“News cycles tend to suggest that change happens in small, sudden bursts or not at all…yet the struggle to get women the vote took nearly three quarters of a century. We are more than this moment.”
Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
I have lived in the U.S. for over four years. I call it my four-year moment. I had been living abroad and viewed the U.S. through my Canadian lens. “We share the same pop culture, a border, what could be so different,” I thought. My first clue was when I met my neighbor in the building I moved into. After a bit of flirting, he turned serious and said, “I need to tell you something. I’m Republican.”
In August 2016, I arrived in North Carolina to start my master’s studies. Three months later, the night of the presidential election, I gathered with classmates on campus. There were two viewing rooms: one airing Fox News, the other streaming MSNBC. The Fox room had less people, so I suggested we watch in there. My friends said they preferred MSNBC. “Okay,” I said, not realizing what we watched was a statement of political identity.
As I was in a program of international studies, my peers represented the views of the world. My friend from Japan spoke of how people in Asia were worried: If the U.S. withdrew from the region under Trump, “China will rule Asia,” he said. Another friend wondered if he could visit his family in Iraq, for fear of not being able to re-enter the U.S. (for the record, he was not able to go home to Iraq, not even for his father’s funeral). The moment we knew the election outcome, another friend, who is Latinx, turned to me with tears in her eyes. “I have relatives that could be deported if he implements his policies,” she said. I quickly realized that the human impacts of the election were very real.
In the following months, my geography set (or reset) my reality. Initially, the American South evoked images in my mind from Hollywood movies: Southern hospitality, sweeping verandas, sweet ice tea, and romance. I’m embarrassed to say that I bought into these singular stories. Until I didn’t. My romantic notions were soon replaced with new stories and history: slavery, Confederacy, the KKK, and Jim Crow laws for segregation. These were all born from the American South, and they have left brutal legacies. With this knowledge, I understand now that the BLM protests were a long-time coming. My question is, why did it take so long?
Grateful for this knowledge, for this truth, it also sat beside another important truth. You can’t paint everyone in a town or region with the same brush, nor condone them for the actions of their forefathers, or their neighbors.
As a Rotary Peace Fellow and person of color (understanding that my Asianness comes with model minority status), I was welcomed with warmth into majority white communities across North and South Carolina. I stayed in people’s homes. We shared common hopes for a peaceful world. We became friends. We shared similar concerns on a number of issues. We didn’t always agree on the lens through which history was presented, nor did we always share the same political views. Still, we respected each other. I understood these homes which welcomed me were not the same as the other homes that I sometimes saw, the ones that had Confederate flags on their porches or Don’t Tread on Me symbols in their windows.
A symbol commonly depicted at nationalist rallies.
2016 presidential election night.
A quick break from my master’s studies.
Still, many places I went, shadows of Jim Crow lingered. “We leave things on our porch all the time and nothing ever gets stolen,” one person told me, as he described his mixed-race neighborhood. There were so many layers to unpack in that one sentence.
Last January, I moved to Seattle. Within weeks, COVID-19 consumed the world. Wildfires on the West Coast polluted the skies so intensely we couldn’t go outside, and smoke seeped into our homes. George Floyd was murdered, and BLM went viral. All throughout the year, the drum of far right-t-t, far right-t-t, far right-t-t grew increasingly louder.
Seattle is an uber-progressive town. Terms like racism, structural inequity, dismantling power, and reparations are standard language. I don’t say this to diminish these terms. I believe they are powerful and true and essential. It is simply a stark contrast to the everyday language I heard in the South, where I think these terms, these truths, are being spoken in some homes, elevated in some classrooms, and normalized in some communities. But the American South is also home to the United Daughters of the Confederacy and active bastions of the KKK. The West Coast also has extreme groups such as Proud Boys and Patriot Front. The presidential election in 2020, it seemed, was going to be a referendum on national identity, and I was fearful that the far-right would reign.
So, here we are in 2021. COVID-19 vaccines are in motion. A new president is working to undo what the former has done. People are mobilizing for structural change. Yet I also understand that movements – groups united by politics, religion, faith, color, power or lack of it, good or bad depending on your perspective – take years to build, sometimes generations, and sometimes more to deconstruct.
In her book, Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Inside the word emergency is emerge…,” and I am looking to 2021 with these words in mind. After four years of carrying a heavy heart, I have hope. As Solnit states, we are more than today’s news cycle.
We are more than this moment.