“ … soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
In the fading daylight, we canvassed hand in hand. You made me feel safe in the unfamiliar neighborhood the campaign had assigned. I, in garbled Spanish, made our passage comfortable once the porch lights were turned on and doors opened. It was Nov. 8. We explained there was just an hour left to get to the polls and offered to give rides to those who might need them. When voting ended, we dropped off our campaign clipboards and headed home to watch the results.
They unraveled in ways we did not expect.
Early on, you tried to comfort me as I expressed disbelief: “It’s early. She’ll pull ahead.” Later, as the electoral map grew red, you tried to hold me as I sobbed. I rejected both. I pushed away and raged against all that your gender and race afforded.
“You did this,” I hissed. I wanted you to acknowledge the weight of your white male privilege. I wanted you to understand that the political was personal. You shook your head in denial as you quietly reminded me you were not to blame—and also tried to process the ways in which white men like you most certainly were.
I wanted you to acknowledge the weight of your white male privilege.
I know recognizing white privilege is hard for you. It’s new; you’ve never had to acknowledge it. And it’s insidious—buried so deeply in your DNA, it feels normal. (And, for the working-class members of the upstate New York community in which you were raised, likely improbable: They feel no sense of ease or privilege from their skin.)
But it’s there, sweetheart, in the world that reflects whiteness back at you. In standards of beauty, in suppositions about value and worth, in boardrooms, and in classrooms. Privilege is woven into policies and institutions that are supposed to offer equal protection, access, and opportunity.
Power looks like you.
Privilege is revealed in the DUI that landed you in jail, not prison. It’s reflected in the size of your paycheck and in the weight of your vote. You dwell in optimism. You move through the world without trepidation. The space you occupy is wide and full; the world rises up to meet you.
Your default, explains author Nanea Hoffman, “is to assume everyone starts at the same place—and has the same level of power.”
We do not.
I have been afforded none of these luxuries. I was raised to strive. My parents’ directive stemmed from a knowing that, in order simply to be considered, I had to be twice as good as those around me. There was little room for joy on the tightrope of best behavior. I teetered, fought, and scrimped, struggling—as a brown, bookish girl—to find reflections of myself in the world around me.
There was little room for joy on the tightrope of best behavior.
Despite the hard-won accolades I have received, I am assumed to be inferior. As an Indian woman, I am reduced to a quota—a check in the diversity box.
“I don’t see color,” you insist.
“There isn’t a moment I don’t,” I respond.
How did you become the man I love? You bake; I write. You’re gregarious; I’m reticent. You’re North; I’m South. You’re white; I’m brown. You’re local; I’m global. But we meet in vulnerability. You soften my edges. You are honest and kind.
After the death of my father, you sang to me in bed and waltzed me around your kitchen. You baked me pie and brought me coffee. You took me to the mountains and showed me beauty. Your relentless tenderness helped mend what was torn.
Three hours after the president-elect’s victory speech, you drove me to the airport to deliver a presentation in Canada. As we kissed goodbye, I contracted with fear, anxious of the world outside your Subaru. I wondered if I could just skip the return flight and stay in Vancouver, avoiding the pain of living amid people who wanted to create registries and build walls to guard against people who look like me.
Over the next few days, we exchanged a few tense calls, in which I asked a pointed question about how you were attempting to rectify the privileges your skin and gender gave you. In our final long-distance exchange, I listened to you slowly exhale from 1,400 miles away. My jaw clenched. I doubled down and asked the question again: “What. Are. You. Doing?” You struggled to respond, muttering that the question felt like an accusation.
I sighed. I knew that what you really wanted was for me to stop asking. I wanted the same. I want the same. But that choice only exists for you. I never get to pass. I never get to hide.
I hung up the phone.
Our relationship is new. One that could end without much collateral damage: limited interactions with parents, a limited number of shared events we call our own. On the plane I kept asking myself, How do I take care of myself? How do I show solidarity with my South Asian community? Is partnering with this man a betrayal?
I did not know the answer. I only knew I was—I am—tired of living in the spaces where only part of my existence is reflected back at me. I swim in the pool of whiteness. I navigate dominant culture and history. I celebrate your holidays. I eat your food. I know your God. What do you know of mine?
Yet, regardless of their motives, the anger behind their vote was inflamed by hatred.
At the end of the week, I returned. I lumbered toward the airport exit where we had agreed to meet, avoiding the gaze of anyone who may have voted for the president-elect.
I tried to rationalize my fear, reminding myself that voters’ repudiation of the political establishment wasn’t necessarily a reflection of their racism. Yet, regardless of their motives, the anger behind their vote was inflamed by hatred. Because I couldn’t tell the difference—I couldn’t discern who among them deeply hated people like me—I kept myself safe by assuming they all did.
Then, I heard you call my name. I turned around and saw you grinning widely as you strode toward me. Unsmiling, I responded loudly, “You were supposed to meet me at the curb.” You ignored me, grabbing the heavy bag off my shoulder and pulling my body toward yours. Despite my anxiety about reconnecting after our many tense calls, I sunk into your chest and exhaled, my thoughts spiraling. One stood out from the rest: I feel less alone.
I initially thought the best way to show my solidarity and stay safe was to huddle with my own (a tribe I loosely define by brownness) and allow the psychic wounds to scab over. Now, weeks from the inauguration, I am in a more expansive place. The election has shaken so many of us awake, stirring greater compassion and wider curiosity: Who are you? What is your story? Can I turn toward you and know, at the core of my being, that my pain doesn’t trump yours? Can we forge a path through these imperfect consequences together?
To show my love for you—to simply be with you—is to stand up to all those who want me to cower or disappear.
These encounters remind me refuge can be found in many places—starting with you, sweetheart. We don’t need to get past this—we need to get through, go deep and figure out why this happened and how we can heal. Because of my love for you, I am willing to take on the emotional labor of making you more aware of your privilege. Because of your love for me, you try to understand it—and act.
There are many days when I want to give up. I want to stop asking, “How have you used your privilege for good?” and grow complacent in the knowledge that you have. Not because I ask or because you see the direct benefit, but because you know—through your skin and in your bones—it helps right a world that has been heavily tilted in your favor.
At some point I may stop—or we might quit. But, today, our union reflects how I want to be and be seen: embracing, united. To show my love for you—to simply be with you—is to stand up to all those who want me to cower or disappear. It is an act of lifting up my head and returning the gaze I avoided just weeks ago. As we march toward Jan. 20, I am unrepentant. I am nearly unafraid.
This is our strength—and we are legion. We will endure and thrive. We are here, and we are loved.