When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.
– Audre Lorde
I buy the house for the future. Political variables do not enter into the equation. Of course the system will stay healthy enough to sustain my son and me. Housing markets rise and fall. Financial markets swing from bear to bull. Social security may last or disappear. Through all this, my house is insurance. The same is true of my education, my work experience, my retirement savings, my kid’s college fund. The road will have its bumps but we’ll be okay, more or less.
(But for how long?)
My decision fails take into consideration that truth is only assumption and that nothing is fixed.
Now a fear takes root, a fear bigger and more eclipsing than any I’ve ever experienced. Inside this fear swim all the possibilities of a much darker future. Inside this fear dawns a recognition of the fragility of my security.
Privilege, as it happens, will not protect me.
A man at church describes how he’s only just now – four months after the presidential election – emerging from the emotional sinkhole that swallowed him in November. Here he stands next to me describing his paralysis. A progressive middle-aged white man with a solid career, a wife and grown kids, a home he owns. Even he is feeling it.
We’re having these conversations. Every day, I hear another spin on the same story. Graduate students, parents at the park, gym acquaintances. They describe a confusion mixed up with anxiety. Rage tinged with grief. They marvel, incredulous still that our country in 2017 not only tolerates but gleefully celebrates xenophobia, violence, lies, dictatorship, hate.
Fear permeates all of these emotions. These acquaintances and co-workers do not fear only in the abstract. This goes well beyond “democratic values” and “justice.”
They fear for their own safety. For the security of their children. They fear nuclear winter, a totalitarian police state, the gutting of the institutions of government. They fear a cascade of ecological crises triggering a global apocalypse.
Whatever the specter of devastation, it should serve as a mobilizing force. Yet the spark such dread could light is no match for the spitting storm of a thousand tiny fears. These small terrors, the ones close to home, paralyze.
A woman who works at a local hospital says she’s reluctant to make calls to her representatives during the work day in case she gets in trouble for doing political advocacy on the clock.
A professor at a public university says she’s cooling her fervor on Twitter in case she gets targeted as “too liberal.”
A local CPA says he could lose clients at his small firm if he’s perceived as partisan.
These are liberal white-skinned folks with white-collar careers living in an affluent part of northern Virginia.
When white folks learned about slavery or the Holocaust in school, didn’t we all ask into the silence of our own hearts, “What would I have done?” We’d like to believe we would have railed against such dehumanization. We also know it’s entirely possible that we would not only have kept silent, we might have profited. We might have enslaved people to do our work. Informed on our neighbors. Burned synagogues.
Knowing that this possibility exists for me – that I am even able to ask such a question, given my place and race and privilege – means that I have an extraordinary responsibility in this current moment.
Because make no mistake.
This is the civil rights movement. This is the expulsion of the Jews from Europe.
This moment of decision: To which side of history do I belong?
The daily shitstorm on the news is not a digital archive. Yes, it may look eerily familiar, but it does not reflect scenes from the past.
This happens now.
Deportations, ICE raids, toppled headstones in Jewish cemeteries.
It happens here.
Tear gassed protestors. Nazi salutes in high schools. Nazi advisors in the White House.
Our job is not to “find out” how it will turn out or how we will behave. Our job is to write the story now, to do everything we can to determine the outcome.
Every dark chapter in the history of our species includes thin slices of light. Through every scourge moved a few healers. Against every bombing railed a few of the party’s own. Out from every ethnic cleansing led a trail of safe houses.
Rescuers, resisters, tree-sitters, and citizens standing up in statehouses and town halls.
Disruptors, medics, Freedom Riders, and insiders pressing their advantage in the direction of justice.
So I ask:
Who will I be in the history books written about this moment?
The only reason we have icons with whom we can identify — icons who force us to questions how we would act if we time-traveled back in history — is because they stood up. Or sat down. Or spoke up. Or walked out. Because they took extraordinary risks and sacrificed safety and livelihood and reputation in order to do what needed to be done.
Will my grandchildren be able to find heroes in these pages? Will my work weave that critical strand into the story? Will I be among the ones who future generations can hang onto as a thread of hope?
When we read now of the horrors, we want to identify with the revolutionaries. With the kids sitting at the lunch counter, not the ones spitting in their faces. Not the ones hidden outside the frame, the privileged and silent bystanders who didn’t want to get involved or didn’t know how to.
Or feared that their businesses might be targeted
Or their homes vandalized.
Or their coworkers informing the boss that they’ve been using work time to advocate.
Will I be one in the faceless, self-preserving mass who allows this tragedy to blossom into the governing reality of our shared life? Will I hide behind anonymity, just getting by, keeping my head down and doing the work to protect my family?
Or will I be the revolutionary?
I can ask these question because I have the privilege to hide. (But for how long?)
I can ask these question because I have the power to choose. (But for how long?)
Our homes, savings accounts, jobs, and “race” are not our security. They never were, and that’s never more clear than it is now.
No democratic values exist separate from the work of the governed to preserve them.
My future — my son’s, my neighbors’, my own — grows from the action I take to protect it.
Which side of history?
Image: Charlotte Riley-Webb, “Dance Trilogy”