By Maya Doig-Acuña
Our country is deeply fragmented in this moment, or more aptly, fault lines have always drawn boundaries between our communities. But this election has cracked and exposed the broken rock beneath us. In the weeks since the 2016 presidential election, we continue to feel the aftershocks of such a divide. Many of us—or at least those of us who are of color, or Muslim, Latin, a woman, immigrant, queer, disabled, Jewish—have spent our recent days reminded that a large portion of this country does not recognize us as quite human. Even if some of Donald Trump’s supporters do not consciously hate us, they see us as acceptable forms of collateral damage in pursuit of a larger effort to “Make America Great Again.”
As so many of us sensibly experience fear in the wake of the election results, and thus, scream our dissent from the streets, others—those who voted for Donald Trump and even many who did not—suddenly claim that now is a time for unity. Within a couple of days after the election, white moderates and liberals seemed to shift from passionate Facebook posts of “#NeverTrump” to passive well-wishes for his administration. In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton acknowledged the divisions throughout the U.S., and implored her supporters to “accept this result and look to the future.” She added, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” Even President Obama advocated for similar displays of bipartisanship, arguing that Americans, patriots before anything else, must respect the democratic process by respecting a Trump presidency. In a victory speech noted as gracious by the likes of “New York” magazine, “Vanity Fair,” and other liberal media, Trump encouraged unity, remarking, “To all Republicans and Democrats and Independents across this nation, I say, it is time for us to come together…”
Underneath such seemingly benign calls for acceptance lies an insidious and historically resonant form of gaslighting. That is, mostly white folks convincing the rest of us that our fear and anger are irrational. I imagine that this feels a bit like someone grabbing you in a chokehold and then whispering, “hush now, be nice,” when you yell for help. In this moment, we have to ask ourselves what we mean by unity. If a billionaire white man has built his vision for America on the denigration and exclusion of so much of its population, under what premises do we now collectively “come together”? Calls for acceptance seem less about respect and more about submission and silence.
Indeed, during the 1960’s, white Americans made similar attempts to temper the efforts of people of color fighting urgently toward freedom. In a 1965 Gallup poll, 61 percent of white southerners and 45 percent of all white respondents complained that the Civil Rights Movement was moving too quickly. Martin Luther King Jr., in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” famously criticized the passivity of the white moderate, “who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” When Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, and even, to an extent, Bernie Sanders, respond to the election by promising to “work with” an openly racist, xenophobic, sexist, ableist, and homophobic presidential administration, they too demonstrate allegiance to order over justice.
Surely few of these politicians and white liberals commenting on social media subscribe to Donald Trump’s doctrine of bigotry; some might view Obama and Clinton’s statements as strategic attempts to build goodwill, and therefore cooperation, from a Trump administration. Still, by demanding our acceptance of an oppressive government, or by publicly announcing their own, these folks effectively silence those of us who are most vulnerable. More, they choose silence for themselves. Let’s be clear: questioning bigotry is not divisive—bigotry is divisive. When we challenge power, especially when it behaves more like supremacy, we create opportunities for all of us to see human in the other.