On September 11, 2001, I was in college on the east coast, in a place where I could easily see the New York City skyline. My roommate and I woke up and went about our morning routine. We were in a suite of six girls, two to a room with one shared bathroom, and had agreed on a morning schedule so that everyone was able to get to class and work on time. When I went into the bathroom during my allotted time that morning, I didn’t have any idea of what I’d be facing when I came back out.
My roommate had the news on and said, “A plane flew into the world trade center.” A local news channel had cameras pointing at the towers, and we became fixated on the tv. Then I saw a speck in the sky. I said to my roommate, “What’s that?” It came closer and closer. “I think it’s another plane,” I said. She said it could be anything – a bird, a speck in the camera lens. I said, “No, it’s moving fast and it’s coming closer.” She said it must be a news helicopter. I watched it. I had a bad feeling. I was right on top of the screen, and so was she.
“It’s a plane,” I said.
We watched it hit the second tower.
One of our suitemates burst into our room seconds later, to see if we had seen it. She walked over to our tv. I looked at her, and at my roommate, and I said, “This wasn’t an accident.” My roommate kept insisting that it must have been, and I argued with her – two planes hitting both towers? That’s not an accident.
We watched the fires begin to engulf the buildings, and I thought of the game Jenga. When too many blocks get pulled out of the mid-section, eventually the tower becomes top heavy and falls. I said, “The towers are going to collapse.”
By that time, more people were in our room. They all told me there was no way the towers were going to collapse.
We watched the first tower fall together. Then I had to leave the room. They watched the second tower fall together.
The headlines that days read, “America Under Attack!” We lost our cell phone service. We heard that the Pentagon had been hit, that a plane went down in Pennsylvania, and half a dozen more things that turned out not to be true. The campus went on lockdown – those who could leave were given a short period of time to do so. The rest of us stayed. I was one of the ones who stayed.
The wind blew dust and debris over us – a thin layer of dusty ash, much like what happens in Colorado after a wildfire.
A feeling settled into my stomach, a feeling I’m unable to describe except to say that it’s heavy, and it’s as much physical as it is emotional, and it stayed with me for quite a while. I don’t remember exactly when it began to ease up, but at some point, that day became a memory that I avoid talking about. Because there’s more to it than that. I know people who lost friends and family that day. I know people who were irrevocably changed by what they saw that day. I was there, right there, in the aftermath, with the big gaping hole in the skyline, with a profound sense of vulnerability, with the knowledge that this event had changed me. I was close enough to witness firsthand the destruction, to witness the fear and the confusion, to witness the backlash against people of color in the weeks and months after.
A professor told me that it was a loss of innocence. I was in her Existentialism in Literature class. She told our class, when classes finally resumed after the campus lockdown was lifted, that it was lucky we had that class that semester, that it would help us process what had happened and what was to come.
She said we’d be a new America. A different one.
Fifteen years later, the same feeling that invaded me on September 11, 2001 is back. I recognized it instantly when I first grasped what happened in this country yesterday. It started out as a dazed feeling, a bit lightheaded, a sense of shock. The same feeling you get when you’ve had just a little bit too much to drink. Then that physical sense of heaviness set in, and is sitting in my stomach like a brick. But there’s also a shakiness as well – my hands shook this morning as I got dressed and brushed my teeth. It took me three tries to get my hair up, because my hands were so unsteady. It’s the feeling that at any moment, I’ll either burst into tears, or burst into a rage.
But it’s also a stillness. There are so many emotions mixed up that they create almost a sort of black hole inside of me, and all I can do is sit here, quaking at its presence.
On November 8, 2016, the United States of America legitimized hatred. We handed our country to white supremacy, to racism and misogyny and homophobia. Those of us who fight against racism and misogyny and homophobia, those of us who support Black Lives Matter and intersectional feminism and equal rights for all, are shocked and grieving. The anger will come later.
I was reminded this morning of the labor rights movements, and how violent they had to become before workers got things like unions, and a 5-day work week, and laws against employing children. Maybe the revolution hasn’t been bloody enough yet. Maybe we haven’t sacrificed enough.
Maybe we underestimated just how powerful racism and sexism are – because this election is a backlash against not just a black president, but against people of color becoming more vocal, against Black Lives Matter, against women asserting themselves and refusing to tolerate the everyday microaggressions or major cultural discriminations, against same sex couples being able to marry and women demanding bodily autonomy.
We thought we were changing, because we were. But with change comes backlash. We forgot about that part. We forgot how powerful fear can be, especially the fear of those who have power and privilege, and the lengths that they will go through to hold on to it.
I’m scared. Not for myself, because I’ll be alright. I’m a woman, but I’m a white woman. I’m bisexual, but I’m married to a man. I’m not wealthy, but I’m middle class enough that I think I’ll be okay.
I’ll be impacted by what this country is going to become, but not as badly as many others.
My boss isn’t white. He was born here, but the ethnic group to which he belongs has been openly attacked by the man we just elected our new President.
Five days a week, I sit in an office with five other people. Of the six of us, only three are white. I think about my Muslim coworker, and the hatred she already faces because she chooses to wear a hijab and has an accent – hatred that our new President is going to echo and encourage. I think about my coworker who just got his green card, his descriptions of how he was interrogated during that process, how he and his wife were immediately met with suspicion and treated as guilty of having a sham marriage until they were able to prove their innocence, and I wonder, how will this impact him? I think of my coworker who was born here in the States, but is of Asian descent. Yesterday, she talked to me about her fear and her anger at people who support this new President – she told me that anyone who supports him cannot also support her, and she’s right.
And the rest of us are three white women. The other two are straight, and the fact that I’m married to a man means people assume I’m straight. We have more privilege than our colleagues, and we will weather the storm that’s to come differently because of that. But we’re living in a country that just told us that it’s okay that men who assault and devalue women can be elected to the most powerful office in the nation.
The five women in this office are living in a country where we’re told that we have no right to bodily autonomy, no right to make reproductive choices. We were just told that our country thinks it’s acceptable to tell us that we are second class citizens. Our President-elect has made it clear that if we don’t meet certain standards of beauty, we don’t matter, and that we should be ridiculed.
We live in a country where the fear of a largely white, uneducated population just told us that we need to make ourselves great by returning to an era where racism and sexism were acceptable and women and non-whites knew their place. Where it’s okay to make fun of people for being different. Where threats of violence, and actual violence, is the answer. Where weapons are valued more than lives.
Well…I don’t accept that. I think my place is wherever the hell I decide it should be, and I stand with people of color, with the LGBTQIA community, with immigrants regardless of legal status, with refugees, with the disabled, with non-Christians and non-believers, with women of all colors and shapes and sizes.
I fear what’s to come, but I’ll face it. I think it has to get worse before it can get better. I think people have to be reminded of what happens when a tyrant who spews hate is put in charge of a country. I think we have to experience much more pain before people are able to wake up.
And this is really going to hurt.