When I was 9 years old, my fourth-grade class took a field trip to Richmond, Virginia, to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s home. Details are fuzzy, but I remember visiting a room with a trunk filled with 19th-century dress-up clothes that we dove into with glee. I chose what I thought was a beautiful dress. But as soon as I put it on, a classmate informed me that I really wouldn’t have been able to wear that in Lee’s time. I would have worn rags, he said, because I would have been a slave.
I tell this story often, and it’s not because it was the most racist thing to ever happen to me (the kid was mostly just delivering some real talk). But it was the first moment in my life that I remember experiencing the full weight of feeling so acutely other. I recall so clearly the sensation of my face burning in humiliation. The feeling of being naked and exposed, despite having on layers of clothes — my own plus a voluminous hoop skirt. The shame at my own naiveté, that I was so silly as to think that dress could have possibly been for me.
On election night, when Donald Trump became our president-elect, I felt that same shame and embarrassment. I’d believed he would lose — and this was proof that I had yet again overestimated America and my place in it. I dared to take it for granted that this country was as much mine as it was white people’s — or, at the very least, that enough Americans hoped such a thing would be true one day.
I was wrong. I didn’t realize quite how much our country hates people like me.
What is far, far worse than Trump’s bigotry is that so many Americans chose him as our next president, tacitly endorsing his beliefs with each pull of the voting lever. There is no other conclusion for me, a black woman, to draw but that the overwhelming majority of white Americans — Trump’s coalition — either unabashedly believe themselves to be superior to nonwhites and religious minorities or are indifferent to the protection of our equal rights as US citizens. I’m not sure which is worse.
And now, in the days and weeks following this devastating election, people of color will have to once again reconcile how to continue to live and thrive in a country that reminds them time and time again, in ways both small and monumental, that we aren’t welcome here and we never were.
The message Trump voters sent was heard loud and clear
My husband is an African-American Muslim. Together, we have a black son. A beautiful baby. He’s large for his age and spirited, strong and loud. I worry about them constantly — about my husband being discriminated against for his faith and his race. About my sweet, oversize baby growing up to be an oversize boy, one who might one day be mistaken by a police officer as older than he is or more dangerous than he is because of the color of his skin. These thoughts keep me up at night in the best of moments. Now I’m terrified.
Trump believes the answer to the desperate fears women have for their black sons’ safety is to ramp up police practices that criminalize their existence. He believes that my husband has less of a right to live in America because of the religion he practices. And then there are Trump’s beliefs that Mexican immigrants are rapists, his dirty anti-Semitic dog whistles, and his documented disregard for the concept of sexual consent. None of it was a secret. Every voter was well-informed of these and other transgressions. And he won. Handily.
And I really didn’t see it coming. I’ve never been under any delusions about the plague of white supremacy or the ways in which it infects every segment of American life. It was simply very hard to believe that someone who so blatantly and crudely appealed to the most hateful people in our populace could possibly gin up enough confidence to win the presidency. Trump’s candidacy was such a train wreck that as Election Day neared, it started to take me by surprise when I crossed paths with out-and-proud Trump voters.
A week after the Access Hollywood tape leaked in October, when hordes of Republican leaders were disavowing or unendorsing Trump over his comments about grabbing women “by the pussy,” I was at an outdoor fair in rather liberal northern Virginia with my son and husband. While we were there, I saw an older white couple, and the man was wearing a Trump T-shirt. I was in awe that this man would proudly wear a T-shirt — at an event for children — endorsing the guy who had just been caught bragging about sexually assaulting women. The boldness of the man’s wardrobe choice during that dark moment of Trump’s campaign unnerved me, and I pushed my son’s stroller a little faster, thinking, “He doesn’t realize it, but he’s on the wrong side of history.”
The moment wasn’t remarkable, except that it brought home for me how much the open, proud support of Trump sent a scary message about what he believed, not about politics but about me and my family and my friends. There’s a much scarier truth, though, and that’s that they don’t all wear T-shirts. Sure, we know about the alt-right trolls on Twitter and Reddit with their Pepe the Frog memes. But what of the college-educated whites, the ones the experts hypothesized would vote for Clinton but exit polls show went for Trump?
These people are my neighbors. They’re my Facebook friends who post kumbaya updates about how they “don’t talk about politics on social media.” They’re the people who do our taxes or teach our children or diagnose our illnesses. And to know that I’m surrounded by those who cast a vote for a man whose candidacy helped amplify and inspire a white nationalist movement makes me wonder how I’ll ever feel comfortable or safe again.
There’s no fix for white supremacy
The expected thing for me to do at this point is to look forward, to air my grievances before moving on to a prescription for our country’s sickness. If there’s an antidote for white supremacy, though, I certainly don’t have it. People of color are tired of fighting to convince white America of their worth. It is soul-sucking work to beg for others to see you as equals and then find out, time and time again, that the message hasn’t stuck. So if the social advancements of the past 60-plus years haven’t opened enough hearts and minds to keep a Trump presidency at bay, what will? The first black president, by virtue of his very existence, only made things worse. The would-be first woman president never made it at all.
I suppose I do have a hope, if not a solution. Perhaps a segment of white Trump supporters — the party-line Republican types or Hillary haters who didn’t like Trump but chose him anyway — will read this essay and others like it and wonder how it could possibly describe their motives as voters. Maybe they will read this and be ashamed.
And maybe next time a candidate for high office makes it so blatantly clear that he only wants to ensure the advancement of white Americans, they’ll listen to the ones who will be left behind instead of greedily gobbling up the lie that history has fed them — that this is their country and theirs alone, and they are the most worthy and deserving of its favor. Maybe, after four years of a Trump presidency, these white people will realize their mistake and refuse to repeat it.
It may be naive, but hope is all we have.