversion of heart, mind, and spirit to seeing others in all their humanity.
Democracy only works if we see that we are all in this together. Tuesday’s results are a painful reminder that our democracy is failing.
There is a path forward It begins by saying “sawubona.” And hearing — really hearing — one another respond, “sikhona”.
Scott Reed is executive director for PICO National Network, the largest faith-based organizing network in the country. He is based in San Diego, California.