The Silicon Valley is a bubble,” my daughter said when I tried to apply the logic of the valley to the rest of the country. My children live on the opposite coast and they have told me often that the Bay Area coddled and insulated us from most events that skewed the rest of the nation. Aside from its diverse population, the lives and livelihoods here have typically revolved around the dominant theme of technology. And if anything defined the people who made a life here, it was not their racial differences but how innovative and driven they were.
In the last year, I’ve realized how philosophically estranged the San Francisco Bay Area is from much of the country. We’re a planet away from places like Charlottesville, Virginia, where, according to New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham (who attended the University of Virginia at Charlottesville) Southern gentility is a way of life. In Charlottesville, “people dressed up for football games, boys wore suits, the girls wore pearls,” and the stunning campus embodied that ethos. For Wortham, too, the events of August 12 and the aftermath were very jarring—although she, as an African American, could believe that it happened there.
Not so long ago, when we had men with decency and integrity in the White House, my husband and I binge-watched House of Cards. When Frank Underwood, the fictional Vice President of the United States pushed journalist Zoe Barnes onto the train tracks, my husband turned to me, his face incredulous. “Such things can never happen! This is the dumbest show I’ve watched.” But with the hate march in August, I believe all Americans, my husband included, have found that truth is so much stranger and gorier than fiction.
Three days after the events in which a nationalist protestor killed Heather Heyer, my daughter sent me a video made by a reporter at Vice. I watched the first few minutes of it and then decided I would not, could not, watch the rest. I decided that I would not share it on social media either.
That day was August 15th, the day of India’s Independence. Around the same time that I received the Vice video, another friend shared an old radio recording of India’s national anthem that had been recorded in the fifties. I listened to that over and over. The anthem reminded me of my parents’ first home in Chennai, our verandah, our gargantuan Marconi radio and my late parents. Pitted against my love for the country of my birth and the nostalgia, the hate speech of the video disturbed me on several levels.
How would Christopher Cantwell, who helped organize the “Unite the Right,” react if he were to meet me? If he had a problem with Jared Kushner who, in my books, was as chalk-white as Cantwell himself, how would he react to my skin which was hopelessly tanned? What choice adjectives would he have for us if he happened to drop in on a concert at South India Fine Arts in San Jose? And how would he react if he saw the results of a genetic test which would likely inform him, as it would most of us, that his ancestors hailed from Africa? Did he and the Klansters wish to submit their saliva for testing? But what was the point? They didn’t even remember their history lessons that began with how, just about 400 years ago, their ancestors wrested America from brown-skinned native Americans.
I’ve been the target of minor and major transgressions by others through the course of my life. When I was barely 11, I was told by a Tanzanian that I was a thief, “like all Indians.” Over my years in Dar-es-Salaam, however, I’d learn that Tanzanians were some of the warmest people. Yet that sentence of hate still stings, years later. Hate has no place in civil society and monuments that rise from divisive intent must be interred.
On my walks through Berlin in the fall of 2015, I noticed how the country had ensured that there were no statues of Hitler. The swastika sign was illegal across Germany. So too the Hitler salute. The city supported the Stolpersteine (tripping stones) initiative; there were plaques on street pavements, usually outside a house’s main entrance, commemorating deported Jewish residents. A line made of stones threaded through the city where once the wall used to be. I was awed by how a city could impose its views on its people subtly and subliminally. I recalled George W. Bush who said in a speech at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D. C., that “a great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
Much later that week in mid-August, I remembered that I hadn’t finished watching the entire Vice video report. I’ll never forget the last few minutes of the footage by when reporter Elle Reeve looked visibly shaken. That was when, in the privacy of his room Cantwell fished out each of his weapons from his person, calling out the weapon by its name—there were several pistols and assault rifles—and bragged about how well he had been prepared for the protest. “And oh…there’s the knife,” he said in the end, throwing the knife on the bed.
Life has been surreal since January. A toxin has been injected into the minds of people; it informs me that I am, literally, a resident alien, the “other.” I wonder: Will I be safe anymore in the country that nurtured me and gave me the freedom to express myself?
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. http://kalpanamohan.com