How Little, How Late? Take A Look At Yourself

When I started trying to write about how I processed the election, I found myself incoherently, guiltily stumbling over acknowledging my privileges in a way that centered them and sounded both self-righteous and oddly self-congratulatory.

In this self-referential circling, I found that the undertaking of looking at ourselves, looking at who we are, where we are and who represents us are central to the issue. I’m not sure who I mean by “we” in this context. I could mean white women, college students or anyone who was shocked by the election. I don’t extend the “we” to anyone who voted for Donald Trump. I know I need to reach across the walls of my urban liberal elitism, and must because I have the energy, anger and safety to do so. Yet if the fact that the KKK endorsed Trump and the hate speech of the candidate himself did not budge the “FREE MARKET PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB” hotel sign on Trump-Republicans’ brains, I don’t know what will. America was never great.

I’m also not sure how productive it would be to explain my understanding of allyship because, as this election reiterated — a feminist sisterhood does not exist. I also don’t want to name myself an expert voice of a group, and I know a part of me is selfishly worried about saying the wrong thing. There are fuzzy limits between self-righteousness and care, between empathy and self-indulgent guilt, but we must put in the work to explore them because if they are work rather than survival — we are part of the problem. I don’t want to re-list the many good examples of what you or I or this vague “we” can do now but rather look at where I stood the night of the election and where I have been standing. I can only speak from personal experience in processing the election, but I think the ripple effects of understanding that night were important.

I have been studying in Buenos Aires since July, and I was strangely relieved to be missing election season. I thought it was offensive that such an inexperienced, criminal man could rise to candidacy. I didn’t want to pay attention to Donald Trump because I found him so blatantly repugnant that I was disgusted, but not at all surprised when more and more of his misdeeds came out. I thought, patting myself on my little liberal arts back, thinking, why don’t we talk about more important stuff? Why are we ignoring what’s happening in like … Colombia? I had shrugged off my qualms surrounding the election because I could. When listening to criticism of Hillary Clinton, I thought: every politician is corrupt no matter what, so Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy is more hawkish than I’d like. Oh, she’s just an out of touch white lady who will do anything to be president. She’ll figure it out. I, keeping in line with my (white) feminist identity politics, really just wanted a woman to be president and was tired of Bernie bros explaining feminism to me. I had had a no good, horrible, very bad day that Tuesday because I was stressed about homework, existential crises and logistical issues, but I was sure the first woman would be elected president of the United States, and that would make everything better. One of my housemates on my homestay, who is a liberal from a Trump-voting part of California, sat in my room, where we had the best Wi-Fi, and read about the results coming in from Florida — any results at all really every few seconds. I was surprised. I called my parents who had been very invested and concerned about the election. My dad said, “You voted. There is nothing else you can do. Leave the house or try watching a movie to distract yourself.” Instead, I chain-smoked and tried to watch soccer or write about the Sandinista revolution in a bar with one of my housemates. We tried to restrain ourselves from getting the Wi-Fi password in the bar, but we folded. When things took a turn for the worse, we just started wandering around the streets in silence with exasperated bursts of more horrible things we realized could come to pass. Every place we entered was playing the election, so we sat on the empty sidewalks until our phones were about to die, and we went home.

We can’t entirely control our initial reactions when crisis strikes whether they are defensiveness, anger, indifference, shock, fear or resignation. That’s what makes power structures of violence, hate and privilege so visceral and internalized. My innate reaction was shock, anger and revulsion. I felt like the time I was literally, figuratively and repeatedly grabbed by the pussy at a pregame was justified. I felt like the times that my friends reported rape and the administration did nothing were justified. It hurt me to watch a woman who stood by her husband’s mistreatment of her, taught to forgive anything for love and receive judgment for it, be beat by someone who cheated on all his wives. Even on the micro-level, I felt like the feeling that men can coast on through life on the emotional labor of women was affirmed. I kept saying out loud, “Hitler was elected democratically. People think rape is okay. People think racism is okay.” Now I look at that and say, “no shit.” This hate would still exist in America if Hillary Clinton were elected president. But it’s important to note that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt that those who state hate most obviously have been, in a way, rewarded yet again with the highest power. I, personally, just should have hurt more and louder earlier. But to a certain extent, not much has changed for me: I will still be afraid of passing men while walking on the street alone at night, and my whiteness will keep me safe.

What was my transition from shock to guilt? The first step back I took was when my mother said, as she has rightfully said to me many times before, “Julia. You have to be strong. You’re going to be okay. You’re from New York City. We have good healthcare. You’re a white girl.” The distance had been a relief, but then it was horrible. I just felt so incapable of channeling my shock and rage into anything but some long-winded, relatively pedantic, stereotypical middle-aged-white-man status. When I asked my dad and brother to say something because of white silence and complacency (as if I hadn’t been complicit in it for a while) my brother said, “Look at your Snapchat Jules. I’m literally at a protest right now.” My dad said, “How dare you Julia. I registered 70 voters this week. What did you do?” He also appropriately texted me the next day, “Looks like white women won the vote for Trump.” And he’s right, I can guiltily listen to all the Gil-Scott Heron or post as many political Instagrams I want the day after the election, shaming those who chose to vote by abstract principles over concrete legislation, but that doesn’t change the fact that I registered to vote at the last possible moment because “I don’t like paperwork,” and I haven’t really tried to thoughtfully express my politics online since Amherst Uprising. That’s what I don’t like about social media politics — that it inevitably becomes an extension of yourself and an analysis of who supports or gets you “likes” on your beliefs. But I’m still recognizing this is not just important, but imperative because it raises awareness. I know how long it took me to try and think of what to say during Black Lives Matter protests this summer. I know how long it took me to take the time and read about the protests at Standing Rock. I remember reading the article about Trump’s personal treatment of women in August but thought: someone else will post about it. I remember reading about how white people needed to come and clean up Trump, and I thought it wasn’t my place to post it. I’m not saying that knowing my own hypocrisies is enough, but we (those who find ourselves wallowing in unproductive guilt) after the election, after the most recent outbreak of police violence or mass shooting, need to look out and in.

5,299 miles away from it all, it was so strange being in a foreign country during the election, as I’m sure anyone studying abroad right now can tell you. I didn’t have a real, face-to-face conversation with anyone, North or South American, until about 6 p.m. that Wednesday. A professor WhatsApped me saying “An American Horror Story.” The Whatsapp group of my frisbee team here, composed of mostly Colombian and Venezuelan expats, some study abroad students, and some Argentines, was full of memes poking fun at the U.S. Many of my classmates at la Universidad de Buenos Aires weren’t surprised and said they have a lot to tell me about machismo and censorship and authoritarian governments. The jaded humor was somewhat justified and a good reminder of how deeply North America has screwed South America, another good reminder of how this is nothing new. But the most difficult things, on an external level, were explanations. It was frustrating to explain to progressive people, the kind of Argentine versions of myself, why it was not Obama’s fault that this happened, while trying to awkwardly define identity politics. It was frustrating to hear my professor say whoever wins does not make a difference. In some ways, it’s fitting that I was placed in a foreign position. It reminded me that I am a yanqui, which is something I superficially knew as a position of privilege but not a deep part of myself. I seek to dismiss my U.S. citizenship and its privileges based on my identity with all its liberal arts school privilege and hubris and bubble. This is the part that courses with hatred and indifference, the part of myself that makes sure to drop that my family is Argentinean, and the part that is deeply flattered when people think my accent sounds French, Spanish or Brazilian. I don’t like America. As a woman, as a Jew, as a Latina, as someone medicated for their mental health, as a second-generation American, as someone who does not only care about the rich white boys they grew up with, Trump is not my president. As a white girl, as a lazy liberal, as a citizen born in the U.S., as a straight, cis person and as an American citizen living in South America, as a second generation American, he most definitely is.

Every time tragedies happen, not only the biggest ones that shake our white liberal vision of democracy, we and by we I guess I mean those of us who haven’t properly done so, have to look at our position. The, “Hey! Saying that all white people are inherently racist and all men are inherently sexist and all straights are inherently homophobic and all cis people are inherently transphobic isn’t going to get through to me” argument also frustrates me. Because if you don’t want to take a look at not only the injustices the world hoists upon you but also those you lay upon, passively or actively, then you aren’t invested in doing the work to do better. This sounds patronizing, but I know it applies to me as well. What I mean to say is if you haven’t looked at the pieces of yourself, do so. And if you have and have a sadness and rage at the election that feels fresh, then you and I need to keep doing it. Loving other people extends to not only saying “I love you” but also acknowledging and actively supporting the pieces of them that bear the brunt of hatred. Saying “I love you” is not enough.

Author’s suggestions for further reading:

“‘Whites against Trump’: Kamau Bell tells white people — yes, even you good liberals — to ‘come get your boy'” in Salon
“Michael Brown’s Mom, on Alton Sterling and Philando Castile” in The New York Times
“White Women’s Tears and the Men Who Love Them” in The Good Men Project
“Noam Chomsky: White People’s Fear Of Revenge For Slavery Is ‘Deeply Rooted In American Culture’” in Kulture Kritic
“FACT CHECK: Donald Trump’s First 100 Days Action Plan” in NPR
“No place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear” in The Nation