What Does It Mean To “Call For Unity” After Last Week’s Election?

unity

“If Trump is elected, I’m not sure I’m sticking around,” I announced to my husband and our friends as we waited for Pennsylvania, where we live, to be called as a red or blue state. I was pretty drunk by this point, having downed a G&T and several beers out of anxiety, but I also kind of meant it. Many Americans have threatened to move to Canada, but for me, leaving is not such a far-fetched idea. I am a British citizen and I could move home. (Admittedly, due to immigration requirements for non-E.U. spouses in the U.K., I’d have to say goodbye to my husband for a year or two, save up a lot of money, and completely re-evaluate our career plans, but it’s still an option that most people don’t have.)

Like many, I did not expect this election result. Even after watching my own country vote for Brexit, and noticing all the parallels between the two countries’ political climates, I still thought it was unlikely that Donald Trump could ever be president. I woke up on Nov. 9 hungover, fatigued, and recalling lines from George Orwell’s 1984. I spent the day crying, watching Clinton’s concession speech—I couldn’t stomach watching Trump at all—eating junk food in my pajamas, and then the evening in one of my client’s kitchens having a communal meltdown with her family. I spent a lot of time on Facebook.

There’s been so much post-election talk about how many of us construct echo chambers, and only surround ourselves with like-minded people. This hasn’t really been the case for me, because I’ve mostly lived in conservative parts of the country. True, I’ve found liberals to hang out with in these conservative states, usually in the form of fellow academics and artists, but no one could accuse me of only interacting with people like myself. On the contrary, I’ve spent years learning to shut up about healthcare, guns, and reproductive rights in favor of polite conversation.

And honestly, I’m glad. This is how I learned to listen. If I only chose my friends based on politics, I would have far fewer people in my life, and I would have a much shallower understanding of American culture. I also know, especially as a fiction writer, that people cannot be divided into simply good and bad, and that we all live with a tremendous amount of contradiction. To be clear, I say this as someone who is deeply angry. I’m struggling to find empathy for someone who used their vote to elevate a misogynist white supremacist. I’ve been tempted to tell anyone who voted for Trump to never speak to me again.

But I don’t want to react like that, because it ultimately doesn’t do any good. I don’t want to contribute to the cycle of blame that was set in motion as soon as it became clear that Clinton was going to lose this election. My Facebook newsfeed was just people blaming other people. Blaming white men for being racist. Blaming minorities for not turning out for Clinton like they did for Obama. Blaming white women for not voting against a misogynist. Blaming protest voters. Blaming third party candidates and independents. Blaming young people. Blaming old people. Blaming Democrats. Blaming Republicans.

In the midst of all this blame, there were Trump supporters calling on liberals to “stop whining,” and anti-Trump people enraged on so, so many issues that I felt I couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop seeing all the pain and fear play out in link shares and memes and status updates. Then there were my friends who are either apolitical, or awkwardly sandwiched between liberal friends and conservative families, calling for unity.

Unity is a beautiful concept, but as anyone who has weathered a break-up or divorce knows, it’s not as simple as just putting aside your differences and never speaking of the disagreements again. Trump’s rhetoric has hurt people, and I don’t just mean their feelings: We are already seeing hate crimes committed in his name. Minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities, and many women, are rightfully frightened about what is to come. Anyone who voted for Trump, no matter how sweet and affable and religious, has contributed to a national condonance of such hate and oppression, and is partially responsible for what sort of country America becomes next.

If you want unity, that’s great. But understand that it will not come easily, and it certainly will not come instantly. It is not the responsibility of one group, and no one deserves to be silenced even if their candidate did not win. If unity is what we want, we will all have to work for it.

This means all of us have to be willing to see the bigger picture, and stop thinking so much in terms of “us versus them.” Because the truth is, neither Democrats nor Republicans offer perfect or even near-perfect solutions. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this election cycle, it’s that what Americans have in common right now is a feeling of alienation. People of color have already been trying to tell us about the dangers they face in this country, that racism very much still exists no matter what color our president is, and white people, for the most part, have not really listened. Working class whites have also felt like no one is listening to them; Bernie Sanders was right when he said we have a problem when the Democratic Party can no longer attract those voters. (I hope the U.K.’s Labour party is hearing him, too.)

I don’t want to fall into the narrative of thinking that all Trump voters are white men from disadvantaged economic backgrounds. Some are. But a lot of them are wealthy. A lot of them are women. My assumption is that these individuals expect that they won’t be impacted. Or, they have never been challenged to understand how much advantage they were born into. If you fall into this camp, I implore you to start listening to people outside of your regular circle. Reading is a good way to begin. There is no shame in admitting your own bias, so long as you are willing to keep learning. What you have to realize right now is that, no matter what your reasons were, you used your vote to bring danger to your fellow Americans. This is undeniable. If we are to move forward, Trump’s supporters, and Republican politicians in particular, have to own this.

We also have to own our communal apathy. I know so, so many Britons and Americans who do not trust in politicians or the government at all, and it therefore does not surprise me how few people actually participated in the E.U. referendum or the U.S. election. Too many of us are uninformed, don’t know how to discern which media outlets are reputable, and mainly use politics as a way to feel validated. To me, using your party affiliation as a form of validation is one of the most dangerous aspects of the American political landscape, because it has only increased the divide between the left and right, and the media has capitalized on this.

I am guilty of this too. Despite my respect for my conservative friends, as a liberal, I’ve sometimes thought that I am just a little bit better than them. This, I know, is part of the problem: To people who are trying to support their families on meager income, or to find a way to get treatment for an illness, or to prevent an entire community from being swallowed by drug addiction, it feels like splitting hairs to talk about implicit bias and political correctness. This is where the left has failed. Maybe we do feel like we are better at coming up with solutions for criminal justice reform and education than the right, but we are more preoccupied with vilifying inappropriate language and performing moral outrage than reaching out to people who think differently to us, or even being good allies ourselves.

My husband is a big fan of Bill Maher, so after the election we watched his show. I usually find Maher too brash, but for the first time, I found myself agreeing with him on his pet topic of political correctness run amok:

“Also the Democratic Party … sort of lost the white working man. That’s what they used to have, and they made the white working man feel like, ‘Your problems aren’t real. Because you’re mansplaining. And you’re, you know—check your privilege.’ … You’re outrageous with your politically correct bullshit. And it does drive people away.”

I used to respond to this criticism of PC culture with what is expected in liberal circles. I performed my outrage and disagreed with such comments—of course everyone should always be kind to others and strive to be as inoffensive as possible, and why is that even difficult? But this week, I finally got what Maher was saying. With our rush to vilify anyone who doesn’t know the lingo or understand the full context, who hasn’t had the opportunity to debate in a college classroom, or the time to read Bad Feminist or Between The World And Me or The New Jim Crow, we are alienating people who would otherwise be allies. I’ve seen this vilification happen even amongst homogenous liberals, with people trying to out-woke each other in classrooms and workshops, and, of course, on social media. We aren’t creating a dialogue. We are labeling decent people as bigots then turning away.

I have, however, seen what happens when we really do create a dialogue. As a college teaching assistant in Mississippi, I watched students struggle to reconcile their upbringings with all the contrary information they were now receiving from people with PhDs about Southern culture. A few of them disengaged completely, and deliberately wrote wrong answers to test questions, arguing against the data and research, or even used class evaluations to accuse African American professors of “pushing an agenda,” because they were hoping for—and felt entitled to—a class that would not challenge their views. Others showed up, wrote fantastic papers, and did the real work—even if they didn’t fully agree with the material.

In that classroom I was a passive observer, never standing up to lecture myself, but I was more hands-on when I taught (mostly white) middle schoolers in South Carolina. I made a special effort to introduce them to poetry by people of color and women, and to have a conversation about what the word “immigrant” means. (I use the term to describe myself, in hopes of normalizing the word for children; I resist calling myself an “ex-pat” or “international” for the white privilege it propagates.) I was met with some resistance occasionally, because kids don’t want to be nudged out of their comfort zone—“Why should I read African American poetry when I’m white?”—but I never shouted at them for expressing a non-PC sentiment. I listened to their views. I gave them mine in return. I encouraged them to keep writing and using their voices.

This is easier to do with children who we accept do not “know any better,” but I believe that we need to afford the same generosity to adults as well. I have had successful conversations with conservative friends about systemic racism and sexism. In turn, I have listened to their opposing views on, for example, guns. As a Briton, I grew up without guns and thought anyone who owned one must be a lunatic. However, after these conversations, I had to admit that there was more to the issue than facts and figures, or think pieces on American masculinity. I still believe in gun control, but now I have a better understanding of why rural communities, who often cannot rely on rapid response from police, are so afraid of their guns being taken away.

I agree with Samantha Bee and Ijeoma Oluo that the onus is on white people to address racism and misogyny in our own communities, since, like it or not, that is the group that overwhelming supports right wing politicians. I know it’s hard. I’ve been part of so many conversations where I have to weigh when to challenge a friend or coworker’s view of feminism or queerness or race, and when to smile and move on. But do we want to remain quiet and just get along, or do we want to change minds?

It is vital that we stand up to anyone who threatens marginalized groups, whether the aggressor is a person on the street, a politician, or one of our own friends or family members. Bigots—people who are genuinely intolerant to others—should be called out, and when necessary, reported and prosecuted, but those who are uninformed or ambivalent should not be so quickly condemned. Otherwise, nothing will change.

Despite the divisiveness of this election, I am determined not to rush to unfriend people on Facebook, or to retreat into spaces where I never have to hear opposing views. Besides, racism and misogyny are everywhere. There is no bastion of tolerance and equality for us to run to. No, not even Canada! Sorry, you’re just going to have to stay here and do the work. As a British green card holder, my position is much different to people of color and other immigrants. Yes, I could leave (to go and argue with the Brexiters instead…), but I believe America is still a good country, and that those of us who feel safe enough to start a dialogue should do so.

I still do not believe in casting people as either heroes or villains. During my years of studying and writing about American culture, and living amongst so many different Americans in cities and small towns and rural areas, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people try to be good in the ways that they understand to be good. We are all just a product of the culture we surround ourselves with, so if we want unity in this country, we need to talk about what it means to be a good person, and we need to let people make mistakes in the pursuit of that.

We need to be fierce in how we educate children about hate and oppression. We all need to keep reading and developing our critical thinking skills, whether that’s done in a place of worship, a university, or a community group—but preferably not on social media, because we need to stand face to face and see each other as real human beings. We need to be open to other perspectives. We need to be friends with people who are not like us. We need to know how other people are struggling, and what they need, and how we can help. We need to talk to each other. We need to listen. Most of all, we need to believe in each other.

Featured image by Conal Gallager

Jodie
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  • I’m a Minnesotan currently visiting London for the second time and found your site by searching “do Brits work in coffee shops”! I’m really enjoying your writing. Thanks for adding your perspective to the net!

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