Orange is the new Black

The death of American exceptionalism was long overdue, says Fayes T Kantawala

Orange is the new Black
Since the results of the American election named Donald Trump the next American president, people have been… stressed. Indeed, watching the whole thing in New York has felt totally unreal to me, as if I were watching the season finale of a dark, pulse-racing show called ‘Americana’. The whole world (other than the 51.1 % of America with their head up their backsides who voted for Trump) is lamenting the symbolic and dangerous victory that bigotry scored last week. I myself remained studiously silent on the subject; in part because I had to process this new world order (a global Brexit and then some) but mainly because venting on Facebook at this stage feels like peeing against a waterfall.

Many of my American friends texted or called me in the wake of the elections with expressions of hope, asking if I was OK and reaffirming that Trump doesn’t represent their thoughts or views. As a brown Muslim immigrant to the United States, I check off a lot of boxes for what white America demonised in this election, and so their interest in my particular reaction didn’t surprise me.

I am also not surprised that America elected Trump, which is not to say that I am not disappointed. One of the things that people have said to me the most during the last week is, “He is going to start registering Muslims.” This may well be true, but it is not news. I had to keep reminding them that after 9/11, I and every other Muslim coming from abroad had to register every time we entered or left the country, suffering the humiliation of invasive and hostile interviews by small-minded, undereducated immigration officials. But patriotism and a cacophony of nationalism made this acceptable at the time, even to white liberals. My point is that the reason I am not surprised that hate and bigotry have won this election is because they have always been a part of America, despite Hollywood’s plethora of pan-ethnic TV shows.
Why would anyone think America is inherently tolerant or intelligent (as opposed to entitled and arrogant)?

That is perhaps the biggest shock of the election results: the realisation that the media, pundits, TV shows, movies, celebrities and American popular culture in general no longer represent what most Americans believe or hold to be inviolable about their country. The cities on the coasts with their highly educated, ethnically diverse populations are not all of America. About two-thirds of this country is still white, and a large part of it is still steeped in some form of supremacist ideology. They may consume the multi-culti worlds of Greys Anatomy, Modern Family and the Kardashians, but in essence believe that foreigners are stealing their livelihoods and that if they elect a bully then their glorious manufacturing jobs will come racing back. These are the people who elected Trump, and these are the people who will benefit least from his presidency. They have also voted to give the middle finger to the “Establishment” and as a widespread condemnation of Obama’s legacy. In the spirit of the non-PC air of the times, these are white people who resent being governed by a black man and made damned sure not to elect a woman, because that’s not ‘merica.

I have no patience for them. I particularly have no patience for those who try and rationalise their views, claiming with faux-socialist concern that we should try to understand why they feel so disenfranchised. I don’t care that their factory jobs dried up and went to China, or that they feel like the world is taking their future. In truth this election has done to me what it has done to everyone else: drained my tolerance. I was talking to someone who works at a popular website that dispenses news and entertainment, and he was crying at the table because of how wrong the voters got it. The website he works for, along with practically every other news outlet that works with facts, is part of the reason no one in the media here believed this was coming. These arenas, which were previously marketplaces for ideas, have become echo chambers where I can log on and be comforted with suggested articles that mirror my own beliefs. No one on my Facebook feed supported Trump. Which makes sense, because the average Trump voter was unlikely to actually know a brown Muslim immigrant, let alone be friends with one on Facebook. Whoever voted for Trump voted - whether they care to admit this or not - for white supremacy, and for the idea that “whiteness” should be the unifying force in an American identity.

Has the USA turned its back on being 'the good guys' - or was it ever meant to be so?
Has the USA turned its back on being 'the good guys' - or was it ever meant to be so?

And perhaps it’s because that concept of white supremacy is so engrained in the world’s view of America that we thought they would be smarter than this. Why, though? This country, which was founded on the blood of Native American tribes; which has enslaved and held back an entire population of blacks; this country, which has invaded sovereign nations on the flimsiest pretexts and distorted the destiny of virtually every post-colonial nation on earth with its dollars and demands. Why would anyone think such a country is inherently tolerant or intelligent (as opposed to entitled and arrogant)? Because white people know better? Because “the West” is smarter? It’s not. It is like every imperial culture before its time. Filled with people who are afraid of losing the unfair advantages they have enjoyed over others.

I applied for and received a green card based on my work; not because of my family connections, or corporate sponsorship, but because America’s bureaucrats recognised in me a cultural capital that they thought would enrich their country. For that belief in me, I am and will always be grateful. This week marks exactly a year since I moved to New York as an immigrant, and in that time I have thought long and hard about expanding my definition of what it means to live in America. I’ve thought about moving to the middle of the continent and experiencing the quintessentially American town; going exploring on a long road trip; seeing Montana and the Grand Canyon. But those places don’t want me. Their residents fear that I’ve taken their livelihoods and stolen their sense of security, and are too misinformed to know otherwise. They are already lost causes, languishing stubbornly on the wrong side of history, and one day their descendants will look on their choice with shame, as I do today.

The Americans have lost more than an election or the next four years of progressive values. They have lost the hubris that they are a fundamentally “good” country. But that doesn’t mean they have lost everything. For all our sakes, I hope they believe that. And rise, and fight, and win back the “hope” - even if it is notional - that darkness stole this week.

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