Blind spots and safe spaces

I shared this letter with my newsletter subscribers this evening. But I thought I'd share it here as well:

Photo by adamkaz/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by adamkaz/iStock / Getty Images

Hi, there. 

Usually this newsletter's about books, or what's going on in my little author world. It's not about that today. 

I don't usually talk about politics, and I'm not really going to talk about politics right now. But I want to talk about some things that come packaged with the choice that my country made this week. If you'd rather not know my thoughts on these matters, then perhaps this is an email you can dispose of for now. If you prefer to unsubscribe, that's okay, too. For those of you who live beyond the borders of the United States: please feel free to follow along. Our election has been a topic of international news, and its outcome will very likely affect the relationship that we have with your country or others.

In two months' time, America will watch our first black president leave the White House. With him, sadly, also departs an administration that valued inclusion and acceptance and tolerance. Earlier this week, our citizens voted for and elected a new president.

We blew it. 

I don't even want to dig into Donald Trump's plans or policies or his politics; all of those are wildly unpredictable and vague, but at the moment, they're of secondary concern to me. Far more urgent right now that we examine the reprehensible behaviors that our country has endorsed by voting this man into our highest office. For the duration of Donald Trump's campaign for the presidency, and for years preceding it, he has spewed invective and lies and hateful, racist, misogynistic, judgmental accusations. This man exists at the center of a very narrow universe, and believes he is superior to the rest of us, who all orbit his black sun. To say the least, he is small-minded. To say the worst, he has issued a free pass to the worst among us to indulge the worst impulses within themselves.

And the worst among us appear to be taking advantage of that. 

I have a fairly simple agenda when it comes to American politics. I believe that all humans are equal. I wish to see all Americans treated as such. No matter a person's skin color, heritage, gender identity, religious preference, or ableness of body, I desire very much to live in a land where our government provides for the safety and opportunity of all, and where people who desire such opportunities are welcomed into the fold. In short: anything that I am able to do, everyone else should also be able to do. What privileges are afforded to me should be afforded to everyone else. 

I'm afforded a level of privilege that isn't available to many people in our country. I'm a straight white male. I didn't choose to be this; no one can choose the facts of their birth. Where you're born, to whom you're born—these are out of our control. That anyone would find it acceptable, then, to marginalize or discriminate against a person for these facts is simply abhorrent. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I am appalled by our president-elect, a man who views women as objects for him to play with, who denigrates hardworking people from different backgrounds, who mocks the disabled, who declares with his words and his actions that anyone unlike him is Other, and therefore Lesser.

Believe me when I say that this isn't simply a complaint about the result of an election. This isn't about winners or losers, or red vs. blue. This is about the very real problems and fears that our friends and family and coworkers and classmates will now face as a result of this election. 

On two occasions in my life, I have realized—to my dismay and horror—that I've been a part of these problems. The first was years ago, when I began to discover that the community I was involved in—a religious community that defined my identity and shaped my world nearly completely—was not a safe or welcoming place for all people. I'm ashamed to say that this only occurred to me when it ceased to be a safe place for me. Only when I'd extricated myself from it, and when I examined the lingering opinions and habits and lessons that it taught me, did I understand that I'd been a participant in something which masqueraded as love, yet was unkind and ugly to those who it defined as different, or to those who rejected it. 

But the second of these occasions is right now. As the 2016 election and its preceding campaigns unfolded, I have been mostly quiet. I've watched the debates, seen the coverage; I've heard the offensive things that Trump has said, and shaken them off. To me, Trump was a cartoon character, not a real candidate. He was vile and petty and intolerant; he threw tantrums when a breeze ruffled his hair. Past presidential candidates have been eschewed by Americans for far weaker violations of our trust and expectations. 

Never in a thousand million years would I have guessed that our election would fall in his favor. I was utterly wrong about his chances, as many of us were. I absolutely should have taken him more seriously, and each time that he raised his voice against another citizen, I should have raised mine in return. Not because I have any kind of real platform—I don't—but because I'm a human being. My voice, though no more powerful than anyone else's, is only strong if I use it. And I didn't use it. 

On the evening of the election, I watched commentators report the vote tallies, state by state. I saw Trump take an early lead. I expected that lead to stagnate, but it didn't. My daughter, not yet five, sat with me. I explained the basics of things to her: what it means to be a president, how we elect one. She asked who was good, and who was bad. I didn't tell her what Donald Trump has said about women, or about his own daughters, or about girls who are not yet women. When she went to bed, I continued watching, utterly sick to my stomach. I quit watching before victory was declared; I didn't want to witness it happen.

Many people just like me—white people with inherent privilege—are horrified by Trump's victory. We're numb; we feel gutted. And we are the ones least likely to be directly injured by the aftermath of this election. I said before that none of this is about blue or red, victory or loss. It isn't. It's about people just like you and me. It's about families. It's about freedoms. 

That night, watching the map of our country drown in a sea of red, all I could think about were the consequences of this election upon people who don't have the same baked-in privilege that I have. Many of my friends worry that their marriages will be invalidated, that their mothers will be deported, that their transgender children will be isolated. They're afraid their voices will be silenced. Friends who work for themselves fear that when Trump's administration repeals the Affordable Care Act they won't be able to do so any longer. Others are afraid that their cultural or religious garb will single them out for violence from fellow Americans who have been emboldened by the validation of Trump's own intolerance. Many are afraid of the message this election sends to their children—that their bodies do not belong to them; that their friends can be sent away; that their family can be dismantled. 

When hate is rewarded with the highest office in the land, hate is made acceptable.

Hate is not acceptable.

I do not know how to be a good ally to these friends and family, but I want to be. I must learn to be. This is what my voice is for right now. It must be used to offer safety and protection and love and assurance to those who fear those things will be taken from them. The next four years are likely to be frightful—hell, the last few days have been—and more of us must speak up for those whose rights are in jeopardy, those who are afraid, those who are weak. Those among us who are not at risk, must create safe spaces for those who are. 

And we must admit, too, that we are late, so late, to recognize our role in this. These are not new problems. These injustices, great and small, have been forced upon innocent people for years. I am late to recognize my role in this, to see how I can offer help and love and care, how I can enforce a safe space around me and my family for anyone who fears that their own safe spaces have slipped away. I am late to arrive, and I am sorry.

This morning, my wife shared something with me: a fellow Portlander named Jonathan Maus tweeted, "If you have the privilege of not being afraid, you have the responsibility to do fearless work." I like that. I needed to read that. 

I will do better. I must.  

With love and hope,
J