In Trump’s America, I Will Keep Screaming ‘Hatred’
By Shubha Bala
More than a decade ago, I was doing nonprofit work in Rajkot, a small town in Gujarat, India, when the 2002 riots broke out. The Hindu majority attacked the Muslim minority over, in my simplified view, centuries of deep-seated racial grievances. Upon examination of how we describe the aftermath of events like these, I see placeholder words.
Riots: a word that’s really just a placeholder for when there are no words.
Broke Out: another placeholder word.
Attacked: yet another placeholder.
Winning: also a placeholder today, in the U.S.
Placeholder words are proxies for debating, analyzing, and quantifying instead of looking.
In Rajkot, I was living under curfew, which meant I couldn’t leave my house. Curfew: another placeholder word for being forced to stay in a small box for days, with strangers, watching media in a language I didn’t understand — a condition that ultimately kept us alive. And that kept me from seeing people getting burned and murdered in front of my eyes. Yet, even though I was seeing events through a screen, everything still felt so direct. The images of destruction were actually happening blocks away, 15 minutes away, an hour away.
Entire villages of Muslims were rounded up, tied together, raped in front of their mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, granddaughters — and burned alive. Muslims were hiding in their homes when Hindus would lock them in — securing all doors and windows — and then set the houses on fire so they burned to death inside. Panicked individuals seeking refuge from the police were instead directed to their deaths.
Once I was back out in the world, back to work again in Rajkot, back to normalcy with the “riots” now centered in other towns, it seemed obvious to me that words or conversations were not what was needed. It was undoubtedly a horrific massacre that had no justification. Because . . . burning alive. Because . . . the fear that will never, ever escape your body or the bodies of your children.
Despite being a Brown, Hindu, Canadian-born woman, I didn’t understand why my colleagues and friends had to analyze exactly what was going on, the history of what had happened, before deciding that the situation was bad enough. They had to quantify it, or rather have it be quantified by White, international nonprofits. What level of violence was it? Was it 50 people? 100 people? 3,000 people? They hemmed and hawed about what that number was allowed to mean.
In Rajkot, where not a lot of people were actually murdered, it was mostly just . . . people having their homes, their entire livelihoods, their entire history burned away, replaced only with anxiety and a simple choice: Leave forever, or live in constant fear. Maybe that was okay, people wondered. Maybe that wasn’t so bad. Maybe that was fine, compared to murder. Maybe the perpetrators only raped people over 18 — not children. Maybe the lists of Muslims to target were made on the fly, not planned in advance by government actors. That would make things so much better.
I didn’t have words, because then, like now, I felt like a child watching a dog on fire while people walked by, asking me the nature of the fire, the breed of the dog, and a medical description of the exact injuries the dog would suffer as a result, shouting: “Stop being so focused on the burning dog! Listen to me and talk! Use words! Put down the darn fire extinguisher!” I felt, and feel, like a child being admonished, wiping my sniffly nose and trying to figure out how to speak the language of “adults.”
Was anyone seeing what I was seeing? Because what I saw was hatred. Just hatred.
The urge to ask questions, or classify, or analyze, or even discuss was overshadowed by the horror of what was happening.
In the aftermath of the recent U.S. elections, I am now, as a Brown woman living in New York, among those who feel targeted. This time it feels like I’m living under a self-imposed curfew, afraid in a different way: I don’t want to go outside and see what’s out there, hear what people have to say.
Just as in India, what I’m seeing through the screen — this time the screen of Facebook rather than foreign language television — is personal. And although in India I was relatively safe, I was in the majority, I was, by ethnic happenstance, on the side of the perpetrators . . . yet again I’m without words. It’s my friends who have had racial slurs and taunts shouted at them, here in New York City, in Minneapolis, across the United States . . . yet again I’m without words. While in this case we’re not at the same level of physical violence (at the moment), it’s the emotional trauma that’s terrifying, that seems absurd to try to analyze and interpret.
Yet again I’m without words. All words feel like placeholders to me.
“What is the history that leads to these violent actions?”
“Are there really that many more hate crimes than before?”
“Are they really crimes or are they just some slurs?”
“What data is there to justify your feeling unsafe?”
“Rural versus urban . . . Economics . . . Racism . . . Normalcy.”
These are all placeholders.
Why can’t we let words be the placeholders for actions and not for debate? Placeholders for pain and anger, and not analysis?
There are those who ask us to have compassion. Sure. We should have compassion. The compassion to allow for a visceral reaction, for everyone, for those who are privileged and safe, for those who are not. For ourselves, for others, for the children within us all who are looking on, desperate to just put out the damn fire.
But never, ever tell me that I have to look in the face of hatred, violence, murder, and rape, whether literal or metaphorical, and that I have to make up words to engage, that I have to listen to the placeholder words of others. All I promise to do is what I did not yet have the courage to do at 21.
This time I will keep screaming Hatred, screaming Hatred, screaming Hatred, and drown out the words, the analysis, and, hopefully, my own fear.