This commentary originally appeared on Jameelah Jones’ Medium blog.
I won’t type the presidential election results because you already know them. For 24 hours, I didn’t know what so say. For many of us who do “the work” of social justice, everything we read, write, and share is in the hopes of preventing something like this from happening. The empty feeling of defeat is one I won’t soon forget.
I realized my silence came because here in America, we have forgotten the power of words. We refuse to acknowledge that words come from histories, and that we use words to shape how people experience the present, and will likely experience the future. Hopefully, this election season taught us that the following phrases do us more harm than good:
1. “Research the candidates, then make a decision. It’s about who aligns with your values”
Can we stop pretending that elections are as simple as finding platforms and candidates that align with “values”? Making an election about a simple disagreement of issues ignores the political climate of today. The over simplification of statements like these perpetuates the idea that our political system is inherently good. That our electoral system is just messed up by people who disagree from time to time. We are giving politics way too much credit here. It’s time to admit that our current political system was designed to be anything BUT fair, and anything BUT beneficial to anyone who isn’t a straight, white, property owing (rich), male. Absorbing, not just acknowledging, this reality would make way for leaving the next cliche in the dust:
2. “People who don’t vote are part of the problem! You’re the reason we’re in this situation!”
Exit polls are clear — the problem wasn’t the number of people who didn’t vote, or voted third party. Let’s also face the fact that people who are convinced their vote “doesn’t matter” are more correct than we want to admit. To be clear, particularly to Black voters, engaging in a right that was (and is) denied to us is symbolically and practically important. But, our lack of focus on basic civic education has led us to, once again, simplify our electoral process beyond recognition. Also, we approach this cliché with a general lack of acknowledgement of how things like voter suppression and voter ID laws factor into who votes and why. The assumption is that not voting comes from ignorance or laziness. Blaming people who don’t vote has an inherent class bias and “othering” intention. The idea that one vote can tip the scales of an election is HIGHLY unlikely at BEST. In the current state of our political system, we can’t keep selling the false narrative of fairness and shaming those who choose not to buy it.
3. “Your ancestors fought and died for your right to vote!”
First, this phrase was likely coined by either condescending white liberals, or ruling Black elites who needed someone to blame and separate themselves from. Either way, the message is the same. “You poor Blacks better get your lazy asses to the polls and vote so you don’t screw this up for us.” Second, I’d like to know why we don’t recognize that our ancestors ALSO fought and died for our right to protest, and even riot in the face of injustice. You can’t throw a MLK quote at white people, then say voting is the only think King fought and died for. Just last month, you told me to go watch a movie that glorified a Black man’s violent revolt against slavery. You can’t do that and tell me protest, and even revolt is impractical and against “our” goals. You can’t invoke ancestors then laugh at the people burning sage in their homes and bringing crystals to protests and meetings. Simply put, this doesn’t mean what you think it means. Invoking ancestors to shame and condemn voters is not only antiquated, but verges on morally reprehensible.
4. “God is in control. No matter who wins the election, He reigns on the throne so I will be alright”
As Christians, let’s sit in the amount of privilege it takes to say this. It must be nice to tout our religion as supreme in the face of despair while other religious groups are afraid to profess their faith for fear of physical attack. (No, not in the way U.S Christians think they’re persecuted for “professing faith,” that’s another blog post for another day). I am a Christian who is tired of platitudes that are nothing more than passivity dressed in moral authority. I know God reigns. I know Jesus died and rose again. But I also know a God who grieves and is angered by oppression and injustice. We do not serve a God who is insensitive to feelings of despair. In the immediate aftermath of injustice, we have to accept this “God is all powerful” message for what it really is: empty rhetoric that takes the place of the action we should feel moved to take on behalf of God’s oppressed people.
And my personal favorite:
5. “Nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams”
*CACKLES* I understand the need to be radically hopeful in times where nothing seems possible. But radical hope is impossible without acceptance of our present condition. And presently, a white woman worked her whole damn life to run for President and lost to a white man with a bunch of money who decided 18 months ago that he’d have a go at it. So there’s that. Next time I talk about privilege, how ’bout you don’t roll your eyes? Cause if a white woman with the full support of corporations and the political establishment STILL faces sexism, please don’t patronize folks by saying hard work in the face of oppression will save them. Instead, let’s have an honest talk about the impact of oppression and work to reverse it. Let’s name the problem as it is: a system that levies the full weight of oppression against people, then tells us we are the problem for not being able to bear the load.
TO RECAP: We’ve said things for so long that we haven’t examined whether what we are saying is helpful. Bad social policy usually starts as bad rhetoric with bad intentions that has been regurgitated so much that it’s accepted as well intended fact. This will be SO important to keep in mind as we move forward. My momma put it best: “Don’t just say stuff to fill up the air.”
Jameelah Jones, M.A. (she/her/hers) is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas Department of African and African American Studies. She is interested in Black women’s collective agency on the Internet, and explores Twitter as autobiographical writing. She writes, knits, and scrapbooks in her spare time. In her SPARE spare time, she competes in pageants and writes poetry on the back of all her graded essays. Follow her on Twitter @sunnydaejones and on Medium @SocialJusticeJones.