I recently heard an excellent speaker—an older gay man who dedicated his life to advocating for children in the school system—talk about the importance of compassion in these fraught political times.
“I grew up with the people who voted for Trump,” he said. “They are not my enemy. If we see each other as enemies now, we will never get anywhere. We have to see and value the humanity we all share. Otherwise nothing can change.”
I appreciated his message, but I find it hard to put into practice.
I, too, come from a specific community whose values I emerged from and struggle with. The complexities of speaking up, speaking out, and mutual compassion at this point in history came into focus for me at a gas station in Berkeley the other day.
I was standing outside my car, the cool wind making me shiver, the sharp smell of the gasoline making me wince. The card reader on the pump wasn’t working. A young white man, an employee of the station, approached me to offer assistance. After he had fixed the problem, he hung around to talk with me while I pumped gas. He soon asked, as many people do, where I’m from.
“No way!” he exclaimed, on hearing my answer. “My dad’s from South Africa! I’ve never been.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” I replied, “You should go sometime.”
I should have known from the sideways glance he gave me.
“I dunno. I don’t know much about Nelson Mandela,” he said, “but didn’t he try to blow up a post office or something?”
Its been a while since I’ve encountered this kind of white South African—or, in this case, offspring of white South African. And I’ve had 45 years to learn to navigate these kinds of conversations, part of which is giving myself permission to pick my battles.
At the same time, I have also learned that silence is complicity. So here I am at this gas station in America, in the late winter sun, looking at a stranger I don’t know at all and suddenly dislike intensely, being forcibly reminded of an unpleasant aspect of home.
“Well,” I said slowly, “Arguably, he had good cause.”
“What cause was that?” he asked, knowingly, sneeringly.
“Apartheid,” I said.
Apartheid, the system of legislated racial oppression that emerged from centuries of colonial brutality, that structured every aspect of every person’s life, that exploited, dispossessed, raped, starved, beat, and murdered millions of black South Africans and other people of color in the land that had once been theirs. The system that denied the value of African languages and cultures, that destroyed family systems and impacted ways of life, forcing them to change to accommodate the colonizers’ desire for profit. The system whose inheritances continue to haunt the people of my homeland, all of us, in various ways. Apartheid, whose tagline was “separate but equal,” but whose stark lesson was that separate is never equal.
The young man is the child of a father who grew up in my country, who left it as I left it, albeit perhaps two decades later and at a very different historical moment, whose children are American, as mine are. This young man raised his head and looked me clear in the eye with a certainty, a smugness, that took my breath away.
“It’s just separateness,” he said. “What’s wrong with that?”
I felt my breath shorten. My chest constricted, and for a moment I was speechless.
“It’s not ‘just separateness’,” I managed to say. Then I had to decide if I was going to say more, say something about the meaning of “separation” to this stranger, this young, arrogant, man, who had clearly thrown a challenge at my feet and stood waiting to see if I would pick it up.
Mostly I was reeling at the memories of encounters like these, encounters I had not had since moving to Berkeley. I was trying to make sense of how it could be that a past I thought was over could suddenly, unexpectedly, erupt into my present moment, and then I remembered: oh yes. Trump. That’s why this young man is being so brazen with me, and so clearly enjoying it. He feels like he has permission.
“My grandfather was a judge during apartheid,” he went on, with that same challenge in his eyes. I knew what that meant. I knew what the laws of apartheid had done, as did he.
“Thank you for your help,” I said formally, and walked away from him.
I was struck even at the time by how I felt compelled to be polite.
Partly because I wanted to end the encounter.
Partly, no doubt, because of my feminine socialization, and the immediate and uncontrollable way I felt the threat of his masculinity between us and acted to try to diffuse it.
Mostly because I wanted, in that moment, to be better than him.
But I continue to sit with some self-judgment around my politeness, because of how it insulated me. It was clear to him that I did not agree with him, but I did not answer his challenge. I let his assertion of his right to his racism stand.
So I have had three thoughts about all this. The first is to notice the way that apartheid South Africa erupted here and now in Berkeley, California. On the one hand, this is a sign of the times. On the other, it helps me to understand some of the many ways some of my clients are triggered by the political climate, as past experiences erupt into the present in unexpected ways thanks to our current context.
The second is to notice, again, how hard it can be to speak up. I chose not to engage. I remained silent. The many painful complicities between that young man and me are strong. I feel this, and I struggle with it. I felt both powerless and threatened – but of course, objectively, I was neither. The same cannot be said of many people of color, immigrants, poor people, and other kinds of queers who do not have the class and race privileges I do.
The third thought connects to the first two. Could I have found compassion for this young man? Could I have tried to engage him with kindness, have explored the reasons for his racism and tried to talk him into a different perspective through our shared whiteness, our shared South African connections? Could I have taken responsibility for him, and through that for the system he stands for that benefits me?
The truth is, I did not want to. I want to distance myself from white people like him, not find kindness—literally, a recognition of kinship—between us. I think the ability to embrace everyone is a fine spiritual aspiration to have, and I salute the evolved soul of the presenter at the conference, a gay man who survived working in the school system before gay was at least somewhat ok, and emerged from that experience a stronger, better human being than I am.
But finding compassion for the people who agreed with Trump, who handed him the presidency, for, in other words, white people who are in some ways like me, that is too painful right now. It takes me too close to home.