Kate Wright | CRCS | Voices from America
The United States and Indonesia are both plural societies that struggle to understand how to live together in diversity and with the meaning of pluralism itself. From its beginnings seventeen years ago, CRCS has had strong ties with American academia. Pioneers in inter-religious studies from the U.S., including John Raines, Mahmud Ayoub and Paul Knitter, were present at our founding and have been followed by a number of visiting lecturers who have stayed for a few weeks, months, or years, and by generations of English teachers. In addition, more than thirty CRCS alumni/ae have continued their studies for MA and PhD degrees in American universities. As we followed the news of the U.S. election within the context of the anti-pluralist turns across Asia and Europe, we wanted to know what our American friends are thinking and so we invited them to contribute their reflections to this page. This is the first of the Voices from America series. To read the Indonesian translation of this article, click here. To read the second of the series, click here.
In 2002, I was living in Yogyakarta and on a short trip to sightsee in Bali when U.S. president George Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. I was sad and frustrated, feeling like invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein would no more make our world safer from terrorism than it would bring back the dead of the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001.I felt that this war would be a wedge between me and the people I lived among in Yogyakarta.
The war started, and continued, and expanded to Afghanistan, and we found no weapons of mass destruction, and more and more the news told us that intelligence on Islamic radicalism and potential terrorism against the Western world was scant and faulty. Few in the military spoke Arabic. Few had any understanding of Middle Eastern countries and cultures.
2004 was another election year. George Bush ran for a second term against John Kerry. Bush was ridiculed. He didn’t seem intelligent. We were stuck in two intractable wars. Comparisons to the Vietnam war were made. We were not safer from foreign born terrorism. We had not captured Osama bin Laden, America’s enemy number one. Yet despite this, Bush won. A professor at CRCS walked out of his office and into mine and said, “Kate, what is wrong with your people?”
I was devastated that Bush won a second term. Experiencing U.S. presidential elections from abroad is confusing. The presidency is rarely won on the basis of foreign policy; domestic issues are what keep voters up at night. But outside the U.S., news reporting on the U.S. focuses, not surprisingly, on foreign policy. I could not explain how the president who got us into two ongoing wars during a time of increased world terrorism had won the White House again. Now, 12 years later, I look back on that devastation as if remembering a childhood sadness, like losing a favorite toy. So sweet, so naïve; we had no idea what was coming.
I used to feel like the Presidency was so far away, so distant. It didn’t really touch my life. I didn’t think of the President as “my President” or “not my President” as the resisters continue to insist. But two things changed that: the Obamas, and Trump.
The leadership of the Obama family made the White House feel like America’s house. They drew me in to their lives like a welcome voyeur, and made me feel like that house was my heritage. They invited pop stars and Girl Scouts and kindergarten classes and college professors. Barack Obama had a whole team to read and respond to his mail, and he read much of it too. Michelle Obama spoke eloquently of her children growing up in the White House. And I, along with the rest of America, looked into their lives and felt proud of them. They represented the best of America: hard-working, kind, generous, down-to-earth.
And then Donald Trump moved into my house.
Now, the man living in my house is a bully who brags about sexually assaulting women. And I am a woman, and I have a daughter who should not feel threatened or displaced, in the ways that I have, by virtue of her physiology. She deserves better.
Now, the man living in the White House accepts the support of the Ku Klux Klan and put Steve Bannon, who is called by the Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi “a white supremacist”, on the National Security Council. And my husband is black and our children are mixed race, which in America means black, and of course my husband’s whole family – my family, now – is black, and so we are all openly hated by the man in the White House, which used to be our house.
Now, the man living in the White House is a bully who makes fun of the disabled. My son has Down Syndrome. His face is shaped differently, his gait is different, he works harder than the rest of us to get his words out of his throat. There is no doubt in my mind that if the president were to meet someone like my son he would ridicule him.
Of these three types of hatred: of women, of Blacks, of the disabled, we are accustomed to living with the first two. I have lived, persevered, even thrived despite the first my whole life. My husband has lived, persevered, even thrived in the omnipresence of the second. But my son is only four. We’ve only had four years to get used to this hatred being a factor in our daily lives. And, I believe, we thought we wouldn’t have to. We dared to believe that ridicule was beyond the pale. It’s not – it’s ensconced in the White House, our house.
I ask myself the professor’s question: Kate, what is wrong with your people? How could we vote for someone who thinks it is okay to molest women, insult African-Americans, and ridicule the disabled? Why is the experience of women, of people of color, of the differently-abled, not significant enough to influence our votes? Don’t we matter? I thought that we had begun to matter to the nation; to be of some significance.
I remember in 2008 watching the presidential election. I made my then-boyfriend, now husband, come with me to Corner Brewery, a brewpub in Ypsilanti, Michigan.We sat with my friends and watched until midnight, when the returns came in from California, Oregon, and Washington and clinched the Presidency for Barack Obama. I was elated.So proud of other white people. See? I wanted to say to my husband. White America is starting to stop hating you. There is hope for white people. We can unlearn hate and the world will be a better place for our future children.
The election of Barack Obama in this country, raised and fatted on racism, marked a turning point. It didn’t end racism – something so symbolic never can – but it altered the landscape. And I hoped, with the election of Hillary Clinton, we would turn another corner, and I would be able to say to my daughter, “See? Our country can believe in us, and does not demean us. There is a chance that you can be safe in this country.”
But I cannot yet say this to her. America failed its opportunity to sustain future progress.
My husband and his family may have guessed America would fail, that retrenchment was coming. But I feel occupied. I feel like an invader and his invading Breitbart army is sitting in my house, the White House.
What does Trump’s election say about America?
America is racist, bigoted, misogynist,and isolationist. Class divisions run deep, privilege reproduces itself, and cities, neighborhoods, and school systems are de facto segregated.
America is also open-minded, free, diverse, accepting. America is welcoming. Anyone can come here and make a new life. It is a place where you are not supposed to be chauvinistic about your religion, where religious leaders routinely come together with no contest or question about which religion is the right one. It is a place where racism is so thoroughly stigmatized as an ideology that even bigots, after hurling terrible, racially-motivated insults will turn around and deny, to their core, any racist feeling.
We must see these contradictions at the same time. “To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me.
The racist and the anti-racist, the impulse to white privilege and the effort to share the wealth, coexist beside each other, neither one negating the other. The task is now before us to see the reality of America, to be brave enough to understand the experience of otherness as authentically American. One does not need to be white, or middle-class, or male, to be authentically American.However, the experiences of white, middle-class males are routinely considered to be the norm.
In this America is not unique. Indonesia has its dominant narrative and character: the middle-class Muslim Javanese man; it also has its counter-narratives from outer islands, waria (transgender), and indigenous religions. If the people of our two countries can work together in positive ways to share theologies of love and of justice, to share histories of civic engagement and civil rights, then we will outlast this presidency.
Voting like our lives depend on it
For me in America, the next step is a better-informed and more engaged voting public. The day after the election, a colleague of mine who knew how excited I was for a Clinton presidency, stopped by my desk to see if I was okay. “I didn’t vote for him, if it makes you feel better,” she told me. It was clear to me that she’d voted for one of the two major third party candidates, probably Gary Johnson. But she knew Gary Johnson wouldn’t win. She didn’t want Trump to win any more than I did. She just assumed her one vote wouldn’t change anything, and she didn’t like Clinton. So when she voted for Johnson, she was registering her protest at government in general rather than hoping for a Johnson presidency. But it did have an effect. The effect of all those protest votes for Johnson and Stein was a Trump presidency.
Electoral politics matter and an educated and informed voting public matter. We need positive votes – votes for a candidate, not against ‘the system’ or the ‘status quo.’ In addition to great candidates who deserve our support, we must, as a population, understand the full effect of our elections and then be smart about how we use our votes. It is the only weapon we have.
Ethical citizenship, to me, is voting like our lives depend on it. Because in more ways than we realize, they do.
Kate Wright taught English at CRCS from 2002-2005 after graduating from Oberlin College in 2001. She has an M.A. in Southeast Asian Studies. She is now a mother of two working and living in Michigan – a white woman, married to a Black man. Their oldest child has Down syndrome.