I am descended, in part, from women and men who arrived in the United States from the Caribbean in the early years of the 20th century. My husband is Haitian, born in Brooklyn to a father from the mountains of Jacmel and a mother from the city of Port-au-Prince. Like for so many others in this country, this background – and all that comes with it (the history, culture, and experience) – is an intrinsic part of my family’s American identity.
When they first learned about President Donald Trump’s alleged “shithole countries” comment, my family expressed a mixture of outrage, alarm and weariness. It’s not the first time the president has maligned Haitians or Africans. He’s done so before in public and private, in coarse and not-so-coarse terms, and in off-hand and formal conversation. By now, despite the occasional hastily arranged publicity stunt, the president’s disdain and disinterest in the African diaspora is apparent. It should come as no surprise that nearly all corners of this world reacted as my family did, condemning the president’s remarks and subsequent non-apology. Even Republican Congresswoman Mia Love – the conservative Haitian-American representative from Utah who is normally silent when it comes to Trump’s misdeeds – publicly denounced the president’s comments and called on him to apologize.
The outrage generated in this moment has the potential to play an important and powerful role – even now, days after the president’s comments. There’s no denying the fundamental part that outrage plays in mobilizing communities, educating apolitical audiences, and energizing social movements, among other things. The wildly successful Women’s March, conceived and mobilized in response to the results of the November 2016 presidential election, offers a prime example of harnessing outrage and using it to transform society for the positive: In the year since the march, there’s been an explosion in the number of women running for political office, an increase in the number of organizations dedicated to supporting women in politics, the mainstreaming of “intersectionality” as a core element of social change, the significant and consequential reemergence of the #MeToo campaign, and much more.
But part of the current challenge is that outrage is not a rare sentiment in the age of Donald Trump. As my family and friends have discussed their dismay over Trump’s Haitian and African disparagements, many of those conversations have also held a nagging sense of fatigue. Every week brings a fresh set of presidential outrages, big and small, followed by the accompanying storm of “hot” media takes. It’s exhausting, especially for those who find themselves disparaged and targeted by the administration.
Constantly having to defend and explain your humanity is crushingly wearisome. So too is the experience of witnessing public conversations that consistently ignore the perspectives of targeted populations while devolving into superficial debates riddled with false equivalencies ― “Did Trump say ‘shithole’ or not? Was that the exact word used? If he didn’t use that word, does it mean he doesn’t have to apologize?” All of this follows a pattern wherein the focal point becomes President Trump, leaving little room for anyone or anything else, least of all a sustained and nuanced public discussion.
The issue isn’t so much the widespread focus on the minutiae of Trump. It’s that in hyper-focusing on the shock and awe of the president’s day-to-day existence, we lose sight of the lived experiences of actual people on the ground who are impacted by the administration’s policies. Yes, Trump’s vulgarities are important, but not for salaciousness alone. They’re significant because they offer us a glimpse into the president’s worldview and give us a preview of how he’ll govern. In the case of Haiti, the president’s insults arrived hand-in-hand with administrative announcements about policy rollbacks targeting Haitians and Haiti: ending Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, for example, and removing Haiti from the list of countries eligible to receive U.S. visas for low-skilled workers.
Making Trump the end-all-be-all of every conversation also ignores the contours of history: In this case, what does the narrative of American xenophobia, racism, and inequality look like when we broaden the story to include the perspectives of marginalized voices? My family would tell you that it should include a long and careful look at the U.S. record of harsh imperialist and anti-black policies –all of which pre-date Trump. They would also tell you that those policies were – and continue to be – propped up by casually racist mainstream depictions and stereotypes of the African diaspora. And finally, they would insist that their weariness stems not only from immigrant and black voices consistently being left out of the public conversation, or from the president’s misbehaviors, but also from the knowledge that long after Trump leaves the White House, the broad structures that produced his presidency and that have allowed him to act on his policies may very well still exist.
If one of the clearest lessons of the last several months has been about the potential and power of outrage, then one of the challenges for the next year is navigating our collective exhaustion. At least one solution rests on de-centering Trump. So while we should continue to pay careful attention to the rhetoric and actions of the White House, we should also refuse to let Trump’s outrageousness become the focal point of the public narrative, or the only story we hear or tell.
Outrage in this respect is a conduit of sorts – an opportunity to center silenced voices, while bringing marginalized experiences and histories firmly into the mainstream. We have clear examples to build on – much of the staying power and momentum of the Women’s March, for instance, has come from those moments when we’ve centered the voices and experiences of women like Tarana Burke, who created the #MeToo movement in 2007 as a means of empowering survivors of sexual assault. So no, outrage alone won’t save us. But harnessing that outrage into attention and support for marginalized voices – that might make a difference.
Leah Wright Rigueur, a historian and assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican. You can find her on Twitter at @leahrigueur.