ABOUT ONNESHA ROYHOUDHURI
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, n+1, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Boston Review, The Rumpus, The Nation, The American Prospect, and Mother Jones. Her forthcoming book, The Marginalized Majority: Claiming Our Power in a Post-Truth America, (Melville House Books, 2018), is based on this essay, which first appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
“You’re just in time,” the woman tells me when I come back to the table. I haven’t retained her name, only the details — recently relocated from Tampa, Florida; thin, bright lipstick. The rest of my dinner companions have been living in New York for years, a group of primarily young white men at a friend-of-friend Thanksgiving dinner. Around the table, the men fell silent — a rare occurrence since I’d arrived. “We’re debating,” Tampa explains, “whether women are funny.”
I laugh at the idiocy of the question, initially thinking it’s a joke.
“Whether women are as funny as men,” one of the men qualifies graciously.
“Why don’t we just debate,” I suggest, my voice betraying my rage, “whether women are people at all.”
What has shocked me most in the wake of the 2016 election is not just the resurgence of flagrant bigotry and misogyny. That a subset of Americans have had their hate emboldened is evidenced by a disturbing uptick in hate crimes across the country. But even around dinner tables, on progressive listservs, in daily conversations — spaces that I once relied on for a sense of safety, taking for granted a set of basic assumptions of equality — it’s as though a collective amnesia has set in, and we’re picking up conversations where they were left a decade or more ago.
As a progressive journalist, my colleagues and friends have always been a rowdy, outspoken crew. They are unflinching — willing to closely examine the dregs of the barrel of humanity, from the Men’s Rights Movement to anti-Semites. They do it because they understand the importance of vigilance, of shedding light on the grotesquery to prevent it from proliferating, and pushing back when it does.
I have tended to work from more of a remove. I cut my teeth during the George W. era, reporting on the legal arguments used to justify the use of torture in the war on terror, the ins and outs of corporate manipulation of the system, from Enron to Amazon. I was concerned with questions of justice and equality, but I rarely ever directly addressed misogyny and racism.
I had an intellectual justification for this circumvention. Though no one accused me of dereliction of duty, I perpetually felt the need to defend myself to myself. My argument went like this: to even acknowledge the arguments of people who thought I was lesser-than for being brown or a woman was a loss. It meant ceding the terms of the discussion in some way. It meant acknowledging that I was listening to them.
But there was a more emotional justification lurking beneath that rhetoric: I only wanted to know as much as I had to know. To be aware of more than that made me feel profoundly unsafe, made my very right to existence, to speak with authority, to write, feel like a question that was up for debate.
It always was and it still is. But to be reminded of it daily is exhausting, an exceedingly heavy thing to carry.
I have always wanted to be free to carry other things.
Growing up, I had to contend with a racist uncle who didn’t “believe in mixed marriage.” I was the product of such a festive medley, a tiny brown and curly-fro’d child. If I ever found myself in the same room or around the same dinner table as Uncle Bill, I could rely on one thing: He would not acknowledge my existence. He did not look at me and he did not speak to me.
I came to recognize this as a useful lesson for growing up in a country marked by a bigotry that is matched only by its peoples’ denial of that very same bigotry.
My uncle’s existence had little bearing on my life. He was not in charge of making decisions that impacted me directly. He ignored me because my existence challenged his sensibilities.
I ignored him because his sensibilities challenged my existence.
Before the election, I was making plans to move out of New York City — to a smaller town, quieter, with more trees. Now, if I speak of this plan at all, it’s in abstract terms. That thing I might someday do. Because what I’m doing now is clinging to the sense of safety that comes from living in a metropolitan area. Yet even that sense of “safety” is far from assured. At neighborhood playgrounds are newly spray-painted swastikas, Muslims punched on park benches in Queens — one of the most diverse regions on the planet. An Asian man on a train beaten and told to “go back to your country.”
The emboldening of bigots and bigotry has trickled into every stratum of our social and political lives, revealing a terrifying and uncertain atmosphere, one in which the terms of debates — whether they be around dinner tables or in the halls of Congress — are up for grabs.
What is unreasonable and reasonable?
How can we fight if we don’t yet understand the terms?
Somewhere during Obama’s second term, I stopped writing as much journalism and started focusing more on essays and fiction. I felt freer to explore what I had to say. I didn’t think of the two being related — the political situation and my choice of genre — until the day after Trump was declared the president-elect. Like many Americans, I wept more openly than I was comfortable with on November 9. On the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, middle school kids flooded the car, so many of them black and brown. I felt a physical pain in my chest at the prospect of them coming of age during a Trump presidency.
I wasn’t just mourning the fact of the heightened racism and hate they now face; I was mourning the added burden of the energy it would take for them to be aware of it, to carry it, to fight against it. I was mourning all the things they might not have the energy to be or do because they would be spending even more of it defending their right to simply exist.
And I was mourning the prospect of having to do the same myself. Obama’s presidency was far from perfect — drone strikes and record numbers of deportations come to mind. Neither do I mean to imply that we’ve been living in some mythical land free of racism and misogyny for the past eight years. I’m not that naïve. But the dialogue has shifted considerably, the result of having a president in office who regularly fought for, and discussed the necessity of the fight for, equality. A man who acknowledged the existence of institutional racism.
Think of it this way: Black Lives Matter is a movement that emerged not only in response to black men and woman being senselessly murdered — something that has been going on since the founding of our country; it emerged from a time when those murders were finally starting to make headlines again.
The weekend after the election, I joined a quiet rally in Brooklyn, organized by a writer and mother from the neighborhood. The event invite spread through Facebook, advertised as a positive, family-oriented gathering. “On Sunday at about 9am, I am going to Grand Army Plaza with my two-year-old daughter and holding a sign that says: I SUPPORT LOVE. Will you join me?”
It was a brisk morning, and there were many adorable mittened children holding signs about embracing love and rejecting bigotry (“Cats hate bigots” read one). I joined the ranks of kids and parents standing along the street with our signs. There were cheers when cars and city buses went by, honking their support. Our small gathering was tame — given to breaking into Woody Guthrie songs and passing out ziplocked bags of cookies when the kids got peckish. It was hard to imagine it being seen as a protest or attack on anything. Unless, I suppose, you were a bigot.
I know I shouldn’t have been surprised by the young white man in the truck who flipped us the bird as he screeched past. Or the middle-aged white man, all in spandex, who yelled “losers” as he cycled by us (oh, the irony). But I was surprised. My response to the spandexed man was much like my response to my dinner companions who thought it was droll to debate whether women were funny: I barked out a kind of laughter even as my adrenaline knocked something loose inside of me. I was holding a sign with a heart on it, but I felt ready to break bones.
In the hours and days and weeks after election results rolled in, many Democrats, liberals, and progressives joined Trump in his disdain for the media. How could they get it so wrong? “Hillary Clinton has an 85% chance to win,” the New York Timesreported the day of the election. There was a collective disbelief that a man like Donald Trump could possibly win.
I share the frustration with how much we got wrong, how much we were blind to. Yet as a journalist, I also recognize the challenges inherent in reporting on a man running for office who is so blatantly sexist and racist. A man who will deny statements that he made just one hour before. Worse still: A man who doesn’t feel the need to deny that he said or did horrendous things — does not recognize them as such (“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”) A man running for president who rarely speaks in full sentences, instead delivering an endless stream of dada-esque word salad.
It can seem, at times, that to discuss such a candidate in serious terms would be to cede the terms of the argument. To legitimize what should not be legitimate. To actively disbelieve or dismiss can be a powerful tool. It’s important to call a buffoon a buffoon, but that doesn’t mean buffoons aren’t profoundly dangerous. If history books are full of anything, it is the stories of these buffoons — narcissistic white men short on intellect, integrity, or both, and the damage they’ve wrought.
“Mr. President-elect, can I ask a question?” In a transcript of a meeting that Trump had with select members of the New York Times staff, a reporter asks about climate change, the issue framed in cautious terms Trump might understand: that he owns “some of the most beautiful links golf courses in the world.”
In response, Trump goes on to ramble about how the hottest day of the year was actually in “1890-something,” how his uncle was an engineer at MIT, that a lot of smart people disagree with the fact that climate change is actually happening, that, in fact, he’s “not sure anybody is ever going to really know” whether it’s happening.
And thus ends the hard-hitting inquiry.
What kind of conversation is this? Who’s setting the terms? When he was running for president, many journalists made the faulty assumption that someone like Donald Trump would never be elected to the legitimacy of presidential office. And now, it’s as though they’re compounding that failure by pursuing another faulty line of logic: since he won the election, we must now work to legitimize his nonsense.
This goes beyond simple sycophantism, and extends to an irrational faith in the terms of the game. Journalist Masha Gessen, who covered the rise of Putin for years, pointed out in a recent interview that the media’s failure was in slavishly narrating every move as though it were a chess game instead of acknowledging that Trump was busy knocking all the figures off the board. “Well, just say it!” Gessen entreaties. “Just say he was not playing chess!”
The refusal to accept that the rules are moot offers up a criminal level of legitimacy. And it’s a mentality that underlies everything from the media peddling the term “alt-right” in lieu of the more appropriate “white nationalist” or “neo-Nazi” movement, to everyday Americans quibbling over whether or not it’s fair to call people who voted for Trump “racists.”
And while we argue about whether or not that thing with the many wheels conveyed on a track is actually a train, the thing has already left the station.
In Washington, days after the election, neo-Nazi (“alt-right”) leader Richard Spencer delivered a “Hail, Trump” speech during which audience members cheered him on with Nazi salutes. “It’s not just that [the mainstream media] are leftists and cucks,” Spencer intones into his microphone. “It’s not just that many are genuinely stupid. Indeed, one wonders if these people are people at all.”
The audience laughs.
On my way home from that Thanksgiving dinner, a friend texted me to say that the man I had argued with most around the table had said when I left, “She’s a very smart lady.” I fought off a wave of nausea. What had felt to me like a debate about my very worth was to him a brief chapter of amusing dinner discussion.
“This is painful,” Hillary Clinton said in her heartfelt concession speech, “and it will be for a long time.” But then, in a nod to the idea that we’re all still somehow playing the same game of chess, she says, “I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
A few hours later, President Obama echoed this language of duty and obligation: “[W]e are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country. The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months, we are going to show that to the world.”
As if it is my patriotic obligation to legitimate the power and existence of a man who has continually expressed contempt for mine.
During George W. Bush’s years, I remember the hamster-on-a-wheel feeling of continually reporting on White House officials who would deny knowledge of news that appeared on the front pages of newspapers. Forget being cagey in front of the press. Trump simply holds the media as a whole in contempt for not publishing enough nice stories about him.
Sexual assault? You mean locker-room talk. Racist? No, he’s just not “politically correct.”
What’s new is that I no longer feel like I have the privilege of ignoring what fringe misogynists and racists say. Because they’ve been legitimated, the freedom to ignore them, dismiss them, is outweighed by my need to gauge the level of risk I’m undertaking when I walk out into the world as a brown woman.
What’s new is that, when I watch a video of Richard Spencer telling an audience, “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror…We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet,” I fear its impact on even those I once might have assumed were allies.
Now, I look back at the white man across from me on the train, and wonder whether he’s staring at me because he’s just curious about the book I’m reading, or whether he thinks I’m among the most despicable creatures to populate the planet.
I remember the exhaustion I felt towards the end of covering Bush’s second terms as a journalist. Every day was a game of defense — catching up to whatever the latest administration run-around was, watching a slow and steady erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, the mire of the Iraq War and the administration lies that led us into it, the burgeoning “Global War on Terror” that followed on its heels.
I no longer believed my work would change anything. Instead, I merely hoped that, when it was all over, it might serve as a trail of breadcrumbs — a way to find our way back to who we used to be, what privileges we used to enjoy, what we used to stand for as a country.
I’m terrified of the same thing now. I’m terrified it will be even worse. The prospect that over the next four years, we must sit and watch as the Trump cabal and a soon-to-be right-wing Supreme Court undo what has been done.
I cannot do this. I refuse to do it.
“When they go low, we go high.” It was a rallying cry uttered by Michelle Obama and echoed by Hillary Clinton during the election.
Well, they went low and they won. What now.
A few months ago, I was on a packed rush hour train when a man stepped on board with a Bible in his hands. It did not seem he’d read it because the hate-filled rhetoric he spewed was from a book of his own invention. My fellow New Yorkers did their job of ignoring him admirably, but he didn’t keep up his end of the bargain, which was to move on after a few stops and pester the next car down.
After 15 minutes straight of his proselytizing, some passengers told him to shut up. He wouldn’t. Some tried reason, arguing with him. But here’s the thing about a narcissistic ideologue: they don’t respond to logic, or dissuasion in the name of facts or reason. We could fact-check him all day and night, but he wasn’t playing by the rules of the game.
After about 20 minutes of his bile, I had an idea: If the man would not shut up, the only way to improve the situation would be to make it so we no longer had to listen to him. I gave him a warning, announcing that, if he wouldn’t cede to our continued requests to stop talking, I would start singing so that I’d no longer have to hear him.
He kept talking. I sang.
The first round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” was shaky and a little off-key. It’s all I could muster. But a few people joined in the next round, and by the third, everyone on the train was singing robustly — including kids in strollers who clapped their hands in glee. The proselytizer tried to get loud, but we got louder. He got off at the next stop, and suddenly, we were no longer the audience for a hateful man.
Yet we kept singing a few more rounds, enjoying the simple joy of the world we’d reclaimed.
I know we cannot sing Trump off the train. For the next few years, we’re stuck in the same subway car with this “horror clown,” as one German paper called him.
But I wonder at the strategic uses of denial and disbelief — that privilege I’ve allowed myself in order to feel more free as a brown woman to say and think what I please, to not police myself with the expectations of bigots and buffoons. I think about the lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights era. How at the heart of the strategy was a refusal to accept unjust laws and policies. To strategically ignore the rules and insist on a different world: one in which black men and women could sit and eat at the same counter as any other human being.
I want to take this principle and apply it more broadly. How can we strategically ignore Trump — as much as he strategically ignores so many of us — actively?
What if — rather than ceding the terms of the debate, and becoming consumed with merely defending and responding to his perilous idiocy — we push back with a vision of our four years, the reality we insist on?
We’ve seen so many protests and rallies across the country since the election, and the flourishing of the #NotMyPresident hashtag. That’s a start, but it still lends too much credence to Trump. Writer Mark Greif suggested #NoPresident, a nod to the fact that an illegitimate officeholder shifts the onus on us — and the demands we make of other branches of government.
So let’s get started. Let’s step out of the shadow of defensive strategy and fear. Let’s make a list of what we demand, and what we are willing to fight for over the next four years. What if Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were in office? How would we continue pushing for an agenda of equality?
What if our signs at protests were focused less on what we won’t stand for, and more on what we demand: When they come for Medicare, it won’t just be Hands off Medicare; it’ll be Medicare for All! When they move to defund public education, we strike, demanding competitive salaries for teachers and free college tuition. When they try to gut funding for reproductive health services, we flood the streets, making it clear we won’t settle for less than free birth control and a guaranteed minimum number of abortion service providers in every state.
We can’t afford to disbelieve the seriousness of Trump’s intentions. But even more so, we can’t afford to doubt the seriousness of our own.
I’m ready for #OurFourYears, not his.