In order to take real action against the stunning array of life-threatening emergencies that have always been part of the fabric of this nation, we must let go of the illusion that any single one of us can defeat them.
It’s like standing in the doorway between two rooms, listening to conversations in both. In one room, people are chatting about their dogs, their upcoming vacations, the Carters’ new album. In the other, there’s a fire. People are trying to put the fire out. If it gets out of control, the fire could burn down the whole house, the way fires sometimes do; but the people in the other room either aren’t aware there’s a fire yet, or they’re pretty sure someone else is going to handle it.
The room far away from the fire, let’s be honest with ourselves and call it white America. (If you don’t think there are at least two different countries called the United States, layered on top of each other but seldom touching, you have not been paying attention to what Black people and Indigenous people and Muslim people and undocumented people and people of color have been saying for years, for centuries. These alarm bells that some of us are just now perceiving have always been part of the background music of America.)
And to many people who aren’t yet feeling the heat, all this talk about the fire is basically a big, annoying distraction. I’m not even talking about the people who wear red baseball caps and root for the fire, I’m talking about the ones who are unbothered. You’ve met these people; they’re your friends or family members or maybe they’re even you, the people who aren’t necessarily in favor of indefinite detention for asylum seekers, or banning travel from majority-Muslim countries, but they also don’t see the point in getting all worked up over it. The “it’s not that bad” people. The ones whose primary concern is whether people whose shoes are starting to scorch are being polite enough in calling for water.
Ever since November of 2016, I’ve had “moderate” friends telling me “Don’t worry, we’ll fight for you if it ever gets bad.” One family friend who actually voted for Trump said, “If I thought for a second they would try to take your marriage away, I’d be taking to the streets.” These are not malicious people; they genuinely believe that they would vehemently, even violently, oppose fascism if it ever showed its face. So why don’t they see it as it’s happening all around us?
White America loves revolutionaries – at least in theory. We are so into savior narratives. We love people who struggled against great odds and won, as long as they’re confined to fiction or history. We love to see the perilous road to victory traversed in a neat 100 minutes with enough time left over for a romantic subplot. This, I think, is why so many people are blogging and tweeting about “what Harry Potter would do” or “what Katniss Everdeen would do” or whatever, in a desperate bid to appeal to white people’s sense of narrative vanity.
The problem is that real heroism is drawn-out and messy and interdependent and maybe never resolved in your lifetime, or maybe never resolved at all. People spend their whole lives fighting corrupt, dehumanizing systems and never gain more than a few inches of ground. We mostly don’t make movies about that. We mostly don’t memorialize the failed revolutions, the ongoing battles.
It’s fun and satisfying to watch a movie about enslaved people rising up and killing their captors, knowing that chattel slavery is far in the past. It’s easy to identify the evil when we isolate it within the borders of a story. It’s a lot less tidy to contemplate the ways in which today’s prison industrial complex reprises that grotesque institution, to think about the linguistic trick by which calling someone a “criminal” renders them less than human, just the way the word “slave” did in past centuries. It’s easier to condemn your ancestors who owned plantations than your living loved ones who work for ICE or as corrections officers.
You know that meme about “whatever you’re doing now is what you would have done during Hitler’s rise to power”? It’s as true as it is unflattering. If I acknowledge that things are Really That Bad now, it means acknowledging this realization about my character. In the face of humanitarian catastrophe in myriad forms, I am the kind of person who calls my representatives, attends the occasional protest, and donates some money. That’s pretty shabby, right? No one’s going to make an Oscar-bait movie called The Girl Who Set Up a Planned Parenthood Auto-Pay.
But the reason heroism is special is that it’s rare. Not a lot of people have what it takes to lead a revolution. Most of us will show up to a march, applaud the speeches, and then go home and watch Samantha Bee. We’re morally on the side of justice, but we have day jobs. We have mortgages to pay and kids to raise. We can’t give our entire lives to the fight.
And which fight do I mean? There are so many. The struggle for reproductive freedom, especially as Anthony Kennedy retires and the future of Roe v. Wade looks bleak? The plight of asylum-seeking families pulled apart and thrown into indefinite detention at the southern border? The ongoing targeting of Black people and communities of color by a police force deeply rooted in slavery? The water in Flint, Michigan? The purging of voter rolls in Ohio? There are a thousand battles going on that desperately need our attention. No one could conceivably give all of them the time and resources they deserve.
The problem for many of us, I believe, is when we’re so twisted around our cultural legacy of savior narratives that we are incapable of perceiving ourselves as extras in someone else’s story. The logic at work here is backwards. It’s not that we’re not fighting because we don’t see an emergency; we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s not an emergency because we’re not fighting. To face up to how bad things are would be to acknowledge how little power we as individuals actually have. It’s appealing to believe that you could topple an authoritarian regime with your bare hands, but you can only cling to that belief by ignoring the fact that we’re currently, actively in one. In order to take real action against the stunning array of life-threatening emergencies that have always been part of the fabric of this nation, we must let go of the illusion that any single one of us can defeat them.
Too many people are using their voices, in this era of chaos and dread, to tell people there’s nothing to worry about, because to admit that there is something to worry about would be to acknowledge that they don’t know how to fix it. I think a lot of the complacence we see right now is not really indifference but fear, the willful tuning out of our own empathy because to face the problems head-on is to realize how far we are from solutions.
We don’t have to be the heroes of this story. Other people have been auditioning for those roles all their lives, and they are better prepared and organized, and we can start to help by getting the fuck out of their way. Every day, we’re choosing how the world will remember us. I don’t expect to appear in the history books as a champion, but I don’t want to be confined to a sidebar that says “And THESE assholes didn’t do fuck all.” You’re in this story whether you want to be or not. It’s only a matter of choosing your side.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).