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By Lina Chhun
In this post-inauguration period, we are living with what may seem to be a very keen tension—that tension between the dangers of normalization and the flipside, the dangers of what I have already articulated as exceptionalism.
We might move beyond the paralysis of this tension however, if we consider the question Cheryl Harris posed at the same post-election teach-out: “What does this election change?”
What is happening in this moment?
This moment, as Harris articulated, is one moment in a long historical continuum. And as Cherríe Moraga further emphasized, the necessity of continued struggle would have remained even if Hillary Clinton had won the Electoral College after all. This is one moment in a continuum of many moments we selectively remember and forget, as Sarah Haley explained regarding the history of the Klu Klux Klan in the U.S.
This moment is part of a long history of white, settler-colonial heteropatriarchy in this country.
But we must also recognize this moment as a moment of change—a change towards a more overt mainstreaming of white supremacy, the fomenting of radicalizing misogyny, the rise and expansion of racist populism, and the enhancement of state power to enforce structural racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and ableism, as Cheryl Harris remarked.
This moment marks the real possibility of an extension beyond violent rhetoric. This is a man who has capitalized on incendiary discourse: throughout his campaign calling Mexicans and immigrants rapists and murderers, hailing the benefits of the deeply racist (and unconstitutional) “Stop and Frisk,” vowing to create a Muslim registry, mocking folks with disabilities… we know the long laundry list.
And yet, with the ever increasing materializing of Cabinet appointees and confirmation hearings, with executive order after executive order, with state legislatures quietly pushing forward regressive bills in the midst of the chaos and distraction of inflammatory tweets, we see that this is indeed a moment of qualitative difference. We are facing a moment and potentially an era, which could mean a substantial “rolling back”—a “mak[ing] America great [for wealthy, white men and many white women] again”—at the expense of the rest of us.
There is the possibility of viewing this moment as both a continuity as well as a rupture; a moment in a long historical continuum, but also a moment of eruption, a break, and for many of us, a deep trauma.
This trauma will undoubtedly have its own afterlives, many of which we might be able to foresee and many of which we cannot.
But like trauma—a fracture—this moment also signals the possibility for disruption,
For the imagining of something else.
Someone recently encouraged me to be kinder in my critique. I have thought about this a lot in the last several weeks.
Consequently in the weeks and months since the election, I have resolved to be kinder in the ways I can be, to others, and hopefully, to myself as well.
But I have also resolved in some ways to be more trenchant in my critique, perhaps more militant as Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo and Angela Davis recently expressed. This militancy in thought bolstered by recognition of how normalization and liberal notions of a “neutral middle ground” especially, have contributed to what has been a consistent push to “the right.” This subsequent neoliberal logic has slowly eroded our structural gains against inequality; we have shifted so far right in the last several decades yet this shift remains imperceptible to many, if not most people.
This is how the mundane and exceptional interact insidiously to produce our contemporary realities.
I have to continue to have faith in my capacity to feel.
And faith in our capacity to feel together.
This is not meant to be a call to erase our differences—as Audre Lorde so poignantly put it—but to reckon with the ways in which we misrecognize our differences, failing to see the harm in our refusal to reckon with the differences in gender, age, race, and class amongst us.
We must remember to use these differences—and the relationships of unequal power they represent—as an entry point when answering the question of what to do next.
Feminism and a friend saved me all those years ago.
Feminism and a friend who physically escorted me to therapy.
A decade ago, intersectional feminism taught me how I could do better, taught me the importance of praxis and self-reflexivity. I owe an invaluable debt to Audre Lorde—her calls for materializing and naming those pieces of oppression as well as privilege within ourselves, and her invocation to us to work through them. Admittedly, some of us have more work to do than others.
Feminism enabled me to name the pain I was feeling throughout my late teens and early twenties, while consequently enabling me to think and work beyond myself, to begin to understand racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism in their institutionalized forms—as intertwined dynamics of power, as ways of knowing, as histories rather than as simple interpersonal exchanges.
Women of color feminism challenged me to do the work of navigating my own complicity in the webs of meaning we all live in, leading to my own reckoning with imperial power and harm when doing research beyond the borders of the United States.
In the wake of the election, on the morning of November 9, 2016, I woke up feeling a deep sadness. Feeling a kind of mourning that I knew many others across the United States and elsewhere were feeling too. Feeling a kind of setting in motion that feeling in my body I know too well… knowing that this was likely happening across the nation, too.
But if I am completely honest, I know the mourning started much earlier than this. Started even before the results were announced. Started the evening of November 8th, when I marked my ballot for Hillary Clinton and enacted my imperial privilege as a U.S. citizen. The mourning started before that, too.
As M. NourbeSe Philip articulated, “We are all contaminated.”
Though not necessarily to the same degree.
In this moment, we need to continue to ask ourselves what it is that we each can do.
This means interruptions and interventions large and small.
Disrupting the common sense of the logics in which we live, reappropriating and reframing our conversations and relationships with each other, and recognizing where we may fall within the spectrum of vulnerability.
When they come, they will be coming for the most vulnerable amongst us first, our Black
and Brown brothers and sisters, our gender nonconforming brothers and sisters of color.
We must refuse to comply with frameworks that view many of us as less than human.
And as we push against the normalization of this moment, refusing to allow the structural amplification of what Critical Trans Studies Scholar Dean Spade has referred to as the unequal distribution of life chances, refusing to allow overtly violent speech and actions to become our “new normal,” we must also remember not to forget to recognize our own complicities in this thing, not to give into the temptations of distancing.
We need to continue to make the connections between our personal and the political, recognizing both our differential complicities as well as our vulnerabilities. Recognizing that we do not all share equal risk and therefore, equal harm.
This is a moment for intersectional feminism — perhaps more so than ever — a moment to remember the continual need for self-reflection in addition to action.
Now is the time to question what inhabiting the present might look like for each and every one of us, questioning what we each can do within that incredibly varied range of work left to be done.
I am not well
I am not well
I am not well.
But I am still writing.
I am still writing.
I am still;
For Part One and Part Two:
Lina Chhun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Lina’s research addresses war, militarism, violence, and trauma, focusing on the processes of memory and history-making in regards to U.S. empire in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Lina’s dissertation project studies narrative silences and the dynamics of remembrance regarding the U.S. bombing campaigns of 1964-1973 in Cambodia, connecting understandings of the bombings to registers of commemoration regarding the Cambodian Genocide of 1975-1979.