I (Still) Believe In America

My story isn’t over. Neither is yours.

There have been two times in my life when I’ve truly felt defeat. One was last night, sitting on the floor of the Jacob Javits Convention Center, the designated New York headquarters for what ought to have been Hillary Clinton’s victory party. I watched as it emptied bit by bit, groups of two, three, slinking away unseen, soon followed by dozens doing the same in full view of those of us left sitting amongst discarded garbage. The election wouldn’t be called for another two hours, but we knew. We all knew.

That was the second time. The first was in June of last year, midway through my sixth year as an immigrant to the United States, undergoing a post-graduate transition from Student Visa to something potentially more permanent. It was the day I met with an immigration attorney and realized a Work or Artist Visa wouldn’t be a viable option, and that six months down the line I’d have to return to a place I hadn’t called home since I was seventeen. It wasn’t a sure thing just yet, but I knew. New York is only place that’s ever felt like home, so it’s fitting that I should feel these two bouts of crushing defeat in the city that never sleeps, this time while visiting after ten months away.

Both times, I felt defeat. But I was not defeated. I am not. And neither are you.

This election has yielded truly terrifying results; not only is a sexual predator with no political experience now President Elect, but his racist non-platform has also granted permission to bigotry of all sorts, allowing it to become a part of the fabric of political discourse. As Trump gave his victory speech last night, reciting a canned set of phrases about unity that he clearly doesn’t believe in – there’s little besides himself he does believe in, but I digress – a man yelled “Kill Obama!” at least once, and Trump simply kept on going. This is the strange and terrifying paradox we’re now going to be dealing with (one of many) and there’s nothing more terrifying than a paradox. But we’re not dealing with it alone.

The most qualified Presidential candidate in recent memory, and the first female nominee from a major party, lost the most important elected office on Earth to a novice. A demagogue. A man soon on trial for child rape. This KKK-endorsed reality TV star will soon be welcomed to the White House by America’s first black President, and these cruel ironies are enough to make any sane person want to scream. There’s going to be anger during the coming months (as there should be) as well as the impulse to lay blame at every given opportunity, and things aren’t going to feel quite the same. Hell, here I am writing about an election instead of the latest superhero movie. But whatever changes may come your way, don’t let these changes change you. Especially if you’re the kind of person who wants to help others.

These last eighteen months have been harrowing. Statement after statement aimed at women and minorities have allowed vile people to crawl out of the woodwork, and those same vile people rallied around someone who they genuinely believed could fix their problems. This is something we have to understand. The nature of racism is that it isn’t just about hating people with darker skin, but about intertwining that hatred with socio-economic predispositions, or at the very least turning a blind eye if there happen to be other benefits. The end result is most certainly the same, people saying and supporting bigoted things that can have tangible impacts on people’s lives, but there was also pushback at every turn. It might seem foolhardy to look at what was once the status quo as some sort of fringe resistance, but that’s just it. There are a lot of us out there who feel the weight of what’s happened. It’s the kind of thing that breaks people, but we can’t be broken by it. That’s not who we are, American or otherwise.

I am not American, but my story has been American since well before I knew it. My earliest memories are of American cinema. My upbringing was saturated with American media. My higher education was American, and I’ve lived here for 90% of my adult life. The website you’re reading this on is American. The header image up top – a moment of hope in the darkest of times – is from an American movie, and it’s no coincidence either. The Star Wars films were my earliest brush with not only the greatness and creativity that could come from America’s unique dedication to individualism, but with the hope and optimism present at the heart of the American narrative. Star Wars could only exist as a product of America, stringing together the best parts of global cultures and creating something beautiful. It might seem almost facile to talk about movies at this stage, but that’s all some of us can do right now.

We channel our thoughts and feelings through art, and when we can’t, the impulse for anger will no doubt arise. I’m angry too. I’m angry for my fellow immigrants and people of colour, for all the women in my life, and especially my LGBTQ friends, all of whom have just woken up to a country that no longer accepts them, and a VP that would rather electrocute the gay out them than fund AIDS research. This election extends far beyond America’s borders, be it the immediate financial repercussions or America's ubiquitous cultural influence, and these are all completely valid reasons for outrage, especially in the face of even more paradoxes. What comes next? Listening to the people who wish us harm so we can better understand where they’re coming from? Coming to grips with a President who may not actually do anything, but a cabinet and electorate who absolutely will? Trusting the fabric of democracy when it’s failed us to such an unprecedented degree?

I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. None of us do. But I’ll be damned if I let this change me. I’ll be damned if I let the anger take control of me, and I’ll sure as hell be damned if I let this dampen my desire to get things back on track. This isn’t just an American problem – Britain, Australia and several other countries have seen similar movements recently – but America’s fall from grace hits hardest.

All my life, America has been this beacon of hope, off in the distance. Even when I lived here, for six of the best years of my life, it felt just out of reach because I didn’t have a Green Card or a path to citizenship. It feels further out of reach right now and it may slip even further come January, but I’m not done. I understand the impulse behind wanting to “move to Canada” (for some, it may even be a simple matter of safety), but I still have my sights set on the American Dream. I’m still going to try and move back here – to a country that hates me, another paradox – because I love it enough to want to change it for the better. The people I love, the movies I want to make, they’re all here. The ideas that have molded me into the person I am, all here too. A place where words like “freedom” get thrown around a lot, but a place where I’ve had to protest for the preservation of Black Lives an untold number of times. A place where Susan B. Anthony said she would rather cut off her own arm than see black people vote, but where she influenced the women’s suffrage movement in tremendous ways. A place where progress can still exist, no matter how small or complicated the increments.

The paradoxes are against us today, but they can be on our side tomorrow. A nation that once enslaved black people went on to elect one to its highest office. A nation where women couldn’t vote less than a hundred years ago almost elected one last night. A nation that created the most terrifying weapons went on to put men on the Moon. These aren’t things that cancel each other out, nor should they. They can exist in tandem, like the paradox of cinema: twenty four separate images per second that our minds weave together as one. An unreality that we turn into something more, the same way we’ll approach this new reality and begin turning things around.

We’re all still here. We’re all still breathing, and as defeated as we might feel, this is far from over. We have people to protect – our Black, Muslim, Hispanic and LGBTQ siblings to name a few – from people who mean to do them legitimate harm, and we can most certainly do that by raising our voices and standing up to hatred. But it doesn’t end there. We need to let that anger carry us. Not only to 2020, but to everything until then, at every possible level. Get involved. Get informed. Learn to listen. Listen to the people you’re defending. Listen to the people attacking them before responding. Understand where all the pieces on the board are placed before you can hope to move them.

Your enemies are out in the open now. You know what you’re up against. Fight them with words. Fight them with votes. Fight them with kindness if you have to, because alienating people can no longer be a primary objective. That anger that you’re feeling right now? Use it, but use it responsibly. Understand that unchecked anger is what got you into this mess in the first place, and it can be a disastrous thing without facts and empathy to guide you.

This is just one set of possible solutions, from one person who happens to be mad at everyone and everything, but who still believes in something. It’s not enough, and before anything gets better, there will have to be dialogue about it. Not simply taking turns to speak, but communicating ideas and building upon them. That’s one of the things that makes America great, even if it doesn’t seem all that great right now. Then again, hasn’t that always been the case? Has America not always simultaneously been “the greatest country in the world” as well as place where civil and military battles were in constant rotation? Has it not always been the ultimate paradox?

That paradox is against you today. But it will be on your side tomorrow. Your American Dream is far from over.