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Here’s something else white people can do for Trump

Call for unity requires the hardest work in America

In the early hours after the world changed, our new president-elect, Donald Trump, called for unity and healing.

“Now it’s the time for America to bind the wounds of division, have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people,” Trump told an audience of rapturous supporters and a national TV audience Wednesday morning. And I thought about what that really meant.

Division and separation feel visceral to me, like pieces of Americana I can extend my hand to meet. This is not only because of the dirty-word associations from Trump’s year-and-a-half-long presidential campaign — the rapists, the Muslims, the blacks, the angry, angry whites.

They are themes that animate personal decisions about where I, and many other black people, choose to work and live. About the people I feel most comfortable with, and the ones I avoid. About the race variables that factor into daily calculations about my well-being and the health of my work environment — how many blacks were at the building dedication? Were any black people invited to speak at the farewell party? And they undergird the constant negotiations I’ve made with this American life to secure a sliver of agency and comfort in a nation where the nullification of black and brown lives was baked into the cake. (If you put two cups of salt into a recipe that calls for sugar, you will be trying to desalinate your cake forever, and you should never be surprised that it will always remain too nasty for some people’s taste.) Still, we try to rise.

“I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country,” Trump told the nation.

But we’re turning on a knife’s edge. Morning show anchors and Trump surrogates are filling the airwaves with their forced-normal, new administration predictions, while protests against the new president-elect Trump have erupted in cities from coast to coast. And I sit here, feeling profoundly unsafe, watching as the nation sheds its post-civil rights clothes before my eyes, trying to make common cause with my fellow citizens, a majority of whom I do not know at all.

Per the president-elect’s request, I have suggestions. I’m not sure if white folks are ready for the small, prosaic steps and the massively heavy work they require. But then, I wasn’t ready, either.

White people have always been my reliably scariest “other.” One of my earliest memories as a little girl was being called the N-word and having a rock thrown at my head. I had a college professor tell me I could only get a job sweeping floors at the Washington Post, where I was later a reporter and columnist. I’ve had colleagues disbelieve my world view because they can’t fathom it, and I’ve sometimes seen them hold me, not in disregard so much as a palpable non-regard. (It’s the same non-regard many editors and reporters showed working-class whites, causing them to miss the significance of the Trump phenomenon.)

In this context, it is easy to see why people choose to be around people who look like us. If the clerk is rude to me, if the principal keeps me waiting, if the colleague asks for help putting paper in the copy machine, and all of those people are black like me, then race plays no part in these interactions. It is paradoxical that there is so much comfort wrapped up in being around black people that it allows you to forget race.

When I’m in a majority white environment, I can question routine interactions. I sometimes wonder if I am heard. I’m haunted by a mocking, internalized white gaze. I name it. I fight it. Usually, I win and keep moving. But the effort can be exhausting. When the white butcher doesn’t share a recipe, I feel lack of community as a phantom pain. If the white guy behind the counter at Kinko’s is impatient, I can feel the urge to assert my smarts. When I saw people standing on the porches of houses with Trump campaign signs, I told my kids to pass them by quickly.

I stand behind the validity of those reactions. It is never the wrong instinct to be wary of the motives of people who have historically shown that they do not have your best interests at heart. That they would injure or exploit you just as soon as look at you. To be mindful of that possibility is a fundamental act of self-preservation.

The trick is to not stop there.

And that’s an act of faith and of discernment that comes with intentional practice. A white woman asks me for help at the gym and I could think it is her white privilege at work, or I could stay in the moment long enough to recognize she’s just trying to be friendly and connect.

White people too rarely ask themselves to stay in any moment where they feel uncomfortable.

Repeatedly during Trump’s campaign rallies, blacks were singled out for rough treatment. Even those who came to support the candidate were often manhandled or ejected. The most evangelical Trump supporters are without amazing grace enough to see that the hatred and fear they project on other people is stuff they brought with them.

They chant USA, USA, USA as a talisman against an insecurity and menace they’ll never fully purge no matter how hard they scapegoat. Because, since the nation’s founding, there are white people who simply refuse to do their own work.

Who say they love democracy, but can’t stand the plurality of it. Who move away or kick others out, who gentrify and criminalize because they cannot bring themselves to wrestle with the fears, contradictions and discomforts of being near black or brown people or their threatening ideas. They’d rather vote them away.

After an election won by fear and division, Trump told the audience Wednesday that “Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American Dream. I’ve spent my entire life and business looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country.

“We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.”

His words, if he believes them, affirm our only path forward, and perhaps our only shot of occupying the same world without killing one another. Our fates are irrevocably linked. How do we make people who are not alike acknowledge that they must live together with the full protections of citizenship and equality for all?

It’s the hardest work in America. And President-elect Donald Trump needs to tell white people, for once, to put their backs into it.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.