As one of more than 500,000 people who marched on Washington last Saturday, I am still reeling and reveling in the enormity of the event.
To be a single voice among a sea of voices, cascading like waves down Independence Avenue, breaking against the walls of government buildings, spilling out across the Mall and up the Capitol steps was an experience both fortifying and humbling in the same instant.
Why did millions of people travel thousands upon thousands of miles to this city – and to countless others around the world – on this day, in this fledgling new year?
Without question, to exercise our right to speak our minds and express our hearts.
To choose action over complacency.
To show our defiance and shore up our determination.
To resist cynicism, hatred, and escalating fear.
To reassert and reclaim our undeniable identities.
To exhibit the buoyancy of love in all its riotous grandeur.
To hold our ground, because we’ve come so far and refuse to go backwards.
I felt an unusual level of kinship with everyone who marched that day. It may sound impossible, or Pollyannaish at best. But you could feel the energy in the air. You could see it in people’s faces and read it on the signs they hoisted in the air. You could sense a collective and unshakable belief in the fundamental rights of all people, regardless of gender, age, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, class, religion, education, economic status, political affinity, physical ability, or background.
In short, people loved their neighbor, no exceptions.
This is what democracy looks like! we shouted. This is what feminism looks like! This is what humanity looks like!
Some of us couldn’t believe we’re still shouting these things at the top of our lungs in the capitol of our nation. Some of us weren’t surprised at all. Some never stopped shouting, have known nothing other than shouting, because to stop would be tantamount to giving in. Some have been railing against dominant majority norms for meager measures of recognition, basic decency, and freedom their entire lives.
Every person I spoke with or shed tears for, every person I applauded or high-fived or hugged, every person I admired or photographed as they made their way through the crowd was so completely different from the next. Each had a story, studded with her own constellation of misfortune and triumph. Each carried a hidden map in her heart charting intricate, lonely journeys, which somehow all led to this miraculous moment – to this astonishing intersection of Us.
Now let me be clear about me. I am a middle-class Caucasian woman, raised, educated, and currently residing in the Northeastern United States. The recipient of good fortune and relative privilege, I was “born at the right time” to loving parents, who taught me to believe in myself and my abilities. Problems could be solved because I had access to solutions. Choices could be made because I was offered them. Culturally speaking, the wind has been at my back all my life.
So what do I have in common with the transsexual Mexican-American woman whose undocumented family members were recently incarcerated after decades of tax-paying citizenry? How could I possibly relate to the granddaughter of a sharecropper who – higher education notwithstanding – has spent her entire adult life upending the same racial stereotypes that ensnared her grandmother. What does my life have to do with the life of the Latina inmate who has beat her addiction and now, her sentence over, battles to help her infant who suffers from neonatal abstinence syndrome?
We have womanhood in common. We have motherhood in common. We have objectification in common. We have hope, and its ability to overcome the steepest odds, in common. We also have loss in common, though it takes divergent forms.
Yet I actually think it’s less a question of our commonalities and more a question of what we’re willing to say and do for each other no matter what.
By adding my voice to the multitudes, I’m not saying I fully understand what it means to be an immigrant, a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQIA community. I’m not saying I can relate to feeling ostracized, racially profiled, or threatened for my religious beliefs. Nor am I particularly enlightened or especially equipped to advocate for those who live on the margins of society.
What I am saying is that I have immense compassion for individuals and communities who identify, or have been labeled, as “different” or “other.” I’m prepared to listen to people’s stories, should anyone decide to share them. I am willing to educate myself, concede my cultural bias, and do what I can to shrink my sociological blind spots.
I’m also saying that I am willing to fight on behalf of anyone whose first feeling upon waking is despair, whose first impulse is to brace for assault, who expect nothing good from the world because the world has never expected anything good from them. I can stand for those with nothing to stand on, and speak for those without a voice (not unlike every woman in the United States before 1920).
But here’s the thing: none of these statements is very remarkable. It is – or should be – the state of being human. It’s the decision to step outside yourself and into someone else’s shoes. It’s knowing that we’re all in this together even when we feel completely alone.
How can you be alone when 3.7 million people stand with you?
Fifty jaw-dropping speakers took the mic in Washington on January 21, 2017. As each woman spoke, we honored her by listening. We honored her by caring. We accepted her experience without question. Reflexively, we embodied intersectionality and inclusivity. We did not compare misfortunes or rank levels of suffering. We did not judge each other. We did not shame each other. We lifted each other up.Because we can. Because we must. We must resist, and, as Walt Whitman put it, dismiss what insults our own souls. We must refuse to be mistaken, mistreated, or mysogynized. We must actually and unconditionally love. If we don’t, oppression wins. If we divide, we lose. End of story. Whoever you are, you deserve a chance, a choice, a march, a voice. Because We are what America looks like.