As a 30-year-old black queer man working in majority-white spaces, I am no stranger to indescribable trauma requiring emotional check-ins: sexual assault, homophobia, racism, incessant microaggressions and other forms of institutional violence.
To help cope, I frequently told myself, “Black people have been through worse; you will get through it.” It was a temporary help in the face of what was a terrible world, one in which I couldn’t see myself surviving. In an odd way, the valuation of black life and how we persevere, especially in times of defeat, came to a head election night this week. Because although black people are strong for enduring our historical pain, we shouldn’t be forced to keep experiencing that to know we deserve better.
On Tuesday night I was surrounded in a sea of melanin at an election-watch party at the Park on Fourteenth in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, working in the nation’s capital and residing in Prince George’s County, Md., I have the privilege of escaping the conservative bubble I usually see from now President-elect Trump (sigh) and his surrogates on CNN and Fox News.
Around 11 p.m., as results rolled in for states like Pennsylvania, which has been traditionally blue, and my home state of Ohio, which has decided nearly every election, sometimes in unfortunate ways, I knew that what I feared most was about to happen: that America, in all of its vitriolic past and present, had claimed its overt whiteness once again by electing reality-television star Donald Trump—or, as Van Jones described it, a “whitelash.”
As tears began to roll down my face, a close friend embraced me with a hug that felt like an eternity. I wasn’t as sad about a Hillary Clinton loss as I was about a Trump win. As people started to move away from their jerk wings and mac and cheese and slowly looked up to check the results, it finally hit people that this was real, that the person who was replacing our first black president, Barack Obama, was none other than an avowed racist with no policy experience, whose vice presidential pick had no regard for marginalized communities—so much so that his cutting Planned Parenthood funding as governor of Indiana caused a major HIV outbreak in Scott County, Ind. He also fully supported implementing conversion therapy by using Ryan White CARE Act funds as a congressional candidate in 2000.
We should all be a little more frightened.
Granted, although I voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the primaries and wasn’t always on the #ImWithHer train, I knew that Clinton was objectively better than a person who was recorded boasting about sexual assault in the early 2000s, someone who filed bankruptcy between four and six times despite still being lauded as a business mogul, and someone whose racism extends so far that the federal government had to get involved. Further, as someone who works in sexual and reproductive health and rights, I was pained over what could happen with the rollback of women’s rights—reproductive and otherwise—under a Trump administration.
Sadly, we will find out soon enough.
These and many other reasons are why I voted for Clinton on Tuesday morning; but others, rightfully so, did not.
What I noticed from my comrades that night was people doing what I usually do: claiming that black people will be all right because we always persevere. Surely this is accurate, so it wasn’t the lack of accuracy that began to disturb me; it was the threshold that was naturally being implied. While I understand that black people will be “all right” because we have been through the unspeakable, it seems to set a low threshold of being treated like the gum on the bottom of sneakers—because that is what it has always been.
Let’s be abundantly clear: Black people are the strongest people ever to walk this planet. En masse, black people have experienced Western colonization, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, imposition of religion, institutionalized racism, the HIV epidemic, the crack epidemic, housing discrimination, medical racism, educational disparities, modern-day genocide and police violence. When we look at these experience, in totality, it’s hard not to imagine coping through this way, to use it as an “If my ancestors can go through all of that, I’ll be just fine.” But personally, I question what that can mean for us.
What I won’t do is police how people cope—that is an individual practice. We know what is ultimately best for ourselves. But it is important to understand why we cope the way we cope, and part of that is realizing that not all forms of coping are physically, mentally or emotionally healthy. And it doesn’t escape me that our stressing how worse we have been treated could set us up to be stagnant because we’re used to being treated like crap. What we internalize is just as important as what is being externalized—perhaps more so.
Yes, black people have been through more than any other community, but I don’t want us to just experience survival. Trust me, communities like black queer and transgender people understand that survival should be revered because the act of surviving in a world not meant for us is beautiful and unexpected. However, I am exhausted by the idea that our country only expects our survival.
While there is nuance behind this, because black people’s expressions of our collective capacities are part of a deep, embodied analysis, it is important to question the why. We are worth so much more than the expectation that our history of being wronged should shape how we should view what we deserve in the present and future.
Not only that, but it reflects just how the Trump campaign has been pandering to us all along: “You all are already in hell; what do you have to lose by voting for me?”
I suppose we will see.