From Apartheid to Trump

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Botha and Mandela holding each other's hands high in the air.

Photo by Damien du Toit: Creative Commons

In October of 1988, my family emigrated from apartheid South Africa to the U.S. It had taken my parents four years to secure sponsors and visas for us. At the time, P.W. Botha was President of South Africa; the man was an inveterate racist and leader of the National Party, which constructed the apartheid system. Botha was not budging in response to either sanctions or the anti-apartheid movement, and it looked like the country was headed for a bloody civil war. We considered ourselves fortunate to get out. I remember entering junior high school in the San Fernando Valley, stunned and delighted by the diversity that filled the hallways, by the fact that there were black teachers, counselors, and even politicians. In comparison to the society I grew up in, this country appeared a bastion of freedom and justice.
Trump is giving a speech with his daughter and American flags behind him.

Photo by Michael Vadon: Creative Commons

Twenty-eight years later, I am profoundly grateful for the life and opportunities this country has afforded me. So, on the Tuesday night of the election, I watched with shock as a man who is undeniably racist – not to mention misogynist and xenophobic – was democratically elected to the highest office in the country. No, he didn’t win the popular vote; and yes, the Electoral College is an obsolete system. Nonetheless, half the country voted for this man. Indeed, we are more divided than we knew.
And so like many of us, I am struggling to integrate what feels like dystopian fiction. For now, I am grieving and letting myself be stunned. I am caring for myself and those I love the best I can. And, I am reminding myself what I know in my bones to be true: that in order for genuine healing to come, the darkness must emerge. It must be seen, recognized, and understood before it can transform and deliver its gifts.
I know this from personal experience, and I know this also because I come from a country where the darkness was not hidden. The racism was overt, and grotesque. My eleven-year-old peers in Cape Town actually believed black people were less intelligent than white people. They thought it entirely appropriate that a black adult should address a white child as “little madam” or “little master.” In a sense, for the African National Congress and its allies, there was a clear enemy, and an obvious goal: apartheid was wrong, and it needed to end. And when it did in 1994, there was a collective process to hold perpetrators accountable and to work through the grief, anger, and guilt. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission wasn’t perfect, but it allowed the country to come together, to begin to forgive and move on. Things are far from rosy right now in the land of my birth – “Ha, you have your own Zuma now!” a South African commented on Facebook in the wake of Trump’s victory – but it is a thriving democracy, with a free press and a black government, which is worlds better than what it was.
Things haven’t been quite so clear here as they were in apartheid South Africa. For many, many years the darkness has been hidden, brushed aside, or denied altogether. After coming to the U.S., it took a few months for me to even see there was racism in this society; it took a few years to begin to understand that it was equally corrosive, perhaps actually more so for being hidden or denied.
It’s out now. It has been unveiled. Not just the racism and misogyny, but the fear and the hatred. There’s a profound divide in this country. We can no longer brush it away or pretend it doesn’t exist. Already there have been more than 400 hate crimes reported across the country, targeting gays and people of color; already there are swastikas scrawled on walls. This is a tremendously painful thing to experience and to witness. Yet, I see it as a flushing out of sorts, the first step on a path that offers the potential for genuine healing. For now, we are forced to face them fully, the horrors in our closet. We must be courageous enough to look honestly, to feel, to grieve, to gather our strength in community, and then come together to work it out. It is time for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of our own. Or, perhaps more realistically, a Truth and Understanding Commission. An honest and sincere national dialogue about the things that ail us, our differences, our fears, and our pain. This is the way we ultimately stumble into the things that unite us: our shared humanity and our shared experiences of both alienation and connection.
For now, I remind myself that this is what we have been training for: all of us working for collective and individual healing. This is the advanced practice. There is meaning to this madness, and after mourning, I plan to organize. For as heartbroken and shaken as I am right now, I am also aware that this is a clarifying moment – one that ultimately serves to awaken us. And therein lies the gift.
Marisa Handler is the author of the award-winning memoir  Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist.  Her work has appeared in numerous publications, and she teaches Creative Writing at Mills College and Stanford.