Today is the Fourth of July. Independence Day. Normally, I try to write something about it that is joyful, or at least hopeful. How I can do it this year is beyond me.
Those are harsh words, ones I never thought I’d utter. But here I am, uttering them, and feeling ashamed that it took me this long to fully accept that I mean them. All I can say in my defense is that I think I’m saying them because I love this country and I’ve been forced to look at its past, and become truly fearful for its future.
I’m white. I’m more or less middle-class. I was educated in white schools and blind to the privileges I had as white and middle class. That education took place in Canada, sure, but, with a few exceptions for which I’m grateful (surely regarded as socialist in today’s U.S.), it partook of the racism, classism and worship of capital that were part and parcel of American kids’ education.
So what happened, and what does it mean for the way I look at my adopted country?
First, have these words, from Frederick Douglass, both commentary on the words, and the words themselves. They are incredibly important.
Then … well, we’re back to me and how I feel about this country.
Some people get more conservative as they age; I appear to have gone in the opposite direction over the last few years. Being a reporter for decades, and a union believer for nearly as long, probably started the process. It was developing well before 2016, painfully accelerated by Bush I and II, by increasing distrust of capitalism, by Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, by the long-awaited birth of Black Lives Matter, and the horrid knowledge that the country I loved as much as I loved my birth country was built on the backs of enslaved people, and the graves of First Nation men, women and children.
Trump happened, but even then, I knew he was a symptom. I was initially sure that I shared none of the blame for his eruption, or the societal sickness he represented. Eventually, however, I was forced to accept that I was part of a system that had allowed him to happen. Black voices, indigenous voices, LGBTQ voices, voices of class struggle — and the uncompromisingly flat, level gaze of the eyes of the people calling out with those voices — were aimed at me just as much as they were aimed at Trump and his enablers.
I couldn’t pretend to be above the fray, not if I wanted to do the right thing. Nor could I say any longer that I don’t know what the right thing is.
It’s more than marching; it’s more than Twitter or Facebook social justice although I refuse to dismiss either of those things; they’re important.
It’s more than putting my money where my mouth is, although that’s really crucial. Give ‘til it hurts is an order those of us who can should obey; give to shelters, to educational institutions, to immigrants’ rights groups, political action committees on the local level as well as the national, to libraries, to racial justice groups steered by young people and by seniors. If it means fewer books bought, there’s always the library; if it means fewer online purchases, fine. If it means tightening your belt, good.
It’s taking time, and doing the homework, reading the books, not asking marginalized people to be our teachers. It’s learning uncomfortable lessons, whether that’s acknowledging our own racist assumptions, or (in my case) learning not to dismiss the ugly reality of ableism.
It’s being brave enough to call out friends and family when they’re racist, misogynist, or ableist. It’s calling out strangers in real life, not just online. That’s a fucking hard thing to do, folks, and I’m not good at it.
It’s volunteering somewhere, when you’d rather be online. It’s not taking the lead when you don’t know what’s going on; it’s listening to those marginalized voices, even when they tell you things you’d rather not hear.
I’m not nearly there. But I believe that it’s my duty as someone who loves this country, to take those steps.
And maybe that’s a good laundry list to have, one that means you really want this country to become better, and that you want it to be a country for everyone.
So there you have it. That’s what I can offer on this Independence Day.