I Am a Child of Authoritarianism. I Stand with Black Lives Matter
In America, I am a white woman. In the bigger world, my first years on this planet I spent learning what I could and could not say out loud. That’s because in Ceausescu’s Romania where I was born, anyone’s neighbor could be working for the secret police and anyone could disappear in the middle of the night for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. And so children were taught what to say and to whom as soon as they could speak.
In America, people with a different color pigmentation than mine need to teach their children what to say and to whom, and also how to walk, what to wear, where to go, when to go. There’s no secret police in America, not yet, anyway (Trump and his ilk are trying, hard), and still the lives of people who don’t look like me keep disappearing, sometimes in front of our very eyes.
Breonna Taylor’s life disappeared in the middle of the night, in her bed. The police didn’t drag her out and did not take her to an undisclosed location, never to be seen again. They discharged eight bullets into her body instead. Right then and there. Her breath disappeared inside her own home. It didn’t matter that she was an EMT, that she worked, likely, with the same system that killed her. George Floyd’s breath disappeared with a knee pushed into his neck, and millions got to see it around the world. Ahmaud Arbery’s, while jogging. Trayvon Martin’s, while out to buy candy. And on and on.
I have been living in the United States for most of my life at this point. I was Trayvon’s age when I came. My whiteness allows me to move relatively free. And while my femaleness poses problems, they’re not the same. I can’t imagine calling the police only to have them assume I am the perpetrator: this doesn’t even enter my mind. But it does others’. I also don’t know what’s it like to be hunted in broad daylight, what it’s like to always be suspected of doing something wrong.
And yet my parents’ generation lived with terror, and so did I, too young to be fully aware of it, for the first years of my life. Is there a difference? Yes, there is. The difference is that under my native totalitarian regime, we were all targets, indiscriminately: my parents, for example, received unannounced police visits to their offices on a regular basis; you were either with the Party or you were a target. They were not with the Party.
In the US, on the other hand, we are told that we are all free and equal and the fulfillment of potential is available to all who work for it. It is a myth, and as a society I think we’re finally starting to understand it for what it really is, but we’re still far from acknowledging the damage it creates daily (if you’ll allow me, even as a well-educated white woman who worked hard and did everything she was told she had to do: LOL). The reality is that only selected segments of the population have the full access to resources and supports that all Americans presumably have, and skin color is the thickest line in that divide. This American myth allows us to blame individuals rather than systems; it makes us regularly blind to the big injustices while enabling us to blow small infractions out of proportion. At least in totalitarian Romania, we all knew what we knew, and we knew that the system was against us unless we joined it; that option existed.
And so in America, the people with the wrong pigmentation get to experience many of the terrors my compatriots fled from, while being told that everything is good, while not being believed when they say otherwise, precisely because these terrors are not meted out to everyone the way they were where I was born.
I have told my mother several times that had I been old enough at the time of the Revolution, I would have been out in the streets, fighting for freedom. It turns out that America has given me no shortage of opportunities to do so. That’s not what I expected when I moved here. I was an idealistic, shy teenager who knew and believed in the American Dream as sold all over the world. But the more US history I’ve learned, the more I have struggled with what it means to be American; I imagine many self-reflective immigrants feel the same. I’ve discovered that, as they say on Twitter, white nationalism is not a bug, but a feature of this country.
But I am here, I have a passport; this country has been my home and I love it. And I want to do what I told my mother I would have done had I been old enough back then.
I remember, vividly, the night when Ceausescu was finally captured and tried and killed. It was Christmas Day. I watched the news with my stunned parents inside a dark apartment, dark because we were afraid that if we had the lights on we’d make sniper targets. When it was clear that he was dead, after 50 years of oppression, the first thing I did, as an eight year old who could not have possibly grasped everything she had just watched, was to raid our library for every book that had Ceausescu’s portrait in it — and every damn dictionary and manual and textbook had his portrait on the front page — and tear it out.
I will follow the lead of my fighting sisters and brothers and do what I can do to tear out the white supremacy that infects my adoptive country and keeps disappearing people who may not look exactly like me, but breathe the same air and see the same sunsets and have the same dreams I do.