A friend and I went to see a movie and immediately she scoped out the emergency exit in the cinema, a survival instinct she picked up while studying in the U.S. ‘If a shooter comes in I want to be prepared,’ she told me. The memories of gun massacres in cinemas in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 and in Lafayette, Louisiana last year, came flooding back to me.
Despite the high rates of gun violence in the country, after almost two years of planning, saving and yearning, I’m heading to the U.S. at the end of October.
Thinking about my friend’s exit strategy, combined with the high-profile violence that seems to be increasing over the past few months (or at least the international newsworthiness of it), it has led me to second-guess my trip and ask the question, am I a fool for travelling to the U.S. right now?
In June this year, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at Orlando LGBTQIA club Pulse further highlighted the issues of lax gun ownership laws, homo- and trans-phobia, and lack of medical care for undocumented immigrants that America faces.
This is further compounded by the issue of police violence against African-Americans, and the rise in white supremacy rhetoric peddled by presidential candidate, Donald Trump, which combine to create a general sense of unease and uncertainty when I think of my upcoming trip to the States.
I’ll be stationed primarily in Trump’s hometown, New York City, a relatively safe and liberal locale, especially for a white woman like me. The very fact that I’m going to the U.S. demonstrates my relative privilege – I have the means to take long-service leave from my secure job and save money over the past year living with my parents to afford to go in the first place.
To be concerned about my safety in a Western country that somehow doesn’t offer paid leave (sick or otherwise) or affordable healthcare while I voluntarily leave a country that has both feels like a slap in the face of many of its citizens. I’m unlikely to be racially profiled at Customs and in stores or to have to exert extra caution, as several countries have advised of its citizens travelling to the U.S.
I have more of a chance of being physically endangered by someone close to me here in Australia, even with our notoriously stringent gun laws, than experiencing violence in the U.S. Even writing this article exposes how frivolous and counterintuitive my worries may seem. How many people who identify as something other than cis, straight, white and middle-class have the same freedom that America holds so dear?
The presidential inauguration of Hillary Clinton, which I’ll be attending in Washington D.C. in January, will pose its own set of risks. It’s likely the largely white and male Trump electorate for whom he wishes to make America great again will be far angrier should he not be voted in, which could be just as frightening as the erection of the wall between the U.S. and Mexico and the mass deportation of Muslims under his presidency. In addition to riots on election and inauguration days, Trump has encouraged “second amendment people” to do something about his opponent, so assassination attempts are terrifyingly front of mind. Daily racist, sexist, ableist and generally bigoted micro-aggressions are just the cherry on top of Trump’s America.
With the numerous daily shootings coming out of the U.S. populating my social media timelines and newsfeeds combined with the sensationalism of local TV reporting it’s easy to buy into the perception of America as the lawless Wild West in comparison to the sleepy, unassuming Land Down Under I call home.
But Australia is not without its problems. Black lives don’t matter here, either. Family violence is at a shocking high, we treat asylum seekers like shit while priding ourselves as being better than other developed countries, and the United Patriots Front is the Aussie equivalent of Trump’s stateside supporters. But a smaller population and greater safety nets combined with our “she’ll be right, mate” ethos strengthen our intangible confidence that Australia is safer than America, at least for some.
I know my travels will unlikely be as fraught, anxious and on-guard as the countless travellers to and citizens of the U.S. that belong to marginalised groups, who are more likely to be affected by the unrest I write about above. Fear *ahem* trumping adventure may not be rational, but neither is a fear of the dark, and in the face of it, the most we can do is be prepared. Despite the unlikelihood of me being trapped amidst the opening of the first seal of the apocalypse, I’ve drawn up a will and power of attorney and will be registering with Smart Traveller, as well as taking my regular precautions for being a woman in the world. As irrational as a middle-class white woman being afraid in the land of the free is, I still thank my lucky stars (and stripes) that I have that opportunity.
Image: John Silliman