I arrived, jetlagged, into a jetlagged nation. While I was coming to terms with the sixteen hour time difference, the traffic in reverse, and the fact that people eat marshmallow fluff on toast, those around me were struggling to make sense of the election of a man so many thought was a joke.
I arrived in wintery Massachusetts days after America and the world witnessed the inauguration of Donald Trump and the nervous energy was palpable. Recently ranked the number one state in the US, Massachusetts, in the North East, is known for its picturesque, historical coastline, some of the nation’s best schools and universities, Boston clam chowder, and its fiercely progressive political profile. The little rural college town of Amherst, where I’m living, is a quintessential New England village – colourful weatherboard houses and barns surrounded by pine and maple trees, all bare, their boughs laced with snow. A curiously left-leaning rural community, cars sport butch snowploughs alongside rainbow flag bumper stickers. Plastic bags are banned in all Amherst shops, so students bustle down the main street cradling brown paper bags from Wholefoods. As an Australian, when you think of America, it’s all stars and stripes, fast food, and football, but it took me a week to spot my first McDonald’s in this part of the country.
When I first arrived, every second person I met had just attended a Women’s March and spoke of a pent up energy, an anger, a fear, a frustration, with little or no outlet. In their anecdotes of coping after the election and then the inauguration, people use words like “shock,” “trauma,” and “disbelief.” Everything is amplified now. People don’t say “sexism,” it’s “misogyny.” It’s no longer just “racism,” it’s “white supremacy,” it’s “fascism.” People here are calling it what it is and there is encouraging power in that.
Being here in the US, I get a deeper sense of liberal people’s shock as a visceral, embodied reaction in a way that is intangible back home in Australia. Feminists here have daily conversations about being re-traumatised by turning on the news and seeing that orange face staring back. When Trump announced the travel ban in late January, colleagues from my host university were inundated with emails from worried students, stranded abroad unable to return, or stranded in the US unable to visit home. A Latinx friend on a student visa is worried that the Mexican border wall Trump proposed to keep out “bad hombres” would divide her family. At home, these just seemed like headlines in my newsfeed, but here it is very real.
One woman told me that for a long time after November 8, she found it difficult to even get out of bed. Her disbelief at what happened rattled her values to the core. She spoke of feeling “frozen.” In fact, the question on the lips of most feminists I’ve met is how can we overcome this “frozen” state many of us are in? Moving past the disbelief is vital at the present moment, as Sociologist Donileen Loseke points out that Trump’s antics are designed to keep people confused. The disorienting slew of gaffes and bad tweets only contribute to public disbelief, which keeps people from thinking rationally, from planning, from organising.
So what can people do on a daily basis to not only stand against the tide of injustice, but also just to cope? A commonly expressed question is “how do we go on?” My Airbnb host in Philadelphia tells me that, as a result of Trump’s election, he talks with his neighbours more and feels a stronger sense of community in his little street in South Philly. He has also returned to activism at a local level in order to feel like he is doing something to effect change in the seemingly hopeless world around him. Focusing his organising energy on things that impact his daily life as a black gay man gives him a sense of control and keeps him optimistic. Back in Amherst, academics tell me of finding similar optimism in thinking of their research and teaching practice as activism. In times of “post-truth,” generating facts and teaching critical thought is a radical act.
Overcoming paralysis is important for white feminists both in America and back home in Australia. While white women can express all the guilt and shame they want, this does not change the fact that 53% of white American women voted for Trump. None of the women of colour I’ve spoken with have been surprised about this. Unlike white women, they can believe how this could happen. White women have been siding with white men for centuries. In the knowledge of this, continuing to express shame is no longer enough for white feminists and allies to stay woke. Why is it that white voices dominate the cries of disbelief and denouncements of injustice, when it is black and brown bodies that bear the visceral brunt of that injustice?
To move forward, what I’ve learned from activists here is that it is important for white feminists and liberals to meaningfully engage with and support intersectional projects, rather than use terms like “diversity” and “intersectionality” as buzzwords. We have neither the right nor the time for self-congratulation. In a powerful address at Mount Holyoke College entitled “The Age of American Disgrace,” author Roxane Gay argues that we need to reposition the notion of allies as a verb, not a noun. It is no longer enough to take a position of comfortable distance. Structural change cannot be achieved by a single, well-meant Pepsi can. A hashtag. A filtered Facebook mask for (insert your own social justice crusade here). Instead, we need to take all issues personally and fight for and with each other, with tangible efforts, action, and thought that transcend individualism.
In times of increasing injustice under the Trump administration, people I’ve met in Massachusetts have expressed a range of emotions from shock, anger, and fear, to cautious optimism. There is a sense that it’s going to be a long four years and people need to find ways to keep mobilising for social justice even when we are angry, but tired. Some of the coping strategies described by people I have met have centred on courage, critical thinking, and translating their anger into action. In a “post-truth” climate where the press risks being silenced, we need to find the courage to speak and think critically about how we, and others, use language.
We need to keep criticising the use of empty buzzwords or slogans that offer complacent false hope. We need to stand up against the neoliberal denigration of terms like “identity politics,” asserting that identities are political and we all contain powerful multitudes. To build solidarity, we also need to focus on “calling in” rather than always “calling out” in activist communities and critically engage with the privilege and power involved in these situations. Policing others’ use of language can stem from elitism and ableism, with meaningful engagements with difference being much more productive and sustainable than movement in-fighting. We’ve got bigger fish to fry than correcting a well-meaning undergrad’s vernacular. We’ve also got better things to do than feed trolls.
Maybe it’s the homesickness or the subtle, unexpected culture shocks (why don’t Americans own kettles?!), but over the last few months I’ve often found myself considering what I might take from all of this when I return home. Coming to America following the election of Trump has highlighted a sense of removal I felt back in Australia. As a white, middle class, Australian woman, it is all too easy for the domestic and international injustices of Trump’s Presidency to evaporate when I close my laptop. Becoming aware of the privilege of this removal has made me realise that we should not be complacent about social injustice abroad or, especially, at home. So many Australians, myself included, can get up in arms about American politics, but this rings hollow if we remain silent about similar issues in Australia.
Like some of the people I’ve met in my travels in the US, on a good day I am cautiously optimistic that international shifts towards right wing politics are galvanising more people to action. We live in a globalised world with more ability for transnational connection than ever before. The women’s marches, although problematic, were the largest protests in recent history. What I have learned during my time in America is that this era we are living through and the challenges we face require us to look both outward and inward – as well as contributing to addressing social justice issues internationally, we must also engage with these at a local, community level. When addressing social inequality we must also shift our outward focus inward, considering how our own privileges are complicit in the oppressions of others and what we might do to bridge these gaps.
While the future can look dark and full of terrors, the people in this quiet corner of the great Western anathema have encouraged me that through resistance and resilience we can find quiet optimism, like green spring bulbs sprouting below the surface of the melting snow.
Ruby Grant is a queer, feminist tomboy who enjoys craft beer, powerlifting, Netflix, and contemporary art. Ruby is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Tasmania. Her research interests include feminist health sociology, lesbian studies, and queer theory. Her current research explores young queer women’s experiences of sexuality and sexual health in Tasmania. She is currently a visiting research associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Centre in the US. She is looking forward to getting home and having a good cup of tea.