The New American Experience

It’s taken me awhile to collect my thoughts since November 8. I have an acquaintance who reaches out to me now and then, for support and occasional big-sisterly guidance. She’s a lovely, caring and intelligent young black woman living in a metropolis far away from her family. The past few years have been difficult for her, as our country has seen escalating brutality (or is it simply increased coverage of the violence?)  against people of color, as well as a persistent systemic indifference to the loss of black lives. Even as she works hard to achieve her dreams and live a life of meaning, she is bombarded with imagery and messages that contradict what she knows to be true about the essential value and goodness of herself and her loved ones. Fear and oppression create a constant undercurrent to her daily activities.

She contacted me after the election. “Is this really happening?” she asked, “What do I do?

She asked me to write about it. I’ve taken that charge seriously, even as I marvel at the irony: How can I, a white woman in my 40’s, advise a young black woman about navigating the American experience post-election in 2016? I’ve heard many white people’s advice to black people about staying safe in police encounters: “Be respectful. Be polite. You won’t get hurt if you just follow instructions.” The trouble with that advice is that it doesn’t work for people of color. Philando Castile couldn’t have been more respectful and docile when asked for his identification, and he still ended up dead, murdered in front of a child. There isn’t a more submissive posture than kneeling with your head bowed, and still, Colin Kaepernick is getting death threats for exercising his 1st Amendment right to express his opinion. There is no amount of submission that guarantees a person of color safety in the presence of a white person’s fear. And our current political and social climate has intensified that reality by orders of magnitude.

As a woman, I’m frightened enough for myself. My husband is big and strong,  but he also has black hair and brown eyes, and skin the color of a perfect latte, and for the first time since I’ve known him, I’m genuinely afraid for his safety. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be black, or to be (or look, whatever that means) Muslim, or gay, or to be an immigrant to this country, documented or not. Because when riled-up white dudes go looking to smash someone, they don’t stop and ask for papers.

But afraid and overwhelmed of people never triumph. The people who navigate adversity successfully, even during the most terrifying of times, are those who are able to steady their nerves, clear their heads, and take action. And so that’s what I’ve spent the past couple of weeks considering. There are some clear and astute writings out there offering instruction on how to resist the oppression that threatens to accompany the incoming regime, so I won’t try and and re-invent those ideas, but here’s what I want to share with my young friend, and with anyone who cares to know my thoughts:

  1. Stay Safe and Healthy. It’s more important than ever for people who feel vulnerable or targeted to ensure our physical safety first. It’s unfair and oppressive, but we can’t change the world if we’re dead, so be extra careful about where you go, how you go, and with whom. Get off your phone and stay alert to your surroundings. Gas stations, parking lots and bus stops seem to be popular places for troublemakers to target individuals, so be extra mindful being alone in those places. And we all need to take action to maintain our physical and psychological health, including good nutrition, regular exercise and social engagement, staying hydrated and sleeping. If you’re currently insured, especially through the Affordable Care Act, get your check-ups and glasses and dental exams and whatever else you may have been putting off before December 31, because the healthcare landscape is facing some potentially drastic changes. Those probably won’t happen in 2017, but why take chances? Make the appointments now.
  2. Stop being Incredulous. Really. Right now, make a decision to never let the words “I can’t believe it” leave your lips again. It’s happening. It’s real. Accept this reality and position yourself accordingly.
  3. Boost Your Signal-to-Noise Ratio. Gather facts, not opinions. Mind your news sources, and check the source and the date of any article you see on social media before you read or share it. Edit your feed, and start to hide, unfollow, or block sources of misinformation or fear-mongering. We already know it’s bad. We need to know exactly what is happening, and what we can do about it. Also, stop arguing with people on social media. If anyone’s mind is to be changed at this point, that will happen through experience and example, not because someone in a comment thread told them to think differently. And subscribe to print media. The free press is already dying, and we need to support it.
  4. Determine Your Priorities. The Dakota pipeline, the rise of the white supremacy movement known as the alt-right, the 700+ (and growing) hate crimes that have been committed since the election, for-profit prisons, women’s health care, voter suppression, attacks on immigrants, climate change, for-profit prisons and the militarization of police…. the list goes on. Trying to address everything all at once could lead to doing nothing at all. Pick an issue, or your top 2 or three, and focus. Trust that other people will do the same for the issues that speak to them the most.
  5. Ask Before Helping. If you really care about something that you aren’t directly part of, inquire before jumping in to help, because they might need something other than what you assume. Or they might need it later, because everyone is trying to help right now, and they’re overrun.
  6. Take an Action (or Two) Daily. Once you have determined your priorities, and inquired as to what might be most helpful. Do one or two things every day to effect change or offer support. Call one legislator. Make a donation. Sign up for training to escort women to medical clinics. Offer to accompany your friend or neighbor  who feels vulnerable to the grocery store, or to pick up a few things for them while you are out. Do what you can, in small doses, as a daily practice.
  7. If You Feel Called to Protest, Learn How to Do it Safely. Don’t just show up with your pithy poster board and flip-flops. Read up on what you need to do to prepare for the physical and possibly legal discomfort you’re signing up for.
  8. Cultivate Joy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Holocaust survivors I’ve had the privilege of meeting in person, it’s that happiness is a discipline that must be practiced daily, regardless of circumstance. Your misery will not alleviate the suffering of others, but your joy can serve as a beacon to attract others into your circle. You are alive, and younger than you will ever be again. Don’t waste it.

Lastly, my husband and I had a long talk this past weekend about the dangers of conflating “conservatives” with whatever we’re going to end up calling the phenomenon of hatred that is overtaking popular discourse at the moment. We agreed that it’s more important than ever to listen carefully and gather all the facts before taking action of any kind. Responding to headlines, stereotypes, or appearances is what got us into this mess. It certainly won’t be what gets us out of it.

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