Kwanzaa 2021: Umoja (Unity)

The past five years have been very difficult ones for me. The fundamental shock of seeing my fellow countryfolk vote for Trump in the 2016 election curdled into a trauma over time, as I learned just how mistaken I was about the attitudes of the Americans around me — even folks I thought had been on my side. Some of them had actually voted for the man who called for the Exonerated Five to be put to death; who called immigrants seeking a better life rapists and criminals; who had been recorded bragging about his ability to sexually assault women and get away with it. Others had downplayed his destructive potential from a place of privilege, opting to check out of politics instead of helping those of us directly affected by the abuse of his newfound power. Others still wanted to relitigate controversies that I imagined were effectively settled. As the only Black friend for a lot of people in the fandom, I had to hide the disappointment, anger, shock and sadness from folks I had built a decade-long relationship with so they could sort through dilemmas that were only theoretical for them. This community of allies and comrades at my back suddenly evaporated, and for the first time in a very long time I felt alone.

I spent the next few years in vain trying to find ways to talk about white privilege without triggering the personal defensiveness I was seeing on social media, in private conversations, even in the media. At some point it felt like it was impossible. Some of the earliest friends I had made in the fandom couldn’t see past the idea that any recognition of privilege was a direct accusation of their moral failing — which it was not, I feel I still need to stress. None of us can help being trapped in a racist system. However, it’s our responsibility to recognize the advantages we receive through inherently unfair institutions, sit with that discomfort, and do what we can to begin deconstructing it. After a time, it felt like far too few were willing to be still in their discomfort no matter how gently I tried to help them sit through it.

So I stopped trying. I quit speaking up about the state of the world, and I quit trying to have personal conversations with people about it, even when they asked me. I thought that most people who knew me weren’t really interested in my experience or what I had to say about it; they only wanted for me to absolve them of an original sin. They would come to me so I, as a bona-fide Black American, could bless them as “one of the good ones”. Then they could feel justified with their unexamined existence content with the knowledge they weren’t actively contributing to the problem.

I felt increasingly lonely. Unable to talk about what I was feeling with the certainty that anyone would listen, understand, or sympathize, my emotions became a fog of suffering I had no words to navigate, impossible to cut through to see the world as it was. I was alone, unable to know myself because I couldn’t trust my own mind or what was reflected back at me from other people. I tried to think as little as possible. I poured myself into work and used weed to turn my brain off whenever I wasn’t working. Within a couple of years, it felt like I had lost touch with myself and I couldn’t imagine a future in which I was happy.

I’ve only recently come out of that way of thinking, and I’m very happy I did. Looking back, it feels like I had fallen victim to the “all-or-nothing” thinking so prevalent among the most vocal contingent of the Online Left. I had come to the belief that unless someone had the exact same opinion that I did on most things, I just couldn’t stand to be around them. I don’t mean there shouldn’t be lines that can’t be crossed, and I don’t mean to judge where anyone’s lines are, but for me — life got a lot better and a lot less lonely when I re-examined where my lines were and whether they really needed to be there.

So many people in this world are on a journey of understanding that takes time, energy, and patience — three things that are in such short supply these days. The friends who came to me at different points along their journey weren’t asking for permission to stay still; many of them were asking for guidance on where they should place their next steps. The tenor of our discourse has made putting one foot wrong an intensely frightening proposition, and any one of us can be permanently ejected from our communities for making a mistake. That last sentence is written as fact not because it is, but because it is the fundamental perception of many people in positions of privilege. They “know” it just as firmly as I “knew” I didn’t have any allies, only people who needed me to ease their cognitive dissonance.

We live in a time where we can no longer tolerate even hints of bigotry because we know now how deeply it has embedded itself into the foundations of our civilization. We’re out of time to chip away at its influence; it must be ripped out of our world, roots and all, if we’re to make it to the next stage of our existence. I recognize that need on an institutional level, but the fact remains we can’t use the same method to purge it on an interpersonal level. We can’t isolate people who have bigotry in their hearts if we want to purge it from them. We have to give them time, energy, and patience, as difficult and exhausting as that might be.

Looking ahead, I want to express my activism more like Tracy Turnblad from “Hairspray”. I know that’s a pretty weird declaration, but hear me out.

What I love most about “Hairspray” is how Tracy shows everyone around her how to change through embracing love and loosening their grip on fear. She isn’t afraid to confront people on bigotry, but her message is always “Loving everyone is way, way more fun — look at this great time you could be having instead of being alone, afraid, and angry.” The big showstopper “You Can’t Stop The Beat” is all about the inevitability of love, how it’s more fundamental to our natures than fear and hatred, and that it’s useless to fight against the tide of unity that our love brings. The human heart wants to be united with other hearts. It needs the slightly different tilt of others’ perspectives to shine more brightly. Love looks best when it’s a kaleidoscope.

Sometimes, that kaleidoscope includes bends of light that we don’t like. It doesn’t mean that bend shouldn’t be there; it just means we still have work to do to perfect the pattern we’re building. We don’t do that by tumbling everything down to a smooth sheen. Our brains aren’t meant to be glass simple. We need the bends, we need the folds, to live up to our true potential. We’re meant to shine like cut diamonds.

As necessary as it is to purge our lives of bigoted thinking and those who strengthen the institutions of injustice, I think we could stand to remember that the entire reason we’re fighting this is to unite the human race as one brotherhood — across races, nationalities, cultures and expressions of our personhood. Even the people who have done the worst things need to have a place in our society if they ever agree to be repentant for what they’ve done. What is the way home for our brothers and sisters who have been hopelessly lost in the desert of hatred for so long?

How can we unite each other in 2022? How can we commit to unifying our communities even when it’s hard and the work is exhausting? That’s what sits on the top of my mind this first day of Kwanzaa. My recommitment to connection.

Happy Kwanzaa, everyone. May we be united in our work for a better world.

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