Current Affairs

The Limits of Descriptive Representation

After the disappointment of the Obama years, we need a new way to think about diversity in politics.

Growing up in New Jersey, I’d always notice the bags under the eyes of everyone working the registers at the Desi supermarkets where my parents and I shopped almost every weekend. Although we’d alternate between supermarkets, depending on who we’d heard had the best mangos and fish at the time, the workers always looked the same. They all had creases on their face, their fingernails jagged and chipped, as if chewed on for hours.

I’d trail after my parents through the crowds of people picking at mounds of okra and cilantro, bumping up against one another like in a pinball machine. Often, I’d wander off to look for random items I believed were essential to a “healthy” diet, like jars of mango pickles or microwavable samosas. Then I would come across workers stocking the shelves. Many of them were Latino men in their late 20s or early 30s. They usually carried crates of supplies from the back while the brown-skinned Desi store manager followed them. Wearing a brightly colored dress shirt and a fat watch clinging to their wrist, the manager would loom over the men working. It was unsettling to see a person who looked like me in the role of exploiter for once.

These experiences have been at the forefront of my mind in recent months as the “most diverse administration in history” rose to power. They call to mind the controversial essay “On Violence” in The Wretched of the Earth, where the political theorist Frantz Fanon wrote the following about Asian and African countries gaining their political independence: 

The people who in the early days of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeism of the colonizer—Black versus White, Arab versus Infidel—realize en route that some blacks can be whiter than the whites, and that the prospect of a national flag or independence does not automatically result in certain segments of the population giving up their privilege and their interests. The people realize that there are indigenous elements in their midst who, far from being at loose ends, seem to take advantage of the war to better their material situation and reinforce their burgeoning power. 

The trap Fanon described, or warned against, has become reality in former colonies across Asia and Africa—and of course, in the United States. 

Yet I still can’t forget the excitement and optimism that surged through me back in 2008, when Barack and Michelle Obama emerged on stage in Chicago. The impossible had happened: a Black man had been elected president of the whole country. I still remember the crowd on TV cheering and waving, like people lost at sea finally catching sight of a ship on the horizon. I still can see Jesse Jackson weeping. I was in my dorm room at Rutgers at the time, and a childhood friend called me with his voice cracking. “Dude, we can do anything,” he repeated, over and over and over. 

I suddenly felt the weight that had been pressing down on my spine, built up from all those years my friends and I endured after 9/11, fading away at last. Something had changed. I felt like somebody. I had no idea what a letdown was coming.

The Disappointment of Descriptive Representation

As a Bengali American, I’ve endured my fair of profiling and harassment despite being born here and living here all my life (nothing more Jersey than a Desi who falls asleep the moment someone turns on Bruce Springsteen). Following the attacks on the World Trade Center nearly two decades ago, I was deemed a “foreigner,” someone who needed to prove their loyalty to the country. My experience hasn’t been unique. Most people of color experience the world we’re in differently than our white counterparts—though our specific experiences certainly differ based on how our particular groups are racialized.

For many of us, the idea of having someone who shares our background in a position of power—where they might be able to help us—can be immediately appealing. In the political world, this concept is known as “descriptive representation,” which essentially means you’re being represented by an official from the same racial or ethnic group.

The political theorist Jane Mansbridge gives a more detailed synopsis in her classic piece, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes’”:

Representatives and voters who share some version of a set of common experiences and the outward signs of having lived through those experiences can often read one another’s signals relatively easily and engage in relatively accurate forms of shorthand communication. Representatives and voters who share membership in a subordinate group can also forge bonds of trust based specifically on the shared experience of subordination.

Descriptive representation recognizes some of the ways in which it matters to have someone who is, say, Black or Asian or Latino in seats of power to represent constituents of color. In theory, such representatives will be able to speak up on issues that uniquely affect their community— issues that even well-intentioned white lawmakers might overlook.

This isn’t the only kind of representation, though. There’s also substantive representation, which assumes that experiences based in particular forms of identity are not as important as what a representative stands for. An elected official could be Black, for example, and still act in ways that hurt the Black community. In other words, it’s what’s inside that counts. Sometimes substantive and descriptive representation can come in the same package. However, this is unfortunately rare. 

For most of American history, neither descriptive nor substantive representation have been easy to come by for communities of color.  In the rare cases when these communities did succeed in gaining some political and economic power, they would face intense backlash from white supremacists. This was evidenced in the many anti-Black riots of the early 1900s—including the infamous Tulsa riots, in which hordes of white Americans tore through “Black Wall Street.” Only decades later were communities of color finally able to vote in their own representatives with some (small) degree of safety. It was historic to finally have Black mayors being elected across the country, such as Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, Kenneth Gibson of Newark, Richard Hatcher of Gary, and Harold Washington of Chicago, among others. 

That progress moved at a snail’s pace, but it did win some victories. In the early 1990s, Carol Moseley Braun was the lone African American in the U.S. Senate. Her career illustrated the upside of descriptive representation. For example, unlike most of her colleagues, Braun spoke out against what had become a routine vote allowing the Daughters of the Confederacy to continue using the Confederate flag in their symbology. 

As Mansbridge put it, “The most important reason for her action seems to have been the particular sensibility, created by experience, that led her to notice the Confederate flag and be offended by it.” The move won her the approval of her constituents, who appreciated the feeling behind Braun’s actions as much as her presence itself: “The visible characteristics were the outward signs of the shared experience that allowed her, as a representative, to react as most of her descriptive constituents would have liked.”

I am reminded of both the power and the limitations of descriptive representation when thinking about the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. At the time, President Obama did initially acknowledge the fact that if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon. Hearing this made many of us feel, briefly, that we had someone powerful in our corner.

Yet, it was also true that in the aftermath of uprisings in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, Obama pushed policies that would “reform” policing without changing its nature as a brutal and oppressive institution. He looked the other way as police cracked down on indigenous-led protests against corporate pipelines. He lectured African Americans about “personal responsibility” and “family values,” as if the problems of poverty were due to individual failings. In 2009, when a white police officer arrested a Black Harvard professor trying to enter his own home, President Obama eventually spoke of the incident not as an example of racist policing, but rather as a moment of misunderstanding—on both sides!—that could be resolved over a jovial “beer summit.” 

After eight years of these disappointments, the magic of Obama was gone.

Descriptive Representation Fails to Deliver for Communities of Color 

It was the fifth month of the pandemic, and my partner and I needed more masks from the Walgreens a couple miles away.  Since my partner is a teacher stuck in front of a Zoom screen most days, I volunteered to go get what we needed, wearing the final mask I had. 

As I pushed my key into the car’s ignition, my heart was beating against my chest, like there was something inside me desperately trying to burst through. I turned the key and the engine hummed, then choked, then died. I twisted the key several more times, until someone walked over from their own car and warned me that I was going to damage the engine. I stopped to thank them even as a scream started to crawl up my throat. I felt myself constantly falling behind, constantly having to keep going despite the growing number of obstacles in the way. The feeling of being abandoned, of feeling alienated and isolated took hold, convincing me there was no way I could keep up with life under COVID and capitalism. 

Since the pandemic started, living conditions for many people—especially people of color—have deteriorated tremendously. At the apartment complex where my partner and I have been staying, most of the residents are working people. Many are South Asian, Black, or Hispanic. Most still have to go to work, some in offices, others in supermarkets and gas stations and other jobs where you’re forced into consistent contact with people. 

In neighborhoods where comrades from Central Jersey Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and I have organized, like in New Brunswick or Trenton, there are countless people who are desperate for masks, medicine, and food. In New Brunswick, the poverty rate is at a staggering 34 percent, which is well above the 10-11 percent average for the country as a whole. A growing number of residents in New Brunswick, much like in the rest of the country, can only find low-wage work

The deterioration, the pain, the trauma, the fear, the humiliation, the feeling of powerlessness and desperation, the slow moving economic and political crises—it’s all happened despite historic numbers of people of color serving in government. The 116th Congress has been the most racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history, with 56 Black members, 43 Hispanic members, 17 Asian members, and four Native American members. People of color are also serving as mayors across the country, including in major cities like D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, and Atlanta. Local government is more diverse than ever. Political scientists Pei-te Lien, Dianne Pinderhughes, Carol Hardy-Fanta, and Christine M. Sierra have noted that “local elective positions constitute the lion’s share of the nation’s nonwhite elected officials in the country,” making up “67 percent of Asian, 79 percent of Black, and 82 percent of Latino elected officials.” 

This newfound diversity in government extends to the highest reaches of power, with Kamala Harris ascending to her role as vice president. Harris, understandably, has become a symbol to some, especially after years of living under the explicit cruelty, misogyny, and racism of the Trump administration. As the first Black and South Asian woman—the first woman, period—to serve as vice president, Harris’ success is indeed an achievement worth recognizing. Even Barbara Lee, the congresswoman California whose progressive stances on war and other issues have rightfully earned her the status as one of few consistent left-wing politicians in the country, has acknowledged the significance of Harris’ ascent: “This is exciting and is finally a breakthrough that so many of us have been waiting for. And it didn’t come easy.”

Admittedly, I too couldn’t help but feel some pride in seeing someone whose name was familiar, whose family background reminded me of my South Indian American friends, and who did, at times, exhibit deftness on the campaign trail—especially when calling out Biden’s segregationist past. 

Yet the rise of Harris cannot be stripped of context. During her time as a prosecutor in San Francisco, Harris pushed for an anti-truancy program which punished parents with prosecution. In a video detailing the policy, Harris made light of the program’s disturbing history, laughing as she described how she ordered her underlings to intimidate struggling parents.  As Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan Robinson wrote elsewhere: 

Harris looked at the problem of perpetual truancy and believed she ought to start locking up parents. A humane progressive looks at the problem and asks: why do absences actually occur? Truancy occurs disproportionately among children whose parents are poor and less-educated, and among children who don’t feel safe at school, who have to work or support their families, who have mental and physical health issues, and who are in unstable living situations.

As California’s Attorney General, Harris prevented those who were wrongfully convicted from being able to seek new trials. She opposed the most tepid of reforms to create more oversight over law enforcement, like requiring officers to wear body cameras. Finally, she refused to prosecute Steve Mnuchin, who would later serve as Trump’s Treasury Secretary, and OneWest Bank for “widespread misconduct” that included kicking people out of their homes under false pretenses. 

Although Harris did move slightly to the left as a senator, she continued to vacillate on critical issues such as universal healthcare. During her run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Harris would claim to support universal healthcare one moment before muddying the waters in the next. Similarly, despite critiquing Biden in the early debates during the primaries, rightfully condemning him for his collaboration with the Senate’s most notorious racists, Harris later claimed her opposition was purely theatrical, as it was just a debate.

White Identity Politics and the Dark Side of Representation

While the term “identity politics” is generally used to describe a political vision that emphasizes equalizing the playing field for historically marginalized communities, this is a bit of an oversimplification. Politics that stress the importance of identity have often been deployed to the exact opposite effect. In fact, white identity politics may be the most impactful in the nation’s history.

As political scientist Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor explains in her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation:

Racism in the United States has never been just about abusing Black and Brown people just for the sake of doing so. It has always been a means by which the most powerful white men in the country have justified their rule, made their money, and kept the rest of us at bay. To that end, racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other.

As noted by the great social scientist and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, there was renewed possibility for at least a social democracy to flourish in the South following the end of the Civil War, thanks to the rise of coalitions between African Americans and radical white Republicans across the region. However, the Southern planters would tap into white identity politics to mobilize brutal paramilitary groups against the threat of Black progress. As Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, the violence and chaos that would ensue was enough for the Northern politicians to retreat from the South in the hopes of quelling the unrest. 

In the 20th century, white opposition to equal rights evolved but did not disappear. As Historian Ira Katznelson, whose work has been critical in detailing the limits of the New Deal consensus that lasted until the 1970s, wrote in the New York Times:

New Deal and Fair Deal initiatives created a modern middle class by enabling more Americans to attend college, secure good jobs, buy houses and start businesses. But in the waning days of Jim Crow, as a result of public policy, many African-Americans were blocked from these opportunities and fell even further behind their white counterparts. The country missed the chance to build an inclusive middle class.

Due in part to the class struggle that had rattled the country during the Great Depression—and the white ruling class’ subsequent need for more allies—the meaning of “whiteness” evolved to include most European immigrants, not only those from northern and western Europe. The coalition of whiteness would be strengthened in the decades to come by popular figures such as Ronald Reagan. Reagan, even in his time as California’s governor in the 1960s, was perhaps the most talented member of a group of emerging political figures who knew how to exploit divisions among working people. As historian Mark Brilliant wrote in The Color of America Has Changed, Reagan rose to the governor’s office by exploiting the tensions between Mexican Americans and African Americans, all while promising white voters that he would keep people of color out of their neighborhoods, schools, and offices. 

“Don’t Worry, White Folks”: The Message of Descriptive Representation

Reagan’s message of white grievance during the 1960s was effective in large part because, at the time, Black Americans were beginning to win seats of power. In 1967 Carl Stokes became mayor of Cleveland, one of the first Black men to hold the top post of a major city. Cleveland, like many cities and towns across the country, recently had been the site of protests led by Black Americans frustrated by the slow pace of change. Having won, Stokes, like any politician, feared further unrest—which could alienate white voters and lead businesses to flee to surrounding areas. To soothe white fears, Stokes pitched himself as the man who could maintain law and order. As Taylor noted: 

[Stokes] promised to deliver services and improve social conditions in Black neighborhoods. He promised whites that, as a Black man, he could be expected to keep the peace in Black neighborhoods and would not “tolerate violence in the streets.”  He promised business a climate conducive to investment. 

Stokes set out to accomplish his goals using the same tools of capitalism that had led to the contemporary problems. Private-public projects were sacrosanct—instead of building public housing, for example, Stokes sought collaborations with white property developers. He soon became bogged down dealing with minor issues, instead of the structural ones he’d been elected to solve. What happened in Cleveland would repeat in other major cities, like Newark, New Jersey; Gary, Indiana; and D.C., where other leaders of color frequently found that, for a variety of reasons, their hands were tied. 

Thus, even as the United States’ ruling class became more diverse, the benefits of increased representation did not trickle down to communities of color. In fact, the presence of more politicians of color helped to stymie progress in many ways. As the political scientist and historian, Manning Marable, explained in his landmark text, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America:

There is something essentially absurd about a Negro politician in racist/capialist America. The political apparatus was designed originally to exclude him/her. The rhetoric of the system is democratic, almost egalitarian: the practices are bluntly discriminatory. Any state cannot exist in and of itself; it rests upon the material basis of a particular productive process, and in the last analysis, acts decisively to protect the propertied and powerful classes of that society. The Black majority has no real structural power, other than the productive capacity of its own hands. The Black elite retain the illusion of power, but are invested with little authority in its own right. 

The same could be said of politicians from other communities of color. In New Jersey, for instance, where about 10 percent of the population is Asian American, there are a growing number of Asian American political figures, especially South Asians. However, this has not led to more progressive policies being enacted. 

To illustrate: in 2019, Governor Phil Murphy conducted a trade mission to India, a country run by a far-right neoliberal regime under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Two of the state’s leading South Asian American political figures joined him on the trip. Instead of highlighting India’s human rights abuses against Muslims and dalits (the lowest caste in India’s Hindu caste system), or India’s severe inequality, these diverse representatives focused solely on the potential business opportunities. As one of them said, “The opportunity to expand the already vibrant bilateral trade and commerce relationship between New Jersey and India is staring us in the face.”

The political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. has talked about how neoliberalism has bred a group of Black and brown political leaders who speak on certain important issues, like discrimination or the rise of the right, but cannot and will not address most of the structural problems that affect their constituents. Hence, we are left with Black-led cities like Atlanta (where the inequality is staggering) and D.C. (where a highly diverse police force oppresses Black residents). 

Political scientist Lester Spence, author of Knocking the Hustle, addressed this curious phenomenon:

Chocolate cities—cities with large black populations—are the byproduct of particular social and political forces. As a result of defense policy, cities with significant industrial capacity hollow out, leaving poorer and blacker populations behind. As a result of civil rights legislation, these populations have increased political power. As a result, we see the increased election of black political representatives. However, we also see three different political moves. While black political officials tend to be anti-racist, taking hard lines against racial discrimination, we see them mirror the rhetoric of their white counterparts when it comes to issues of poverty and crime. As a result of the forces that hollow them out, we see the cities themselves besieged by crises. Finally, when these crises occur, we see neoliberal solutions proposed to deal with them, making them worse. 

I wish progress was as simple as electing someone with the right skin color. But that is not the world we’re in. In reality, the “progressive” mayor of color is unable to pass through any of their major policies even if they wanted to, which they usually don’t. Reality is sitting in one’s car, twisting the key over and over and over, then looking over and seeing someone else in their car too, unable to move forward. 

If We Want More, We Must Demand It 

Prior to the pandemic, I was knocking on doors as a labor organizer for my union (AAUP-AFT) and our Central Jersey DSA chapter, spreading information on how people could fight their landlord or boss. It was a weekly ritual, even though there were times I’d feel so anxious about talking to people I’d feel the urge to vomit in a corner somewhere. Somehow I adapted, mostly because I was with others who also shared my anxiety—or at the very least, understood it. 

By the time Harris was picked for Biden’s running mate in August, around seven months after the world turned upside down, I was having panic attacks. I’d start to sweat, the air feeling hot and greasy, like I was standing behind the counter of a McDonalds. Talking to people I cared about helped a little. “Dude, I’ve been able to fill my time listening to podcasts and eating mangos,” I told a close friend, one of the few I’ve been able to keep in touch with on a semi-regular basis. 

“I’ve been spending too much time watching the news,” my friend said. 

My friend, who I met years ago at journalism school, was someone who had been evolving politically over the past few years, especially with the rise of Trump. His parents, like mine, are immigrants of color, having migrated from El Salvador years ago. Like me, my friend was born and raised in the U.S., steeped in all its contradictions and glimmers of hope. 

I asked him about his parents and his job. One of his major goals in life had been to live and work in New York City, which he had been able to accomplish for a couple years. But once COVID hit, he had to head back to his family in Texas. Now, he was planning on returning to New York to end his lease and collect what belongings he could. He would stay in Texas for the near future instead, accepting that his life would have to be put on hold. 

My friend wondered aloud, “Dude, what’s going to happen next?”

I had an answer, but it wasn’t necessarily comforting. Electing Biden and Harris— or even “real progressive” representatives like AOC— would never be enough to meet the needs of Black and brown people. As the activist and historian Angela Davis put it in her book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement:

Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements—from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome… When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements—anchored by women, incidentally—that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today.

Political theorists like Davis, Rosa Luxemburg, and Marx himself have consistently warned against relying on electoral politics, no matter how “representative” those elected officials might be, to create a more just society. Direct actions on a mass scale, like the boycotts of the 1960s, are essential for success. In his book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, the sociologist Aldon Morris wrote:

For bus boycotts to be successful, masses of blacks had to participate and cooperate. When they did, economic and social disruption resulted. During the bus boycotts in Montgomery and Tallahassee the revenue of the bus companies plummeted, and the entire white business community was adversely affected… Indeed, uncertainty is always introduced when a mass movement occurs in a community. All of a sudden social order becomes tenuous. The white business community suffered from that uncertainty. White men advised their wives not to shop too frequently downtown, because the “n****** were down there acting up and you can’t be sure of what they might do next.” The proprietors of segregated business concerns became jittery at the thought that their segregated enterprises could be subjected to a boycott target just as the buses had. 

Even earlier, organizers had understood that voting had its uses—but also its limitations. In the Jim Crow South, during the hardships of the Great Depression, Black and white communists from the North organized with mostly Black sharecroppers. Though they did collaborate on “get out the vote” efforts, that was not their main aim. As the historian Robin D.G. Kelley explained in his book Hammer and Hoe

Obtaining votes, however, was clearly not the objective of the campaign. Voting, one leaflet explained, would not lead to workers’ empowerment; that could only come through the direct seizure of factories, mines, and warehouses and self-determination for African-Americans in the black belt. 

In the present day, conditions are ripe for similar types of organizing against those standing in the way of systemic change. More and more people are experiencing how elusive the American Dream has always been: here today, gone tomorrow. 

Unsurprisingly, worker militancy has spiked in recent years as living conditions continue to plummet. In 2018, close to 500,000 workers took part in strike events, well beyond the 50,000 workers who did so in 2017. That same spirit has persisted through the pandemic, with workers at massive companies like Instacart and Amazon (among others) refusing to tolerate being treated as less than human. 

It’s evident that people have been pushed to their breaking point and are searching for ways to address the calamity that is neoliberalism. More and more, people are seeing no other option than to confront those who oppress then.

How Do We Fight for Shared Interests and Respect Our Differences at the Same Time?

The opportunity for organizing masses of people—especially people of color—has been spurred by an increase in precarity among communities across the country. In his book On New Terrain: How Capital Is Reshaping The Battleground Of Class War, the labor writer Kim Moody observed that, “Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, including immigrants, composed about 15-16 percent of the workers in production, transportation, and material moving occupations as well as in service occupations in 1981 and now make up close to 40 percent of each of these broad occupational groups.” 

However, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that such a diverse coalition will embrace a shared struggle. Simply because people share common living and working conditions does not necessarily lead to them sharing the same goals. Following World War II, left-liberal organizers believed in a natural alignment among non-white communities. They assumed that Asians, Latinos, and African Americans would see one another as natural allies and therefore failed to appreciate the unique factors affecting each group. This led to fissures in the coalition, which  savvy politicians exploited to pit one community of color against the other—exemplified perhaps most clearly in the tensions between Black and Korean American communities around the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles.

Some progress has been made in the years since then, with many in the Latin American community coming out in support of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Many Asian Americans are also wrestling with questions of identity more and more, and embracing their ties with other communities of color. Still, there’s a long way to go before the multiracial coalition envisioned by progressives becomes sturdy enough to take on the entrenched forces of capital. But we don’t have a choice. Either we find a way to fight together or we die, isolated and powerless, in a world crumbling around us. Either we find ways to organize as safely as possible, as soon as possible, or those we care about lose their homes, their jobs, their sense of dignity. 

The night after Kyle Rittenhouse murdered two protestors brave enough to challenge his bloodlust, I was startled awake by a nightmare. 

I called my friend to check in about his Manhattan road trip. He’d texted me a week before; he’d succeeded in retrieving some things from his now-former apartment, but I’d never texted back. Now, I needed to hear his voice. I asked him if things were OK back in Texas. 

“Yeah. Just relieved to be back with the family. You?”

I hesitated. The heaviness in my chest had grown. “I don’t really know,” I said. It had been months since I’ve been at a rally, since I’d felt what it’s like to be around others chanting and cheering even as your voice gives out.

I wanted to cry because I was scared. 

“Hey, you there?” my friend asked.

Years ago, when Obama was first elected, I would hang on his every word. I would find comfort and confidence through his speeches, through how he’d identify, at least sometimes, with people of color like me. Now, I found myself thinking about a speech he’d given last June at the peak of the protests against police brutality. Obama had said, “[Every] step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable.” But now his words rang hollow. I remembered another thing he’d said during the protests, something that revealed the shallowness of the representation he offered: “If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan like ‘Defund the Police,’ but, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it.” I know who Obama is now, and his words no longer lift me.

I heard my friend’s voice again. “Brother, you okay? You there?” 

I couldn’t answer.

“Dude, can you please let me know you’re okay? I’m starting to get worried.”

I could hear the anxiety squeezing his vocal chords. I could sense his feeling of being abandoned. That same feeling I’ve had over the course of the pandemic. That feeling of aloneness when watching Obama’s interview. 

“I’m not doing great,” I told him, “I’m not sleeping enough. I skipped lunch today ‘cause I watched the news.” I continued, telling him about how I kept thinking my parents were going to catch COVID any day now, how I washed my hands until the soap burned my skin.

“Just letting you know ‘cause I know you know this, but I’m here for you man,” my friend said. 

I paused. “Same.”

It’s been weeks since I talked to my friend, but I still return to this conversation and similar ones I’ve had along the way—with other friends, my partner, my parents. Between teaching, reading, researching, organizing, and typing up essays that I sometimes lose interest in halfway through, I remember talking to others I care for. There are still days of anxiety, hours spent wanting to scream out a window, nights in which I stay up writing or just flipping through YouTube until I actually feel tired. Yet now those moments don’t last as long as they once did. They melt away as I am reminded of the community of people around me, a community who is willing to listen to me and fight for me as I would for them. Their words lift. 

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