It should come as no surprise that I voted for the Democratic candidate in this presidential election, and that I, along with over 61 million other Americans, feel bereft and stupefied. The relentless hateful rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia stemming from the president-elect’s campaign constantly stoked fears that it was not safe to be a non-white immigrant. To me, the election result is simply frightening.
I do empathize that both parties have failed large swaths of the population for many years, causing a deep desire for change, for a candidate who spoke unscripted and was not bought. Undoubtedly, the new administration is a complete break from politics as usual, with fervent hopes that the new president proves to be a true champion of the people. Keeping this in mind, I know that many of his constituents are neither racist nor sexist. However, it is hard to reconcile that good folks would vote for a man who openly spewed hate and seems anathema to America’s credo of equal rights and equal opportunities. Do they realize what they are saying when they dismiss his comments as “only rhetoric”? Words do matter. A white person can easily proclaim being a one-issue voter on taxes, the Supreme Court, or abortion. It isn’t so simple when you are on the receiving end of racism and xenophobia. I will now always wonder if the supporters I know personally are actually closet racists instead of decent and fair.
In my mind we’ve come a long way in addressing prejudice, but the incendiary tone of the election unmasked this false impression. My most harrowing experience with this occurred when I was about 8 years old. A large, blond youth in my neighborhood routinely shouted racial slurs at me from a distance, which was relatively harmless in retrospect. One day when we both happened to be alone on the street, he hunted me down like a little animal, and though I gave him a good chase with my short legs pumping as hard as possible, he quickly caught me. Then he forcefully spit in my hair on the top of my head. His thick saliva slowly oozed on my scalp. I have thankfully never experienced anything as severe since then, although the bigotry has continued. I never thought I would feel that same sense of terror again.
In the first few years after my arrival in the U.S., I firmly believed that the promise of the American dream was tangible and real. Anyone can make it here, regardless of background. Being an optimist about the land of the free was easy, and I chose to become a citizen almost ten years ago.
This week my optimism about my adopted country has wavered significantly, and I have been both desperate and eager to find a sliver of hope or silver lining. Several obvious takeaways are encouraging: anything is possible; we are more powerful than we think; and there is no time to waste. The election’s outcome surprised even many Republicans and perhaps the candidate himself. Defeat had been a foregone conclusion. Consider for a moment that if a 70-year old populist without any experience in public service can be elected president of the United States, then surely we can reinvent ourselves in any way we desire. Imagine the possibilities that lie before you. We all have a lot more power than we realize. Every one of us has the strength and ability for real impact in this world. In fact, about 60 million people across this country have just proven exactly this. We can harness our power for good within our own immediate lives. There are clearly no more excuses. We must now own that any of our distant aspirations, whether it is starting a business or running for office, are not impossible. The odds are not stacked completely against us. Now is the time to show who we truly are.
Daily interactions with family and friends provide fertile ground for the courage to practice what is true rather than what is easy. I was reminded this morning to live with an open heart when my son accused me of sounding like the adults in Charlie Brown. I had spoken with his best interests in mind, but it was perceived differently. My impulse was to yell at him for being rude, but I managed to say nothing. As a parent I am well trained to stay calm in the face of snide comments, though it is not without effort. The challenge was to sit with the idea of having empathy and compassion for the other person.
Moving forward involves finding the gems that are tucked away in the ruins of this divided nation. We need to reflect upon our own fears and biases, and engage each other from coast to coast in substantial conversations about what we care about, what worries us, and what we wish for our country. I believe that the crude vitriol of the past 18 months is a giant cry from all corners to be heard. Everyone needs to participate openly instead of being cynical behind closed doors. We are all responsible for creating our reality. With an attitude of openness and acceptance we can build the America in which the needs and wants of all its citizens are equitably considered and addressed through civil dialogue and solidarity. Anything is possible.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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