Making America Safe (for Hate) Again

“Sayonara!” — with a single word, the faceless man walking past on a Manhattan street late on election night declared his rejection of my presence in my own country, spewed his contempt (and fear) of my perceived otherness as a person of Asian descent, and gloried in his new entitled status as a bigot in Trump’s America. Emboldened as he was, he still lacked the courage to face me after the slur sank in and I spun around to find the source of the casually hissed hatred. All I saw was his back retreating into the shadows.

I’m not so naive. I never believed that overt racism — the slurs, the degradation — was dead. But I was beginning to think it had been largely banished to the hearts and anonymous social media accounts of the hateful, along with the unconscious or repressed biases we all carry as burdens.

As a young kid and recent immigrant in 1970s Chicago and its north suburbs, I certainly felt the sting. While the vast majority of my (mostly white) peers were largely indifferent or, at most, moderately curious about my Filipino heritage and Asian face, the bullying and random stereotyping catcalls were certainly there.

But society was changing. In the places I’ve lived and visited in the years since, I could feel the transformation taking hold. Neighborhoods became less monochrome. Hopes and ideals became concrete in the reassuring solidity of laws and values passed across generations. Ugly words became muted, fading to rare lingering glances or hidden scowls, the occasional Confederate flag. The dreamed-of embrace of a diverse, multicultural and mutually accepting America became more real in a seemingly inexorable march of progress.

I realize this hasn’t been everyone’s experience. I know, perhaps in some too-abstract way, that many have had to continue living (and dying) every day with the crippling shards of systemic and individual racism. But in the fortunate and privileged bubble that is my life as a member of the “model minority,” safely ensconced in the urban professional class, things certainly seemed to be getting better.

Today, though, I find my social media feeds overflowing with similar first-hand accounts from friends and family. Random stories from social media are even worse. That inexorable march wasn’t so unstoppable after all. It turns out the hatred and the need for a scapegoat were bubbling beneath us all along, as potent as ever, just waiting for an affirming voice to help them burst from their confinement.

Welcome back to the America of my childhood and Donald Trump’s nostalgia, when bigots could still enjoy their freedom … to hate out loud.