On January 22, I drove back from Washington, D.C. The day before, I’d been one of the 500,000 that filled out Independence Avenue, one of the specks in those awe-inspiring aerial shots that plastered the news. I’d been cold and hungry and dehydrated and I had not felt any of that discomfort until I sat down for dinner later that night and nearly wept at the sensation of sinking into a seat.
I was in no such heightened state on January 22. I had eight hours of driving ahead, and Monday’s responsibilities were creeping in from the horizon. My travel companions and I were already coming back to our real lives. One had the beginnings of a cold; the other had a string of work emails to answer. But we took advantage of the time we had together, a few more hours to talk and catch up, and when our stomachs began to grumble at the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, we checked the clock and saw that it was 2 PM.
“No one will be at the rest stops,” we all agreed, having forgotten, in our friendship vacuum, that we were not the only marchers traveling home that Sunday. As soon as we pulled into the Ohio rest stop, we saw the parking lot choked with cars, their windows pinked by chalk and markers. A line of people in pussy hats snaked out of the Dairy Queen. The Panera had been cleaned out of bagels. This crowd was reminiscent of what we’d faced the day before, but without any of the palliative effects of unexamined unity. Now, there was plenty to examine. Plenty to irritate and anger. Plenty to criticize.
I have a tendency to disappear into crowds. I have a tendency to dissolve into a larger purpose. During the Women’s March, I did both. I turned down the volume of my body and the volume of my thoughts. When the wind started to blow, I turtled into my jacket and thought of how I could be colder. When I saw other marchers behaving badly, shouting over the Mothers of the Movement, I bottlenecked my anger for another day. I stayed quiet as I saw posters I didn’t agree with; heard opinions that were exclusionary; and felt my Asian face, even in a crowd of this magnitude, stick out from all the white ones. I told myself the March wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about any individual, but the disruptive mass of all of us banding together. I tried to be a servant to the March. And to serve the March, I was willing to perform outside my best interests. When I raised my voice to chant, I did not recognize the sound as my own.
All of this to say that on January 22, in a rest stop in Ohio, when a white woman raised her voice to chant, “Tell me what democracy looks like,” I didn’t stop chewing my grilled cheese. I was hungry. I was tired. I was not what democracy looked like, especially if democracy looked like the population of an Ohio rest stop outfitted with only a Panera and a Dairy Queen. As others around me shouted back, “This is what democracy looks like,” marchers pulled out their cellphones to record the call and response. Every minute, a new round of chanting would begin, and in my most ungenerous mood, I wondered if this chanting was only for the benefit of those cell phones. Who else were we chanting for? We were in a rest stop overfilled with pussy hats. Could we please stop congratulating ourselves for just showing up? The time for uncritical crowing had passed. There was so much to improve upon, from the practical logistics of the march to its ideological thrust. We had made our first step, but now it was time to take a second, and a third, to move forward instead of marching in place. This performance of solidarity, so emotional the day before, now felt stale without the world watching. Artificial. Tone deaf.
But once we left the food court and went out to the gas station, I felt a strange shift in the landscape. The warm, pink, effervescent inside changed into a gray, sprawling exterior. I told myself it was just the ugliness of a turnpike in January when suddenly, in the next lane of gas pumps, we heard raised voices. Based on the decoration of their respective cars, I saw that a Trump supporter (a white woman) and a Marcher (a white man) had started screaming at one another over the Women’s March. No one could tell who had started the fight. People started to come out of neighboring cars, cell phones off, but in hand. The outburst ended quickly, less than a minute. The woman’s child dragged her back inside the car.
Just as I had briefly forgotten the presence of Marchers at rest stops all across America, I had also forgotten that no bubble actually existed to keep us separate from those with whom we vehemently disagreed. And in my forgetting, I saw the ways I was not dissimilar to the very Marchers that had chafed me earlier.
How easy it can be to forget who and what exist outside of the bubble you’re currently in — to forget the women who do not look like you, to forget the women who cannot get to D.C., to forget the women who cannot march, to forget the people who do not identify as women. I inhabit multiple identities that are easy to forget. I also inhabit multiple identities that make it easy to forget.
I wished then that I had joined the chanting inside. Not because it wasn’t performative, to a degree. Not because it didn’t erase those unrepresented in the crowd. But because the presence of those Marchers at that gas station had made me feel safe in a moment that normally would have made me afraid to leave my car. Because even though I felt erased I did not, somehow, feel alone.
It is possible to hold more than one truth in your head. One truth does not negate the other. One truth to rule them all is not just as bad as no truth at all; it is the equivalent of no truth at all. I have been sitting on this piece for almost a month because I was afraid to broach this opinion. In a time when fake news and alternative facts are not laughable contradictions, but real fears, isn’t saying, “Truths can contradict while remaining true,” feeding into this camp of unreality? But almost a month has passed, and I’ve only seen more proof that this opinion is a valuable one. We cannot grow as a movement, especially those of us in privileged positions, if we do not learn that we can criticize without tearing down. That we can be criticized without feeling torn down.
On January 22, I decided I could chant. I could agree with the power our voices made while disagreeing with the noises they were making. I could feel alienated by the shouting of all the Marchers who did not see me and be comforted by their numbers when confronted by a different kind of shouting. Moving forward, I need to remember not to erase, and not to be erased. I need to remember it is possible to make space in a movement that has forgotten to make space for me. To find safety in a crowd I also wish to criticize. To argue behind a united front.