The reason for my silence: the presidential election. Writing about it makes me feel queasy. Not writing about it makes me look apathetic.
I've held back somewhat on politics this season—mindful of my position as an educator whose job it is to teach and treat fairly every student who comes my way, mindful and respectful of the diverse group of people on my Facebook page and in my life, mindful that I also represent an institution. I remain, and always will remain, respectful of people whose opinions span the spectrum when it comes to politics, religion and more. Our shared humanity must always come first. But for multiple reasons, I can hold back no longer—because of who I am.
I am the daughter of a man who immigrated to America—a man of mixed race, who suffered traumas we cannot even imagine, and who by and large remained silent about those traumas in his quest to move forward. (If you’ve ever flown on a Boeing jet plane, you’ve witnessed my father's legacy.) I was raised in an evangelical Christian community in which I was told to lie about my father’s birthplace (India), and to lie about his mixed ethnicity. Yes, people calling themselves Christians taught me to lie—because in early 1960s America, the truth of being not-quite-white, of being an immigrant, was apparently a truth too horrible to tell. Because I suntanned easily, I was told to stay out of the sun so people wouldn’t think I was “from someplace else.” My father’s origins were apparently a truth too horrible for the light of day.
I am the mother of a daughter who joined our family through adoption. Our daughter was born in China. The other day, our daughter asked us if Trump wants to send her back to China. We assured her that will not happen; she is a naturalized U.S. citizen. (Ridiculous, you might say; Trump only wants to deport the undocumented. That misses the larger point—the psychic damage inflicted on anyone who does not fit into his imaginary homogenized world, or the systemic damage inflicted whenever entire groups of people are dehumanized for whatever reason.)
I am the daughter of a mother who was born with cerebral palsy—mild, yet noticeable. She was encouraged to hide it, minimize it, not name it—all because she grew up in a time when it was considered shameful to have a physical disability. As a little girl, she took piano lessons as a form of physical therapy. She would grow up to become a church organist/pianist as well as a piano teacher, in the process teaching all of us how to transform adversity into triumph. Yet still, she always felt ashamed. Still, she encouraged us never to utter the words “cerebral palsy.”
I am the proud relative of both gay and transgendered family members, whose identities I will not disclose without their consent.
I am the proud niece and cousin of people living in several different nations—England, France, Switzerland, Spain, Gibraltar, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and more. My relatives’ ancestries hail from India, Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America, as well as Europe. When it comes to skin tones, hair textures, eye shapes and facial features, we pretty much cover the spectrum.
Thus, if you are related to me, you are by connection related to all of the above. If you are friends with me, you are connected through our friendship to all of the above. It’s time to stop referring to the people you consider different from yourself as “they.” If you’re connected with me in any way, there is no “they,” just an ever-expanding “we.” My extended family includes people from multiple nationalities and multiple ethnic backgrounds, adoptees and adoptive parents, people with disabilities, people of various sexual orientations, gender identities, educational attainments, occupations, religious and political affiliations, and economic levels. If you think you’re far distant from any of the above—you’re not. If you know me, it’s no more than two degrees of separation.
Many, many people—I’d even say most people—have suffered far more egregious ills than I have, so "woe is me" is not my intent in writing this. What I can say, however, is that in my earlier years, I went through enough to know what enormous pain and psychic damage can be inflicted when a child grows up believing there is something “wrong” with her at the core, knowing she doesn’t fit in, knowing she is whispered about, criticized, ostracized—not for anything she’s done, but simply for something she is. As a kid, I used to agonize about not fitting in. While that happened everywhere, it happened most of all in our evangelical Christian church—the place where I was taught—in word, though rarely in example—“Love the Lord God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.”
I used to agonize about not fitting in. Now, as a woman in my mid-fifties, I’m grateful to have lived with the gift of knowing how “not fitting in” feels. Never quite belonging can teach you a great deal. Among other things, you learn that sometimes the cost of belonging is too high; that too often, belonging depends as much on whom you leave out as who you let in. You learn that you haven’t really found a niche if the cost of belonging is your own silence. You find friends who accept you fully, knowing everything about who you are, and you learn that it's important to try and live a truthful life, a life of purpose and integrity. You learn how to recognize the humanity in everyone around you, not just those who happen to share some of your demographics.
But the gift of not fitting in has a double edge: When exclusionary principles rear their ugly heads, they trigger all the pain you thought you’d once put to rest. The memory of shame is always there. You also feel the pain experienced by other targets, even when you’re not the direct target yourself. So when a foul-mouthed public figure decides to run for president and build his candidacy on the bigotry you once thought you had outlived, it triggers a visceral, bodily reaction—a self-protective reaction—a reaction that weighs you down every day. Though you want to emulate Michelle Obama and go high when others go low, you often feel too weighted down to fly.
And it’s not just a reaction to that candidate in isolation. It’s a reaction to the many people who express enthusiasm for the same narrowness and bigotry that cut you off as a child, when you didn’t know any better than to internalize other people’s narrow opinions. The sight and sound of thousands of people cheering this individual—it becomes too much to take in. And it’s not just about you—it’s about your whole family, your whole network of friends. It’s not just a cerebral reaction; it’s a physical sensation, a sensation almost like falling, a gut-punching fear.
(This was even before the most recent outrage over treatment of women and sex. On the one hand, I’m relieved that more people are growing outraged; on the other hand, why wasn’t everything that happened before this revelation enough?)
I’ve always been cautious about speaking out. Perhaps I’ve been too cautious. These past few days, I’ve quietly de-friended a few people. I now see that as the coward’s path. Rather than go on de-friending without explanation, I decided to try and explain. Why I feel this as strongly as I do. Why I see the issues triggered by this election as having little to do with politics per se and everything to do with underlying values. Why I understand the fear and isolation expressed by those who feel directly targeted. Why it’s so hard for me to talk about any of this. Why I have little patience for people who try to argue that the alternative candidate is “just as bad.” (For the record, It’s. Not. Even. Close. Rumors are not the same thing as evidence, and normal human failings—which we all have, including those in leadership positions—are not the same thing as gross sociopathy and demagoguery.) Why I can’t stomach watching TV right now. Why standard, reasoned political analysis currently fails to resonate. Why, lately, I haven't been able to write.
And most of all: Why I’m grateful to have so many people in my life who do understand, who are going through life each day trying to be kind, trying to do the right thing. And why those of us trying to live that way need to keep on doing what we do, in the hopes that one day, the demonization, dehumanization, and commodification of human beings will stop—and kindness and inclusivity will prevail.