Safe: A Meditation on Charlottesville and Beyond

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You fear the night is being locked and coded on a cellular level, and want time to function as a power wash.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen

i.

It’s not that the objective facts stand there, smug and jeering, in isolation.

ii.

On August 11, 2017, under the cover of an official permit granting them the right to assembly by the city of Charlottesville, Virginia (in much the way that robes and hoods once functioned as “cover”), a group of approximately 100 white men began marching to express their objection to the removal of a statue of Confederate army general Robert E. Lee.

They called themselves “protestors,” adopting the mantle of protestors from the civil rights movement, co-opting the language of a more recent movement by saying “White Lives Matter,” but also incorporating Nazi symbols into their show of force, including phrases like “Blut and Boden” and “the Goyim know” to harangue and target anyone not qualifying as Aryan (Jews, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities — all of whom were mass murdered by the Nazis during the genocides of World War II, and all of whom were mocked by many vocal Trump supporters during 2016 Republican presidential campaign, which used Pepe the Frog, an image co-opted in Nazi memes, as a symbol, along with historically anti-Semitic images of the Star of David against a backdrop of money. The term “Aryan” itself was a term hatefully co-opted and transformed into a slogan of hate by the Nazis, reading Nietzsche, who in turn read ancient Indian texts that posited light-skinned Aryan invaders as the bringers of civilization to the dark Dravidian hordes.

Over the course of a day in Charlottesville, some of these symbols—including the swastika, a horrifically bastardized Sanskrit word—became weapons. Nazis calling themselves “American” swung fists that had been upraised in a Heil Hitler salute, then threw torches, outright, into the faces and necks and hands and legs of counterprotesters, other human beings of different colors and religious faiths who shouted in agony and pain at the sight of Nazis shouting their threatening messages on American soil.

On August 12, the Nazis’ violence became even more targeted. A 20-year-old Kentucky man rammed his car at high speed into two cars of departing counterprotesters, then drove into a crowd of counterprotestors on the sidewalk (at a moment the police had declared the entire protest and counterprotest disbanded, and people had begun to leave). In doing so he killed a thirty-two year old woman and injured many others.

iii.

A young Latino man stands accused of murdering a Pakistani-American teenager in Virginia, Nabra Hassanen. Wielding a metal baseball bat, the man exited his car in what has been reported as an incident of “road rage” and went after a group of Muslim teenagers walking toward a mosque.

Was it a hate crime? The accused man wasn’t carrying a sign saying, “Clear out the Muslims” — a translation of the Nazi slogan “Jews geraumt.” He hasn’t been accused of writing any of the letters received by mosques across the nation saying that Trump’s victory would mean that the nation under him will “cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.” News stories about the murder of Nabra Hassenen attribute her death to road rage, a spontaneous fury that drove him to attack Nabra and her friends.

At self-proclaimed “anti-Sharia” demonstrations in June 2017, hundreds of members of anti-Muslim hate groups held signs stating, “Islam is not American.” This despite the building of the first American mosque in Ross, North Dakota in 1929, and despite the 1957 visit by President Eisenhower to the opening of a mosque in Washington D.C., whose “graceful arches” he praised, stating:

I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.

Was the young man who now stands accused of Nabra’s murder simply demonstrating how well he’d learned to be American? By killing her, was he hoping to track the hate to a group more vulnerable than his own, undocumented immigrants from Latin America, whom Trump derided and targeted for insults during his campaign?

Did that young man not see that he and Nabra (who looks like my sister) glowed from the same skin?

iv.

Before Trump won, I chatted at a child’s birthday party with an Israeli-American woman about how frightened I was of his victory given that I’d grown in the same part of Queens where Donald Trump’s father may have been arrested for participating in a KKK demonstration in 1927, and given that my family is both brown and Muslim. The cultured and lovely woman from Tel Aviv, a classical musician, the mother of a girl my daughter adores, the same woman who’d invited my husband and I to visit her summer house in the Hamptons, said, looking me in the eye, “Oh, but that will be OK, we don’t worry. Trump’s son-in-law is Jewish, after all.”

A dear high school friend, born to a brilliant Muslim academic father and a progressive mother active in New York politics, married to an equally progressive Jewish man from the Midwest whom we both went to undergrad with, asked me in October 2016 to “please stop sending so many emails” after I’d forwarded a particularly scorching take-down some Democratic pundit wrote that criticized the Green Party strategy to teach the country a lesson by letting Trump get elected. (Both she and her husband: voted Green Party.)

v.

Why do different people feel safe?

As a child I studied karate, growing up in Trumpland (working-class Queens) where white boys (and girls) waited for us after school, showing off their fists. Kindergarten classmates said “Look everyone, she can’t wash the brown dirt from her hands.” Those children called me “fucking Hindoo” as soon as they turned nine or ten (like one boy, Lenny, with Kermit the Frog-eyes and a benign comedian’s face, even when he refused to drink at the water fountain immediately after I had drunk from it). In sixth grade, white boys tried touching my bare legs on the school bus. During summers, beautiful white girls (Christians, Jews, along with atheists) kept on insisting they were justified in pushing Indian day-campers to sit away from them “because Indians smell.”

As a young adult living in England for two years, I couldn’t wait to return to the US. I was convinced that certain experiences — being called “cheap Paki slut” while sitting on a train; being asked “Cheap, aren’t they?” by a woman looking over my shoulder at specialty porno magazines of naked South Asian women (i.e. “Asian babes”) — were so specific to the stains of colonialism and indentured servitude, even plantation slavery of Indian millions, that I would never see these experiences in the US, that my American passport meant I was still at least promised a promise.

vi.

They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.
—Claudia Rankine

An American Rhodes scholar (Balliol & CT) wouldn’t feel safe driving from New York to D.C., especially not safe passing through Virginia nowadays, even though Virginia is where the office of the American Association of Rhodes Scholars is based. She is (I am) not the only one who feels this way.

vii.

Navroze Mody, an Indian immigrant, was murdered in 1987 by a hate group in Hoboken, New Jersey who called themselves “Dotbusters” and went on marches.

Their marches were in objection to a lot of things. They objected to signs on American soil in any language but English. They objected to English-speaking, academically-brilliant, technically-skilled non-white immigrant workers existing, period. They themselves were white men with bats in Jersey City and Edison, several of them Italian-American and Catholic, and thus not necessarily accepted by those welcoming “Aryans.”

Christmas is American, I remember thinking, when I first saw the Macy’s Christmas tree. But even Christians have been targeted by American hate.

In the 1920s, the KKK began targeting Catholics and Catholic churches, burning crosses on the lawns of churches, murdering Catholic priests, backing legislation to prohibit Catholic schools.

viii.

This hate. It’s as American as apple pie. (World War II soldiers said they fought against the Nazis for “Mom and for apple pie.”) Unlike Roxane Gay (whose writing I love, whose parents are from Haiti, where racial animosity exists between descendants of Dominican immigrants and other Haitians, where lighter-skinned groups control a greater portion of national wealth), I don’t believe American hate is in any way new. We’ve always been the target (all of us) of “hate that doesn’t hide,” to use Gay’s evocative phrase.

The public nature of the hate is critical to its Americanizing function. Shouting hate slogans, hateful slurs, is our form of communist denunciation and coerced betrayals of loved ones — only, instead of marking Party membership, by offering up traitors to a cause, capitalists, enemies of state — we signal we are part of the majority by verbalizing hate, demonization, exclusion.

Mocking and tittering. Twittering.

ix.

A girl I knew in my childhood, Martha, beautiful and light-skinned and first generation Chinese-American, slender and glamorous as a model, played Barbie Dreamhouse with me over and over until the day she joined a blonde-girl crowd consisting of girls who were scented, exclusive.

Martha publicly chanted “fucking smelly Hindoo” behind me as she walked with them, following me home in the fourth grade.

x.

The day I get an author photo taken is the same day there is a photo of Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s widow on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. She’s wearing jeans, posed no differently than a Latina or any other brown woman. I talk about the photo with my own photographer, wondering out loud if it was deliberate, this posing of an Indian immigrant woman wearing American blue jeans and a T-shirt instead of sarees and silk veils and heavy gold jewelry suggestive of dowries. Kuchibhotla was a young engineer for a multinational corporation who was gunned down by a white former Navy engineer, an air controller — a person who helped make planes fly before, in his degraded state, he couldn’t stop using racial slurs, then came back to the restaurant with guns.

xi.

That’s the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice.
—Claudia Rankine

The proudest I’ve been of America that I can recently remember: The night that Khizr Khan, father of a fallen soldier, gave his Democratic National Convention speech, unexpectedly moving various audiences away from hate, just for minutes.

It mattered that he spoke with the same accent I could hear at any time from my male relatives. I tried to dismiss my discomfort that he’d paid for celebrity with blood. It was as if, to earn the right of being listened to, he’d had to sacrifice a beautiful son (one who, like most South Asian men now ascendant in popular culture like Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani, had mostly dated white women). Watching the convention and crying a little, I remembered how during the Obama campaign the team was careful to move hijab-wearing women to the back of any crowd, safely away from Barack Hussein so that associations of “Obama” and “Osama” could be broken. People who looked like me were ushered away to disavow the implications of the name “Hussein.”

The Indonesian, Kenyan, Kansan, Boston Brahmin, Chicagoan multicultural reality of the name Hussein is, in its essence, American — as least as American as the impulse to hide the mottled, conflicted, contradictory nature of this reality.


Image: Smith, David. “Private Law and Order Leagues (study for medallion, Medals for Dishonor series).” Ca. 1938-39. Felt-tipped pen and ink (from verso), and pen and ink on paper. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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