I got up today and wasn’t sure what to wear.
I decided to wear the 6 yard length of white muslin I got myself as the most basic of basic saris.
It happens that white is the color of mourning in India, a color typically only worn (by women) as widows or the recently bereaved (or on Holi so you can then have the cool tiedyed look). (Men wear white a lot; it’s kind of like black in the western world). (Nonbinary, trans, and genderqueer folks in India is a cultural complexity that has not really been sorted in the clothing department.)
I didn’t think about it until I was pulling it around me, forming the pleats. The color of mourning. Huh. Well, yeah. Today feels like a not-very-celebratory day. It feels like a buckle-your-boots-and-get-down-to it day; a day for figuring out how I can do some good in the world, for writing the story of the world and country we all need to read so we can imagine it so we can create it, because what we have is sure as fuck not that…
but it could be. We can create it.
And that’s the most important part. We can do it. We are humans with power and will and brains in our heads and feet in our shoes (thank you Dr. Seuss) and we can do it.
We have been living with a Trojan Horse. It looked vaguely like a country which lived the values and ideals which it purported to uphold. But inside it was not only full of enemy soldiers with guns and tiki torches, but carpenter ants, eating away even the frame of the shell itself.
Those carpenter ants were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they destroyed what we* thought we had. On the other hand, they revealed the enemy hiding within and the fragility of the whole mess.
We can holler until the cows come home about how we aren’t now and have never been what we professed. It’s true.
But this is also a greater moment of opportunity than any time in our history. We can see it, all of us can see it and hear it and feel it. This carpenter-ant-and-tiki-torch horror is on the Jumbotron and on the loudspeaker with the extra bass beat and anyone who doesn’t know about it now has deliberately and willfully turned away. That deliberate rejection of knowledge is unconscionable, it bespeaks a failure of personal and collective and community morals, and we can absolutely judge people by that choice. Everything is exposed, and it’s about damn time.
Do I wish we had uncovered this putrid mass of filth and destruction earlier?
People have been saying what it was for a long time.
People have been writing and speaking and painting and drawing what it was for a long time.
People have been PAYING WITH THEIR LIVES for the excesses and ignorance of the rest of the people for a long.damn.time.
The problem was, it wasn’t just any people.
It was the very people this culture has been discounting and destroying and turning away from the gates for a long.damn.time. So this culture went on discounting and destroying, and discounting and destroying, and their voices of warning and righteousness and judgement and remedies got discounted and destroyed and turned away from along with their bodies and their hearts and their children and their needs.
It was your indigenous neighbors and your Black neighbors and your Latinx neighbors and your disabled neighbors and your immigrant neighbors (the ones who were poor and not white), all going along doing nothing but existing…and your trans neighbors and your queer-as-in-revolution, lesbian-when-wearing-mens-clothes-was-illegal, gay-bar-just-got-raided-now-I-need-surgery neighbors. They knew. They have known. They continue to know.
It’s not that hard to describe the people who were discounted and destroyed.
But it’s easier to describe the people who were safe, who had an expectation of being safe and heard:
They were white, usually with some money.
The color of mourning.
Anyway, my point is, the information was there, right out there, anyone could get to it. Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde all called it out–and those are just the ones I can think of without interrupting my writing to go look.
So let’s not “we should have known, I wish we had known.” Friends. We could have known collectively what the voices were shouting. There was some deliberate turning away there. That was a moral and values decision woven into our culture from our education system on upward. There was a whole lotta “that can’t be” and “there must be more to the situation”. There was a giant pile of benefit of the doubt that should not have benefited the people that it did, which was the white upper- and upper-middle-class power holders.
That’s not blame. That’s just facts. It happened like that. The rot was there, people said it, the people who could have done something about it failed to listen to the voices that were right.there, failed because of the very rot and danger that those voices were calling out. The carpenter ants and the soldiers protected themselves from being known.
Now it’s crumbled. There’s no protection there anymore. Now that crumbling structure is hitting some people on the head, and maybe that’s the casualty of that #secondcivilwar we’re being accused of planning.
Because it both is and isn’t a joke. We are in a fight for our lives, and for the values we wanted to believe everyone around us held all along, even though a lot of them didn’t.
We can do this. We can build something that is solid and true and real, and not a false idol to false gods or a false monument to a pretend reality. We can actually be the people we want to be, as a whole, with many parts, e pluribus unum. Both/and, separate and together.
We can. But the most powerful of the small groups, the white folks? You need to get in the game.
There’s an old white lady somewhere who threatened to video record a woman who was threatening to call the police on a couple of black kids selling candy bars. Be like her.
There’s a bunch of people who got together to raise money to replace the belongings of a homeless guy who had his stuff dumped in a lake by a jogger. Be like them.
There’s a neighborhood where white folks speak Spanish first to say hello to folks, even if they’re not fluent, because so many people speak Spanish there. Be like them.
The most powerful change we can make right now is not legislative, it’s cultural. History teaches us that there is a simultaneous transformation of culture and law required if progress is to take. That is not to say that we should give up on laws. But laws don’t change hearts. People change hearts. Living changes hearts. Eventually the change gets so deep that laws to the contrary are literally inconceivable.
The first step is living into it.
We forget this, because we are steeped in a cultural-religious history that believes that coercion and aversion are the only ways to change behavior. Hell, purgatory, penance–these are designed by people who believe in lots of sticks and no carrots. But behavioral science tells us otherwise. Fear-based-compliance fosters resentment and usually leads to recidivism.
True change comes from lived experience of the alternative, comes from compassion, comes from connection. “The greatest of these is love,” (1 Cor 13) isn’t just some throwaway line. It’s about the heart of transformation.
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
What changes us is our lived, felt, daily, embedded experience.
So if you want to change the country, go live it. Be the hero you always thought you’d be in the face of supervillains and Nazis. Fight the bad guys. Don’t be afraid to know who they are. Don’t make excuses. And if you find yourself monologuing, ask yourself which side you’re really on.
Take heart; all is not lost, for we are the people of America, as surely as any, all of us together. We have only to live that way with deliberate force and determination; we have only to take action for what is right with fierceness and courage; we have only to do what we have already said we will do, over and over, in every day.
Do not lose hope. Do not lose courage. Do not lose your ideals.
You have built [them] in the air. That is where they belong.
Now put foundations under them. (Thoreau).
*many of us have known for a long time that we did not, in fact, have what everyone else thought we had. But collectively we needed to learn, as a complete body we did not know. W/we, the greater collective We and the smaller we-s that comprise it are complicated in relationship to each other.