Written By Irtefa Binte-Farid.
Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States of America.
I had hoped it would not come to pass. As a Muslim hijabi woman of color, I have never been blind to the type of hate he enabled through his campaign rhetoric, but I was not shortsighted enough to think it began with Trump. Violence against brown/black/female/marginalized bodies is in the very DNA of our country; our nation was built through the genocide of Native peoples and the enslavement and dehumanization of African Americans.
I moved to the U.S. with my family on Nov. 11, 2001. Some of my earliest experiences in America include being called “raghead” and “Osama’s sister” and being told to “go back to where you came from.” That is the America I know firsthand.
Nevertheless, I held onto hope that Trump had crossed too many lines for too many people, especially with his “grab them by the p*ssy” comment, when the world (including Republicans) seemed to rush to defend the honor of white women.
But apparently, even that transgression was forgivable—by 53 percent of white women themselves.
Violence against brown/black/female/marginalized bodies is in the very DNA of our country; our nation was built through the genocide of Native peoples and the enslavement and dehumanization of African Americans.
Too soon after the elections, I am back in resistance mode. I don’t really have a choice. I wanted to start by bringing my observations as an anthropologist, an immigrant, a woman of color and a Muslim to highlight why intersectional solidarity is not just an option—is the only way we can fight structural marginalization.
To make my point, let me share a personal story first.
When I was four years old, I used to have a recurring nightmare: I would be walking with one of my great-aunts near my mother’s childhood home in Northwest Bangladesh. As we passed an open field, she snatched me up in her arms and started running back to the house. I looked back only to see rows of soldiers marching, guns pointed straight at us.
The dream never went beyond that. I always woke up with the need to keep running, to escape.
And even though I didn’t live through it, I knew that the nightmare was inspired by one of my mother’s stories from the 1971 Bangladeshi War of Liberation: her first memory—from when she herself was four years old—of being carried away from burning buildings and gun-toting Pakistani soldiers by her aunt, the same woman from my dream.
How do you explain waking up terrified by memories that aren’t your own? How do you relive experiences that you’ve never had?
What I have come to realize through personal experience and academic study is that there is no way I can express “grief” through my own experiences alone—that any description of my emotions necessarily has to be refracted through the narratives of loss and heartache I have either inherited or gathered during my short life. Every time I hear female friends speak about experiences of sexual assault, or when I hear Jewish friends tell stories about how their grandparents survived the Holocaust, or see black friends get frustrated about the sheer number of micro-aggressions they experience on a daily basis, I incorporate a bit of their pain into my world.
Therefore, the stories I use to make sense of the world around me, as well as the workings of my inner life, do not spring from my own mind alone but instead are often borrowed from intersubjective experiences. In fact, my very identity and my ability to relate with others have as much to do with how I am interpellated as it does with how I view myself.
But beyond that, at a structural level, communities that are not part of the hegemony—whose stories are not included in the “popular culture”—often do not have the ability to tell coherent stories. Part of the reason why we absorb other narratives of trauma in order to articulate our pain is because our individual experiences do not compute as “common sense,” and our struggles are seen as exaggerated, exceptional or deserved.
“Maybe if she wasn’t wearing such revealing clothes… ”
“He wouldn’t be been running away from the police if he had nothing to hide… ”
“Poor thing—she has been brainwashed into wearing that scarf… ”
Thus, our understanding of the world is delegitimized.
In the face of such obvious and/or subtle hostility, many people do not risk sharing their life. In fact, it is as if we do not have the vocabulary with which to share our experiences—no recognizable position for us to be the subjects of our own narratives. So when we do try to tell our stories, they are often fragmentary, inconclusive, uncertain—much like our lived experiences and our efforts to make sense of the hurt we face almost every day. When we do try to explain acts of micro-aggression in our own terms, we are often silenced with well-meaning but hurtful phrases—
“I’m sure s/he didn’t mean it…”
“I think you’re overreacting…”
“Are you sure you remember right?”
So most of us stay silent—it is not worth the effort to articulate your pain only to have it be denied. Or when we do speak, we rely on collective memories and shared experiences to give weight to our words.
Is it then so weird that I dream my mother’s memories? She has never been able to articulate a “proper” story about the events surrounding her escape from their home. The gaps in her story made her fear more palpable than did the eloquence of words, yet I have spent my whole academic career attempting to make sense of her silences.
Traditional scholarship tells us that in order to be true, an event must be witnessed firsthand and corroborated with secondary sources. This obsession with impersonal and rigorous standards for substantiating “individual experience” with corroborating evidence dismisses, rather than empowers, the voices of marginalized peoples.
Because our stories are often not individual. They are often not coherent. But still, they are true.
How does any of this relate to Trump’s election?
The people who elected Donald Trump denied the truth of our stories because they considered their own anger and fear to be more legitimate.
One rape accusation here,
One murder of an unarmed black man by a cop there,
One suicide by a transgendered teen,
One black church vandalized,
One mosque burned –
— did not add up to a “real” story about systematic violence against marginalized bodies for these voters. “It’s the economy, stupid,” remember?
Did Trump supporters have legitimate critiques of a government system that has left them behind? Given that Democrats and Republicans have ignored the plight of rural America as jobs are shipped overseas and a generation is lost to opioids addiction, they absolutely did.
But does being able to ignore Trump’s racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic/hateful rhetoric make them part of a racist system even if they don’t agree with him on the “race stuff”? YES, it absolutely does!
Racism is not about personal choice; it is about a structure of power that derives strength from the silencing of minority voices.
So what can we, the historically disenfranchised, do to fight against structural systemic racism?
We keep telling our stories, passing them on through the generations, sharing our trauma such that it becomes more bearable.
In addition, we practice listening to each other and checking our own prejudices and privileges–
White allies need to do better at listening to people of color instead of expressing their shock and denial about being part of a racial state.
Men of color need to listen when women tell them about the violence of living in a patriarchal society.
White women need to listen when women of color tell them about the violence they face because of their race in a patriarchal system.
Non-Black Muslims need to listen to our Black religionists when they tell us about the racism they face in our mosques.
Men and women, regardless of race/faith/sexual orientation/etc., need to listen to and stand up for victims of sexual assault.
Religious people need to listen when LGBTQ folk tell us about the homophobia they face within our communities disguised as divine law.
Cisgendered people need to listen when transgendered people tell us they are whole and confident in their own bodies.
The list goes on.
Most importantly, we move beyond listening to organizing. We need to take lessons from the #BlackLivesMatter and #NoDAPL movements; with few resources beyond phone cameras and social media hashtags—and of course their own unwanted bodies—these activists have managed to engage the attention of the whole world and bring light to the abuse their communities face.
Attention alone is not going to solve the problems these activists highlight, but their courage has shown us what a powerful tool international intersectional solidarity can be in the age of the internet.
I know we are in pain today. I know we are scared of a future living under the rule of a demagogue who panders to the worst instincts of the masses.
But we must harness that pain and tell our stories together. We must listen to the breaks and the gaps in each others’ narratives and magnify the trauma left unspoken. We must continue to do the work necessary to organize our communities and build intersectional alliances across racial/linguistic/religious barriers.
Because the only way we can win against a racist system built on differences written in our very bodies is if we come together and reject those categories.