Before leaving the house for work on November 8th, I grabbed We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie thinking it would be a fitting read given the election that evening. I finished this compact essay on my commute and went into work unsettled and angry, but also hopeful. This feeling of hope is in part due to Adichie’s own optimism, but mostly because my country – my red, white, and blue wonderland – was on the cusp of a history-making election. And in many ways history was made, but progress certainly wasn’t.
Adichie’s essay, an adaptation of a TED Talk she was asked to present, centers on her experience in her native Nigeria. She tackles the connotation of the word “feminist” in her society, how gender informs social interactions in Nigeria’s largest city, and ultimately how it is the job of everyone – manwomanboygirl – to speak up in moments of social injustice and to feel comfortable with the term “feminist.”
I thought as I read, “Wow, America may not be perfect but I’m so glad I live here, where the tide is turning and progress is being made.”
I don’t want to undercut this look at Adichie’s work by focusing on the horrors we all experienced as that map became awash with red, the color of ire, the color of blood, but the two are inextricably linked. Adichie calls for awareness of gender inequality and partnership between men and women to put an end to it, and this election has given the green light to not just misogyny, but to racism, xenophobia, and homophobia; to body shaming, bullying and name calling. To hate.
Adichie points out early on in the essay:
“I often make the mistake of thinking that something that is obvious to me is just as obvious to everyone else. Take my dear friend Louis, who is a brilliant, progressive man. We would have conversations and he would tell me, ‘I don’t see what you mean by things being different and harder for women. Maybe it was so in the past, but not now. Everything is fine now for women.’ I did not understand how Louis could not see what seemed so evident.”
I don't believe that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic bigot. I can't accept a hate-filled world. I have known and seen too much kindness and goodness in my life to accept that. I do know, however, that we have a huge problem of an uneducated and uninformed populace that has been fed lies to make them very, very afraid. Whichever side of the political spectrum they fall on, people are very afraid right now. These people who voted for Trump also care deeply for their families and friends and made a choice in an effort they felt would protect their loved ones by securing jobs, keeping the economy steady, and, most misguidedly, safeguarding them from evil people. The problem, of course, is that despite not necessarily being terrible people themselves, they have aided in creating a climate where the actual terrible people feel like they have permission to be complete assholes. Dangerous assholes.
That being said, as I’ve encountered men over the past few days, in my professional and personal lives, I find myself involuntarily wondering, “Do you think of me as less?”
It’s not that I didn’t have those thoughts on occasion before. The difference then was that I knew fairly well when I was dealing with a man who thought he was better than me simply because I’m a woman. There are telltale signs. Now, I’m not so sure. I say that not everyone who voted for Trump hates women, hates me, hates every other group that will suffer most through the next four years because I can’t believe otherwise. It hurts too much. And it makes me just as afraid as the people who thought that electing Hillary would bring terrorists into their backyards and Mexican rapists into their bedrooms.
I don’t want to be afraid. I definitely don’t want to be sad. I can’t seem to control the fact that I have woken up the past three mornings with dread, that I have wept in the shower, then put on my clothes and gone to work where I have things to do but can’t get out of my own head long enough to do them. I have moments where I start to feel a little better and then the Reality Fairy comes around and beats me on the head with its Sadness Wand. I can’t seem to feel better even though I desperately want to.
I know that in We Should All Be Feminists, Adichie is focusing on gender and the treatment of women in society, but many of the points she makes can be extended to all of the vulnerable members of our society, who, under our new president, are even more susceptible to harm.
“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”
You can replace “women” in the above with people of color, Muslims, immigrants, gays, transgendered people, or persons with disabilities and it will be applicable given this context. I had truly believed that we were working towards building a culture where all people felt safe and welcome. I see now that we have so much work to do and also that people are willing and ready to get down to it.
I will do everything in my limited but fierce-as-hell power to provide people with resources to stay informed, to not be afraid. I will champion those who need allies now more than ever: people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, women & girls, and even the men & boys who are taught so often that emotions are a sign of weakness, that physical strength gives them a right to power. They need our help, too. I will, as ever, encourage everyone I know to READ because the finest people in the world are readers who have experienced more by sitting in a chair with a book than any explorer ever will. I will give what I can to others and support organizations like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU by donating the money I would likely waste on things that can only make me temporarily happy. I will give even if it means giving only my time (which is arguably the most important thing we can offer another person). I will be thankful that I still live in a society where I can fall on literature as my guidepost, where women writers and artists who speak to my experience are creating and building and not being broken. I will be thankful that I can go to the bookstore and find stories of every experience imaginable and see through a new set of eyes. I will be thankful for diversity and the richness it brings to life. I will try, every day, to be less afraid. I will make an effort to be happy despite the many things to be sad about. As Adichie says towards the end of her essay,
“If we do something over and over, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over, it becomes normal.”
I think it’s time for a new normal.