Essay by Katrina Otuonye: “Our Waning Sense of Goodwill”

 

Our Waning Sense of Goodwill

 

I voted early a few weeks ago. I fulfilled my civic duty.

I usually vote absentee, but I knew I’d be passing through Cookeville, TN, where I graduated from high school, where my parents still live, where I’m still registered. I folded my little voter registration card into my wallet. I didn’t need it, but it gave me a certain sense of accomplishment. I’ve never voted in person. I always filled out my little forms, checked the box next to Obama’s name, quietly and diligently researched candidates in midterm elections.

The 2008 election was hard. Especially because I was alright at mouthing off in front of family, close friends, to my roommate in the privacy of our apartment, even in our Honors computer lab at the University of Tennessee, but there was so much hate frothing around. So many people dropping microaggressions about looks and qualifications, and background.

“He reminds me of my grandfather,” is a sweet sentiment, but not a reason to vote for anyone. What that says is, “that other person does not remind me of anyone I spend time with or have ever cared about.”

Thinking about 2008, on the morning I woke up to vote in person, is striking. It reminds of a recent interview this past summer with Jonathan Franzen, when asked about whether he would write book on race:

I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare… I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.

I brushed my teeth, wondering whether candidate Barack Obama was right that “we are not as divided as our politics suggest, that we are one people, we are one nation.” I wondered about what the limits of empathy are, and if you have to personally know, personally love someone, or a group of people, to accept their humanity.

***

I was at brunch with a group of black women, talking about the election, about our offices, about traveling in spaces where we are not used to being seen.

“Sometimes they open my door and they pause for a second,” Ally said. “I’m sitting there working and they’re looking around, acting like they’re interrupting something scandalous.”

“Maybe they think it’s like ‘Secret Life of Pets,’” I said, picturing myself as the poodle rocking out to heavy metal the second his person walks out the door.

We both cracked up laughing in the buffet line, happily attracting attention.

I wanted to vote and get back home to chat with my parents at lunch before I drove to Nashville. I took a quick shower, threw on my yoga pants and a t-shirt and paused in the mirror. It was chilly out so I put on an old hoodie. Then, I thought it through again, about this “voting in person” thing, in small-town Tennessee, the type of people I might meet, might talk to, might have to answer to. I put on my jeans instead, threw on a different shirt, then a nicer shirt, and grabbed my cardigan on the way out the door. I paused, checked for my phone, my wallet, my keys. I realized I hadn’t forgotten anything, I just felt a bit slimy, like I was badly performing. I wasn’t happy about it, but by the time I turned on County Services Drive, past all the Republican Party signage, I found a parking spot and sat for a moment.

***

In 2008, a young woman wrote the most repellant garbage about Michelle Obama and the expectations of first ladies, in the university paper. There are so many things I did not say during that election because I did not have the words. There are so many people I did not yell at, I just let them be loudly wrong, and let other people side-eye them for me.

I have been told I only supported Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman. I was told I only supported President Obama because I’m black. I was easily dismissed. Millions of people are dismissed, everyday. Their background makes it impossible for them to be impartial, apparently. I haven’t wrapped my head around all the things that have been said this election. I still haven’t wrapped my head around all the things that were said in 2008, but I know that I hoped I had learned to shut a lot of it out, was proud it did not occupy a space in my mind. But then again, I changed my clothes three times before I walked out the door.

Out of my car, I tried to not acknowledge the fleeting thoughts that are barely articulated, hovering somewhere over the surface. An older couple holding hands, emerged from the election commission office and squinted at me. They whispered to each other as I step near the doors, and I heard, “Well she’s clearly voting for her.”

“Shhh,” his wife said.

I walked into the building and went to the end of the winding line. I got a few looks from people, some surprise, some awkward, a few thoughtful. An older woman beamed at me and said, “Good morning.”

Some people whispered quietly about the election. A pair of middle-aged white men amped up their conversation and then one said, “It’s not like we’re undecided,” and then they both let out big, hearty laughs. I was looking down at my phone, but I felt their eyes on me. One nudged the other and they quickly quieted themselves.

In line with a few dozen people waiting to vote, I saw a familiar face, essentially a Facebook friend, scrolling through his phone, headphones in his ears and I thought, “Damn, that’s what I forgot.” The low hum of chatter in this room, about things I was curious about and then didn’t really want to know, was unnerving. I wanted to block it out.

The whispers and the stares reminded me of middle school. Middle school did not go all that well for a tall, awkward black girl in a lily white town. I wrap my cardigan tighter around me, adjust my bag higher up on my shoulder. I wonder if this is why I keep bouncing from state to state, city to city. I don’t know quite what I’m looking for, but sometimes I get to a point where I can look around, and say, “Nope, this isn’t it either.”

A few minutes later, two black women walked in. We smiled at each other, said a quick hello. The line moved along, and a couple walked in wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats. I felt nauseous, and my hand automatically went to my stomach. The election official, a veteran in a wheelchair, called to them, “Y’all have to take those hats off. Can’t wear those in here.”

They look undeterred and glanced at each other.

“Come on now, take ‘em off or you gotta go.”

The line snaked in a curlicue in the waiting area, and I watched these two attempt to ignore the election official. I suddenly missed the feel of that familiar absentee ballot in my hands, casually filling in the bubbles in the privacy of my own home. A murmur continued, as the election official repeatedly asked, as the couple, and now two more men with red hats on, argued with him.

“He’s got his hat on,” the woman said. She pointed to a man ahead of them in line, wearing an NRA cap.

“That’s not a campaign slogan,” the official said. “No campaign signs or slogans with 100 feet of a polling place.”

They whispered to each other, as the official and other people told them to take the caps off. They finally did, and shoved them in their back pockets, and there’s more chatter down the line, as people asked what just happened, what was wrong with the hats.

“Always been the rule. Come in with a campaign t-shirt on, you gotta go out and change or turn it inside out.”

“Signs everywhere,” another person said. “People should know better.”

An elderly woman, the final voice on this matter speaks up: “That’s just plain disrespectful,” she said, “wearing a hat indoors.”

I glanced at the black women in line, as the other people, maybe 25 or 30 white bodies have their eyes on us, in a mixture of confusion, surprise, pity, pride, and shame. We exchanged a look in solidarity: pursed lips, as if to say, “Just another day.”

The woman who had to remove her hat stared at me. I turned to her and she immediately looked away. The man she was with made eye contact with me, and held it. I raised my eyebrows and he looked away, too. I wonder how many of them have ever spoken to someone who wasn’t white, or who wasn’t serving them something. I wonder if this is a fair thing to think. I wonder if they think that I must live in an inner city. I try not to assume what other people think of me, but there it is, all over again: what they think alters my safety in this space. I wish I’d just said screw it, and worn my black volleyball hoodie, but it has my name on it. Twitter wasn’t working and wouldn’t post my tweets, which was probably better for everyone, considering the dull discomfort edging over my entire body.

I have so many questions.

About why my high school Chemistry teacher replaced her lawn signs seven times. She replaced them each time they were stolen. She left a note up, reminding the thieves that for each sign they took, she bought another, which only benefits the Democratic Party more. I thought about the dusty semi I passed on my way to work, with “Hillary for Prison” written embossed in the dirt. I have questions about the vitriol and the rage. About our waning sense of goodwill toward each other. About what exactly America looks like, if we attempt to make it great again. What do we do next? We’ll pick up and rebuild no matter what, but, the hate, that bubble of fear and anxiety I feel weighing on my chest…will that be gone next week? Or the week after?

A man behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and startled me.

“I’m sorry, do I know you?” he asked.

“Maybe?” I say. This happens to me a lot, and sometimes people actually do know me, or my parents, so I said I went to the local high school. I realized I was protecting myself. I tried not to give my name in this room with a handful of people who probably wouldn’t give a damn if my body was lying dead in the street. We decided that maybe he knew my brother, when one of the election officials told me I was next in line.

***

Before the election, from all the articles I read, there was so little talk about what’s next, about how we move on, about how we fix and dig ourselves out of this hole. I played with the election maps, changing light blue to deep blue, switching red to grey. I checked to see how non-white women were voting, how college-educated women were voting. It’s not only my world, I know. But I’d like to feel comfortable in it. I’d like to settle in. When someone else’s piece of mind comes at the expense of my safety, I don’t have to empathize. I am exhausted of doing the physical and emotional work. I want to be selfish. I want to say, “I don’t care,” and mean it.

I saw a new bumper sticker on the back of a gold Lexus that cut me off on my way to work: “That may be true, but Hillary is still worse.”

I was astonished by the arrogance. It bothers me because I’ve noticed I’m most easily undone by other people’s fervent convictions. I’ve gotten better about it, but when someone says, “I’m right,” and nods emphatically, I think, “Shit, are they? Am I totally wrong?”

I know how people can attempt to twist a story to make it seem accurate. I know how we gloss over details and leave out parts that seem unappetizing. I know how we smooth ourselves over. I know I also disliked this in my candidate, but we’re all performing, all presenting a certain image of ourselves to the world each day. I’m almost pissed at my jealousy at the nonsense people, willing – and able – to lie because they were doing whatever they want without consequences, and I changed my clothes three times before I left the house. In these situations, when I realize that I am right and they are wrong, I’m angry. I’m afraid I’ll break down like Cristina Yang on the episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” when she’s in her hospital room and crying so hard she can hardly breathe. Because in the midst of her pain, she attempted to dismiss it and overcome it, by obsessing over a medical puzzle that she then solved.

“I’m RIGHT,” she said, over and over, in between furious sobs. You have to deal with the pain. It won’t just go away on your say so.

I voted. That’s a great thing. I got to drive up and park, in my car, and I could stand to wait in line, and I’m adult enough to not engage with any of those people with those hats, and then I showed my ID and I voted. I pressed the little red button, and said, “Have a good one,” to the attendant by the door.

But I just can’t get over the air in that little waiting area, how when I walked back out the door, post-voting, to a whole new group of people, how many people sized me up again, seemed surprised by my presence. I registered their confusion and some of their shame, but it made me stand up a little taller, move a bit swifter. I held the door open for a woman coming inside with a couple young kids. I said nothing as I left the building, but I hope the way I swung my bag across my shoulder, didn’t say anything but, “That’s right. I’m here.”

Small town Tennessee isn’t all that much different from other predominantly white towns across the U.S. I have found that in the South, the racism is often boastful and proud, and in the Midwest, it is often hidden behind a vote, or in a group of concerted lies to pollsters. It’s so odd to hear people talking about how “the elites” don’t understand rural towns. I was born and raised in a rural Midwestern town that’s struggling economically. My family was one of the few that didn’t match the white demographics. It’s one of those beautiful towns with long winters, and a lot of people who sound sort of Canadian, where everyone knows who everyone else is, and people don’t need to lock their doors. For a few years, my brothers and I had a paper route.

We faced some striking racism there, but also some immeasurable kindnesses. When I was little, before I started being told on the daily how ugly and awful I was, everyone was just who they were. The only way I thought I was different was that my mom insisted I wear stockings and Mary Janes to church on Sunday, while the rest of my friends wore jeans and sweaters. I always just wanted to be like everyone else.

What I need people to consider, is that racism, sexism, bigotry, intolerance… I shouldn’t have to tell anyone this, but all of these things are real. They don’t usually wear a t-shirt. They don’t usually grab women on the street. They don’t usually call me a nigger on the bus. These aggressions are about fear and power. People are afraid of losing jobs, they’re afraid of terrorism, they’re afraid of not being able to protect their kids. Everyone, regardless of race, gender or religion, is afraid of those things.

I’m now obsessed with the exit polls. A majority of people making under $30,000 and under $50,000 didn’t vote for this. Minorities didn’t vote for this. This isn’t about economics, this is about fear and power, mostly from people who are already in charge. So, really, when you see something, say something.

People are targets, today and every day, just because of their gender, just because of their race, just because of their religion. Black people have been trying to tell people this, we’ve been begging for our humanity at the bottom of everyone else’s deep, dark well of indifference. And often when I speak up for myself and others, someone will make a comment along the lines of, “I knew you’d take care of it.”

I fix things. It’s how I’m built. Helpfulness is in my bones. But am I this way because it’s natural, or because I have never had the luxury of waiting around for someone else to do the work? Why is this burden continually put on me? Why am I constantly educating everyone? It is emotionally exhausting. I’m tired. Many people will speak up hours after they see something or hear something awful. “Last night,” they say. “Earlier this morning.” And then what did they do next?

Because whether someone voted for Trump or did not, his policies haven’t changed. The ban on Muslims. The border wall. Stop and frisk. Lack of birth control for women and punishment for abortions. I suppose no one cares about the climate. In small Midwestern areas like my hometown dependent on snowfall for ski tourism, you should really, really care about the climate.

So if you “didn’t vote for that,” if you have some vague economic reasons for your vote, if your friends that you don’t want to tell me about just didn’t like Hillary and are feeling fine this week: Will you speak up and protect a transgender person from harm? Will you walk Muslim students to their cars, the same way you would with a woman walking at night? Will you stand up for Latino kids who are having “build that wall” chanted in their faces? Will you escort women into Planned Parenthood? Will you wait with me the next time I’m stopped by the police? Will you speak up? Or will you shrug and think, “That’s awful. Someone else will take care of it.”

We deserve better than your silence.

 


photo_koKatrina Otuonye is a writer and editor from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She holds a BA from the University of Tennessee and an MFA from Chatham University. Katrina’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Atticus Review, Litro Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, and The Toast, among others. She’s currently hard at work procrastinating on a novel and a collection of creative nonfiction. You can find her collecting quotes and posting links on Tumblr and Twitter or tinkering on her website: katrinaotuonye.com.