Writer J.L. Whitehead shares how his perception of America has shifted as a black man in the Age of Trump.
In 2012, my husband and I purchased our first home together in a quiet, tree-lined residential neighborhood in New Jersey. We were welcomed with warm wishes and congratulatory statements by our neighbors, complete with gifts of cookies and gift cards.
We hadn’t anticipated such a reception but as the days, weeks and months stretched into years, we look at our neighborhood and smile because we realize just how fortunate we were. We have hosted dinner parties to celebrate love and family, always welcoming everyone who came. And it’s in reflection on this ideology that we cling to the thought that people, with all of their idiosyncrasies – are inherently good…that we all matter and each and every one of us has societal value.
But in the age of Trump, that neighborly ideology of inclusiveness is rebuffed. In this last year, the America that I thought I knew has changed into something that I don’t recognize. I see this through a specific lens as an African American and member of the LGBTQ community. It’s unsettling what I see (if not downright terrifying).
In this America, the disdain for me is no longer hidden. At one time, I could walk in blissful ignorance of what some people think of me. I now no longer have that luxury.
I am a black man living in a world where I am held responsible (at least in part) for another segment of the population’s problems. I am living in a world where somehow it is my fault that some people aren’t getting ahead. I am living in a world where my inalienable rights are regarded with suspicion and my right to exist is called into question. I am living with the knowledge that some people perceive me, my intellect and my drive for success as a threat, and as a result view me through a lens of fear, apprehension and distrust no matter how eloquently I speak.
Here we are in 2018 – a year that I thought would be so different from the turbulent times of the 1960’s – and yet, the discrimination that people of color endured in that time period has itself endured, in hiding. It seems that, at the end of the day, no matter how many accomplishments I have under my belt, to some I will still be just another “nigger.”
I wish that I could say (and I formerly believed) that deep racism and hatred of the “other” had diminished over time in America, and that Trump is just a flailing, final symptom of the hatred that an ever-diminishing minority of white people have for people of color. But the truth is that Trump just provided a voice to tap into the latent anger of a still-sizeable demographic. This is a demographic that feels as if they were forgotten…that other people of various religions and ethnicities have been given preferential treatment to something that they felt entitled to. They are struggling through the effects of financial stagnancy and projecting their frustration by vilifying the “other” – as if the struggles they face are unique and haven’t been endured by communities of color and other marginalized communities for generations.
Trump has managed to tap into their anger and say the things that they secretly feel. He has given them the right to vent their anger even if the source of their anger has been misplaced. He has pointed the finger at people of color and of different faiths and said that they were to blame for the problems of regular Americans (i.e. white heterosexual Christians).
Trump always needs to have an enemy – and so do his followers. So they attack…and attack…and attack.
So what is it like being a person of color in Trump’s America?
I am on edge…and it’s like the pressure never stops. I feel like some white people look right through me instead of seeing me as a human being. I feel as though people have made assumptions about me before they ever make eye contact with me, and that they could care less about what (or that) I feel.
I think about what I would do if I ever get pulled over by the police because I don’t know the mindset of the police officer, and although I know that I would likely survive the altercation, a sizeable voice inside of me isn’t so sure.
I see that men who decide to take a knee and protest police brutality are regarded as people who hate their country, without any regard for the noble reason that they are taking a knee in the first place.
I see people of color referred to as “animals” on a regular basis. Day after day we are reminded that our community’s struggles are insignificant in comparison to the struggles of Trump supporters – and that in fact we are a primary source of their problems.
I witness that people seeking asylum, looking for a safe place to raise their families, are now separated from their children. Some of those children to this day have not been heard from again because they are not seen as people. It is easier to place less value on a human life if you don‘t see that life as human to begin with.
I hear and feel the resurgence of the word, “nigger” – used with such commonality that you have to wonder if it was ever socially unacceptable to say it. There are those that feel emboldened to say the things that they once used to keep to themselves, because the leader of the free world has convinced them that it is okay to vilify me. After all, I am to blame for their problems.
I am not seen as a human being. I am from a “shithole” country. I must be a drug dealer because I drive a nice car. Nothing that I do can be deemed as legitimate because I am viewed as illegitimate.
Indeed, even when I am doing all the right things, I will never be given the credit nor the benefit of the doubt that I am forthright, intelligent and honest because somehow, those qualities are not reserved for me or people that look like me.
Because this is Trump’s America…and in his country, only his supporters matter.