I Am Tired of Pleading My Humanity
Last week, the unthinkable happened: Donald J. Trump pulled off the con of the century, securing enough electoral college votes to claim the presidency of the United States. Although tempting, I won’t dwell on the series of unfortunate events which have brought us to this miserable modern historical moment or lament the election’s dislocating outcome. As difficult as it is to process this new reality, a somber revelation laid bare in its wake has arrested my spirit. I have registered countless emotional grievances over the past 18 months or so — but the most deeply distressing is the realization that despite decades of human and civil rights advances, black people in America remain second class citizens. We are still pleading our humanity and wholeness to an astonishingly unmoved, if not, indifferent majority.
I am unflinching in my insistence of this phenomenon because the tone and substance of the Trump campaign did so much more than reveal a racist, white supremacist backlash — the likes of which I have never witnessed first hand in my 40-plus years. Candidate Trump was a dizzying spectacle of overt and dog-whistle bigotry and racism, not to mention sexism, misogyny and xenophobia. His rampant incivility and inflammatory rhetoric was categorically disqualifying — yet, the more (dare I say) deplorable and unseemly his posture, the more strident his supporters became.
In some respects, I should not be entirely surprised. Systemic racism has never been a non-starter; it’s a fundamental precept of our culture and society. White supremacy is as much the backbone of this country as the free and indentured labor that begat her imperialism and wealth. What’s stopped me in my tracks, however, is the evidence that your run-of-the-mill racism is equally as palatable. So much so that there has been a rush to dismiss, excuse, deflect or deny said instances. Seeing this play out every day in the news and on social media has exacted a heavy intellectual and emotional toll. I suspect that much of my dismay and heartache may have to do with the fact that I’m in my 40's. Over the years, integration and perceived social progress has given me inspiration and aspiration that in many ways rings hollow today.
My life experiences represent MLK’s dream deferred. Being a kid of the 70's and 80's fostered an upbringing that was dramatically different from that of my parents and grandparents. Unlike them, I was reared in a integrated neighborhood and school system. Only recently did it occur to me that the myriad multiracial kindergarten class photos of my Gen X cohort marked the ten years of progress following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways, we probably thought we had overcome — that our “someday” had arrived.
As a little girl, my first best friend was white; Lauri and I lived on the same street and were inseparable. While we had such unabashed affection for one another — upon reflection, I imagine that navigating the social landscape of the 70's and 80's had to be something of a test for our parents — even if subconscious. A new normal, so to speak. The pendulum shift for our nation was so wide that we transitioned from separate water fountains to interracial sleepovers in less than three election cycles. Fast forward to 1986 and a black boy could hold a BB gun in public without the threat of premature mortality. This is the childhood I remember from a small, historic town in what was then red-state Virginia.
And yet some 30 years later, many of the people with whom I shared my formative years now represent a majority whose deafening silence bears shameful witness as the pendulum of progress has swung back with vengeance. Or worse, they are among the angry-mob voices of racialized discontent. What’s rich is that by numerous accounts, the case for Trump support is predicated on his ability to “tell-it-like-it-is”. He has been lauded as trustworthy by his fans, citing a purported courage to call something not only as he sees it, but also by its name. The phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” should sound familiar. Curious though, is Mr. Trump’s inability or flat refusal to call out racism, white supremacy, or police brutality. Instead, he seized upon vulnerability and capitalized on racial anxiety as core pillars of his campaign strategy. Of course, this doesn’t account for everyone who was part of the Trump coalition, but there are objectively irrefutable aspects of his political ascendancy that warrant examination and reckoning.
The broader context though of the 2016 election is, of course, the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and a general outcry of resistance and solidarity in response to disproportionate occurrences of sanctioned violence against black people.The 2012 murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin marked a pivotal moment in this country wherein we were forced to confront racial discord and inequity. America has struggled to deal with her racial legacies in consequentially redemptive ways for centuries. In the three years since Trayvon’s murderer was acquitted, public discourse around race and social injustice has intensified. And while there is noteworthy effort on the part of many white folks to align themselves with oppressed communities, there are at least just as many who reject alliance and “wokeness”. There is also a sweeping effort to suppress and silence voices of resistance or even characterize activism as “reverse racism” (which, by the way, is not a thing). I have been personally accused of and admonished for coming across as angry in the aftermath of the spate of high profile police violence that shook 2016.
The impulse on the part of privileged communities to not only police the emotions of oppressed individuals while vigorously denying complicity in oppression is the very definition of irony. My voice has been one among many voices of color speaking out against objective displays of racial injustice and discrimination. In many an emotional plea, the response has been a clear throated rejection from people I actually know — explaining that they are not part of the problem coupled with the defense that they cannot possibly relate to me.
And this is where I wonder if King’s dream was for naught. Did tearing down the walls of segregation actually get us anywhere? I take issue with the constant refrain and admission, because the expressed inability to sympathize with my pain is an affront to my humanity. While not explicit, it suggests that somewhere below the surface, that “good people” cannot connect with me on a base level. Humans (barring sociopaths) are endowed with an emotional capacity that should not preclude a person from identifying with common experiences such as grief, fear, hopelessness, or anguish.
The consequence is that countless black people are left to contemplate how the very people who cannot stretch to try and understand or sympathize with our experience can feel deep conviction toward and connection with — say a rescue dog or a 12-week fetus. Adding insult to injury is the feigned shock or expression of indignant frustration when someone has the audacity to point out this very conundrum. Here’s the thing: I am not an abstraction or a statistic — I am a whole person and quite frankly, I am sick and tired of pleading my humanity.
If you are reading this from a perspective that compels you to take issue with my plea for empathy, please understand that it is impossible for me or any other person of color to inhabit and navigate the world without a tacit understanding and consideration of the hopes, dreams, needs, and desires of the majority. This is not hyperbole. Please do not fall into the false assumption that it is lost on folks that consideration is a two-way street. And really, isn’t consideration a shared value? Stop telling people that you can’t imagine what their experience is like when they are telling you in vivid, emotional detail. It’s intellectually and emotionally dishonest, if not downright disingenuous. Because, of course, you can imagine it — the operative word being “imagine”. Even if you do not know first hand what something feels like, a functioning human can approximate a range of emotion enough to care and empathize.
So if you sincerely cannot do this work or are unmoved to even try — well, then we are right back at square one with the sobriety and grief that compelled me to write this. The question now is what exactly are we going to do about it? Because the president-elect of the United States has named a white nationalist as chief advisor and a KKK sympathizer to lead the Department of Justice, both of which are TERRIFYING…feel me?