Before I went to bed Tuesday night, I had a deepening sense of dread. When I woke up Wednesday, my fears were confirmed: a man who during the election season had spewed hateful rhetoric against people of color, immigrants and refugees, Muslims, disabled persons, women (though that hate started long before he was a presidential candidate), and so many other people, was going to be our next president.
Even before Election Day, even when many people thought a different candidate would win, it was very clear that people in the U.S. would need to do some serious collective soul-searching work to bridge an ever-widening divide. Days before the election, I wrote a blog post for JustFaith Ministries, voicing both my concerns and my hopes for our country.
All throughout the election season and even before, I was asking the questions – of myself and of others – What is the positive vision for our country or world? How will we mend the ripped fabric of our nation or world? And especially, What is mine or yours to do?
Any time I offered the questions on my Facebook page, friends and family chimed in, but often the people who responded were like-minded folks. I was interested in a broader spectrum of answers, but didn’t feel that calling specific people out was the way to go, so I accepted whatever answers I got.
On Wednesday morning when I woke up, the fissure in our country felt deeper and more dangerous. Many people I know felt closer to falling into the widening crevice than they had just 24 hours before. I braced myself for what my Trump-voting friends might post on social media as I saw so many people I knew expressing fear for their well-being, wondering what might happen to them when they went to school or work that day, or the next, or the next.
Because the Trump supporters I knew hadn’t ever answered my questions (why, I will acknowledge, I don’t know; I am not accusing them of anything here), I decided to write them a letter:
Dear Trump supporters,
I am sure you are feeling happy & excited that your candidate won, but please understand that many people, your fellow Americans, are grieving. If you care about those people, if you care about me, today is not a day to gloat or say, "I told you so." We need some time and space to regroup.
Our country is so divided and your candidate saying "it is time for us to come together as one united people" does not erase the hateful rhetoric and broad generalizations made against people of color, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ, immigrants (especially Latino/as), refugees, women, disabled persons, etc. that he and some, too many, of his supporters have spewed over months, or years, or decades (even before he was a presidential candidate). It does not erase the fact that policies he & his running mate have proposed will continue to marginalize and harm the above or increase marginalization/harm done to them.
If you care about our country, as you say you do, please tell me how you personally are going to work to bridge the divide, how you personally are going to affirm the "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" for ALL Americans. I'm not asking about what the president-elect will do, I'm asking about you.
I write not to argue and will not be pulled into an argument or debate. I am sincerely interested in your answer.
What positive steps are you going to take for the well-being of all people in our country?
I chose to make the letter a public post on Facebook. Several friends reposted it; one sent me a message saying she had cut and pasted it without my name, because she didn’t want to subject me to any ugliness. I wrote her back and told her I had deliberately shared it publicly. I did not intend to hide in fear or quiet my voice because someone might not like what I had to say.
Both friends and people unknown responded to the letter. Those who knew me honored my request to refrain from arguing or debate. I was grateful.
Several people who didn’t know me answered with responses dripping with disdain or telling me what I or we (“the left,” “liberals,” etc.) needed to do. I carefully responded to the anger, explaining that I wasn’t asking a question that I hadn’t asked myself and others. I posited that since we didn’t know each other, there was no foundation to assume anything about what I had or hadn’t done in the past. Finally, I asked them not to post unless they had something constructive to add. The reply was more anger, assumptions, and inflammatory language. I again responded respectfully, as did several friends. When more anger came my way, it seemed best not to respond.
One stranger in particular (who identified herself as a Bernie supporter) posted numerous times with multi-paragraph responses that included phrases and sentences in ALL CAPS and comments about the “spoiled, lazy generation that thinks they don’t have to struggle as every generation before them” (my generation, presumably). After I tried to answer respectfully and without debating (I had stated clearly that debate wasn’t what the post was about), she responded again with an analysis of my letter and ending in another implication that I was doing nothing to address the issues our country faces. I simply replied, “As I said above, you don’t know me, what I do or do not believe, or what I am or am not doing. I am not here to argue, so I will simply wish you well.”
Admittedly, prior to posting that response, my ego and my higher nature battled fiercely; my ego really wanted to tell her exactly how wrong she was about my work in the world. Thankfully, my higher nature won the battle. I remembered a meme I’d seen: You don’t have to show up to every argument you’re invited to.
She responded again with multiple paragraphs, educating me about white privilege, telling me how I didn’t understand what people of color go through, and ending by telling me that my heart was in the right place, but that if I wasn’t willing to engage with tough questions and issues or with discomfort, I would be “lost in the abyss of white privilege and all that that brings.”
I am aware of my white privilege (and so many other points of privilege she did not mention). I am aware that I have no idea what it feels like to be Black or an immigrant or LGBTQ or…
I am aware that there are layers – many, I would guess - of my privilege and others’ oppression to uncover and sort through. I am trying to do that sorting and I intentionally put myself in places where I am forced to do that uncomfortable and precious work. I am aware that the work will extend to the end of my life.
But did I owe any explanation to this stranger who didn’t know me but presumed to?
My higher nature and ego battled it out again. I typed replies and erased them, typed and erased, typed and erased, until finally, I pulled myself away without hitting “Post.”
It came down to one question: To whom am I accountable?
I am accountable to my brother-in-law and nephews whose skin is darker than mine, who were born outside of the U.S., who have suffered harassment simply for existing and now fear even more for their safety. I am accountable to my godson, whose parents are from Latin America, who was afraid to go to his high school the day after the election.
I am accountable to immigrants and refugees who have suffered nightmares I can’t even imagine in their home countries, in their passage to this country, and maybe even here. I am accountable because too often, my country’s foreign policy has caused or contributed to those nightmares.
I am accountable to people of color, friends who have patiently pointed out my blindness, even though it’s not their job to do so, parents of Black sons and daughters who fear for what might happen to their children for “driving/walking/playing/laughing/doing anything while Black.” I am accountable to the 12-year-old Black son of a white friend who told his mom that he skips and smiles through their neighborhood so their white neighbors will not be afraid of him.
I am accountable to my Muslim friends, as two Muslim women were attacked the day after the election, the attackers grabbing their hijabs and trying to rip them off. My Muslim friends whose children ask if they’ll be forced to leave this country. Who have to defend their religion over and over again because some people can’t make the distinction between extremists and ordinary Muslims and don’t want to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of (mostly) Muslims our “Christian” nation has killed overseas.
I am accountable to my LGTBQ friends who wonder if newly gained rights will be taken away, who wonder if they’ll soon face legally-enforced discrimination when they try to conduct their daily business.
I am accountable to women who have been victims of sexual harassment (aka all women) and sexual assault, girls who may be more likely to become victims of sexual assault, because “if the president can do it, so can I,” words that a few boys have already used as an excuse after grabbing and groping their female classmates the day after the election.
I am accountable to people with varying abilities, who may not move through the world the way I do, but have gifts that are just as valuable as my able body.
I am accountable to others not listed above, “for I was hungry, for I was thirsty, for I was sick, for I was a stranger, for I was in prison, for I was naked” and so many more. It is these people who I have to answer to.
It is the ones closest to me, the ones who know me, who I will trust when they tell me “you’re blinded by your privilege” (not an easy pill to swallow). There are times when I must hear this message from strangers, too; I know that. I also know that not all voices that challenge merit a response.
It is people under attack telling me “we need you to do this work for us, so we can do our own” or “we need you to do this work with us” who I must answer to. And if I fail, I must answer their questions “Where were you?” “Why didn’t you…” “How could you…?” “How could you not…?”
Even as I type, I know I will not be able to do all the work that is asked of me and I know that only some of it is mine to do. Giving my energy to every cause that asks only depletes my energy to do the work that is truly mine.
When the work is not mine, I can encourage the people doing it through words or financial support, just as others have encouraged me as I’ve walked down paths that scare me, stretch me, and sometimes scar me.
It is my work to keep walking those paths, reminding myself that my great privilege demands great responsibility so that my friends, neighbors, and family don’t have to carry quite so heavy a burden. It is my work to remind myself that while my privilege allows me to walk away, to forget, or to ignore, my responsibility does not.
And so I will try to be responsible, even if I do so imperfectly (which, of course, I will).
I will try to discern between the voices that I must listen to and the ones that only distract me from standing where I need to stand, speaking when I need to speak, and moving my body where it needs to go.
I hope that I will discern well and that I will not disappoint the people to whom I am accountable.
To whom are you accountable? What voices call you to action?