One night many years ago, I was home reading on a quiet suburban street when a car engine fired violently and roared down the hill, transmission screaming and gears grinding. Frowning, I set the book down just as the sharp squeal of tires turned into the unmistakable sound of the car rolling; its glass shattering and metal crunching before it came to rest. The blaring horn sounded as if came from my front yard.
Precious seconds ticked by before I could reach for the phone. My hands had become useless, my fingers suddenly thick and numb as I struggled to dial 911. I was barely able to push the request for help past the fur of fear on my tongue. I hung up, knowing I had to go out, but I couldn’t. I delayed, hoping a neighbor would arrive first to deal with the inevitable gore. I dressed slowly. Surely I had done my duty by calling for aid. I didn’t have to get involved, did I?
The car was upside down in the trees of a neighbor’s yard and I was the only one who arrived at the scene. The driver – young and drunk – had extracted himself and was stumbling around relatively unhurt. He was belligerent and didn’t want my help. As the sirens rounded the corner, I left him with the wreckage, glad someone else would take over. I hadn’t wanted to help in the first place.
I didn’t sleep that night. I was the one left wounded in the incident. My shocking inability and unwillingness to act had shamed me. I had no excuses for my response. I was a capable, competent, compassionate person. I was normally the first to offer help when something went wrong. I had been on the scene of other accidents, had tended others wounds and had acted with courage and efficiency in the past. Why couldn’t I deal with it this time?
Flash forward to this year. I was at a loved one’s home discussing the startling, horrible evidence that my family had once been small-time slave owners who left a historical footprint via “Run Away Slave” notices filled with the sort of nightmarish language one might expect. I expressed dismay and one of my family members turned to me and said, “Some slaves probably didn’t have it all that bad.”
I felt ill and left shortly afterward.
When I later told this story to a friend, she responded, “Are they still living? Did you rip their tongue out of their mouth and slap them with it for saying that?”
I hadn’t. Just like when the car crashed, I froze. I didn’t want to get involved, wished it hadn’t happened, wanted to ignore it. I just wanted to keep up the fragile peace. There were so many things I could have said – compassionate words with intent to educate or those filled with justified righteous anger – and none of them came out of my mouth. I know I muttered something like, “It might be true that some had it “better” than others, but I am pretty sure none of them wanted to be owned,” but my words lacked conviction. I kept my eyes down and poured another stiff drink.
I had confronted this person’s racism many times in the past. We talked about it, we stopped talking altogether, we tended the wounds and tried again. Just like the night the car flipped in front of my home, I had a history of responding to this sort of talk appropriately. And yet, this time, I could not. I was – and am – ashamed of myself for my paralysis. I have not been back, and if they read this blog post, it will be the first they hear of how it upset me.
I think of these two things – the car accident and the racist relative – in the week that follows the election of a president who campaigned by rallying people around divisiveness. Who promised to “make American great” by making American minorities pay for terrorism, poverty, unemployment, and crime. A man who incited people to commit hate crimes, mocked the disabled and made bullying late-night social media posts. A man who has demeaned women in speech and action and has an upcoming trial date to answer accusations of raping a 13-year-old. And yet, people still voted for him.
As upsetting as it is that so many people didn’t see this as behavior unbecoming of a president, I am guessing many of them dodged confronting the debacle of his racism/sexism/ableism exactly as I struggled with a car-wreck in my front yard and my loved one’s ignorance. When faced with the shock of having to face a situation we weren’t expecting, we often shut down. Many of these people felt they had no one else to vote for, leaving it necessary to look away from the unsavory bits. I don’t think that makes them bad people, but in order to move forward, we must all face what we may have willingly overlooked.
Regardless of who you voted for, or what party you are affiliated with, we MUST speak up about and stand up against hateful actions and words. We must not let the paralysis of shock last. We must empower ourselves through education and support to move through those places we freeze up. This isn’t a call to oppose a president. This is a challenge to arm yourself with knowledge in order to protect the dignity and rights of your fellow Americans.
Here is a partial list of organizations that can provide support, assistance, education, and resources. Find your local chapters and donate time or money. Educate yourself. Take to the streets peacefully. Attend discussions and forums. Write. Read. Whatever your preferred mode of action is, engage. To steal the words of a now former “friend” who mocked my opposition to the president they elected, “Be a part of the solution.” Indeed.
For more groups in the Seattle area, please see THIS LIST