Talked Up to the Brink
Tylyn K. Johnson
We have a problem in the U.S. In fact, it affects the whole world that we exist in. It shouldn’t be a very difficult thing to deal with, but people keep on inflating it with all these silly little marches and protests. The Native Americans cried foul on the Trail of Tears, women demanded suffering suffrage, Blacks still call the race card for how they’re perceived, and the alphabetical community is stepping out of the closet, with picket signs, not to mention the Muslims who have to pray for a little bit of peace each day, and the people who left everything they knew for a path of liberty. Now, the problem is not that all of these groups have finally gotten the platform to speak up against discrimination.
No, the real problem is when people decide to name their calls to action “identity politics,” as if our identities should mean nothing in a world that has already made our identities determine our hopes and rights. As some would have it, everyone's the same. We’re all of the species, homo sapiens sapiens, we all have thick, red blood coursing through our veins, and we all inhabit the planet Earth. Very true, and all fair points, if humans hadn’t built a history where we develop and decline in strict lines of separation, where straddling the lines or even eschewing them altogether makes us less worthy of existence.
I honestly wish this world was colorblind, both in the race sense and the queer sense. Do you know how hard it can be for a brown-skinned, black man to talk about race? Within my own community, colorism alternates between shading me as not being dark enough to speak on such matters, and too dark to even matter. And outside of this melanin space, I become a “basketcase” black that makes everything about race if I bring it up in a conversation in any way that doesn’t hint at a joke. And as a human of the LGBTQ+ community, discussing sexuality or gender identity gets me labelled a “special snowflake” for asking that a part of my identity not be minimized or ignored for some “straightened-out truth.” To say that we are all the same implicitly disregards these differences between us that should be celebrated, after all, those differences are supposed to be what makes us all human.
Of course, there are still others who don’t believe all people should be treated with some level of equality and respect. No, they think that it’s wrong for us to own our identities because they feel like we minimize them. They don’t seem to comprehend that we’re just celebrating a moment where we’re finally free. A moment where we don’t have to be cisgender, straight, and white, or male, to make it in this merciless land. To celebrate our lives from historically-marginalized backgrounds is not only disrespectful to them, it’s anathema to their own sense of self—one so assured of their place above those who had lost their voice for centuries too long, like a songbird kept silent by an eagle’s gaze and claws.
They chant “we won’t be replaced” and “you won’t silence us” after doing it for so long under the banner of a philosophy that should’ve died with Hitler when he cocked that gun in his mouth. They claim we’re taking away their freedom of speech to stop us from speaking short of ripping out our vocal chords, all so that hate can continue to be spewed into the air at every opportunity that something doesn’t go the way of a majority built on tearing apart their fellow humans. Can you imagine it? A society where we conquer discrimination by putting the people who live in the face of that adversity on mute, with the idea of “objective” data showing how they have really come a long way. Where the truth is a secret that we all know, but can’t acknowledge because it hurts the historically-powerful so.
To say that people’s hearts will forever go unchanged in their ways is to discredit our very humanity. The “Golden Rule” is a mantra that so many of us are taught as children, that “we should treat others the way we want to be treated.” And to let that universal preaching fall on deaf ears is a failure of not only parents and schools, but of cultures meant to unite us very different creatures. Too many souls have been led to the grave because we allowed some people to use their voices to divide us and make coexistence seem intolerable.
You know, that should be an artifact of our shared history, but that doesn’t mean we stop talking about it. Have you seen the amount of money that goes into maintaining museums that house the thousands of artifacts we’ve collected from our ancestors? People pay to find them, to keep them, to talk about them, but we don’t embrace them—or else things get dirty. That’s what we must do with intolerance, find it in our history, remember the tragedies it brought upon this earth, and discuss it and move forward. But we should never grasp after something so unholy.
Natural selection, it is not. Human nature, it could not be. Fucked up shit, that sounds about right.
They would have us stop talking, and make us believe that the process of discrimination has been made natural by history, like it were a person they had just tried to keep out of the country said to be a “melting pot of cultures.” And that we must throw away every aspect of our being to achieve some sort-of peace that they can be comfortable with as we writhe with the internal agony of quieted fury and pain.
I reject that thesis.
In fact, I say we openly claim our identities, one and all—straight, ace, Puerto Rican, Chinese, man, woman, and everywhere in-between—own it for the world to see on our very nametags. More importantly, stake it for yourself, so that when you look in your mirror, you can feel like you’re living as who you want to be seen as, who you feel you have and will become. Get a nametag, put every aspect of your identity that changes how you come to terms with the way the world works. You should own your race, your sexuality, your age, your religion, your zodiac, your—Actually, I take that back.
It’d be irresponsible of me to tell you to do such a thing. After all, if you’re not in a place where it’s safe to own everything about who you are, then you risk losing everything. And even if you’re safe, I can’t tell you to let the world know you will not be stopped from going your path of life. There are just too many hermit trolls online who would reveal little to nothing about themselves as they dissect and cut down every fiber of your being based on simple facts of your identity. I wouldn’t subject even a nemesis to that, if I had one.
Regardless, to try to reshape this crazy world of ours into one where our identities can mean both everything and nothing at the same time is a feat not even the gods in our mythologies ever accomplished. I’m not sure if they even tried. Right now, I feel like I’m watching the tables turn on the few groups of people powerful enough to oppress generations of their human kin. And while they try to nip this, us, in a bud by stealing our words and twisting them for their gains, claiming “problems on both sides,” they know exactly who they are messing with, and they know that the “peace” they’ve built on the backs and blood of so many of our forebears is gonna be shaken up once we come to the table. They know the jig is up, and that not even the authority of the government will pin us down.
Where they used our features to break our spirit, we use our truths to bring them to their knees. The losses that ensued were not what I had hoped to see as change comes about, I don’t want to think that the only solution our modern civilizations could come up with to right a history of prejudice is to have to keep dying as we keep standing up. It is far from the perfect solution to a problem layered so deeply in our history that it seeps into the bones of children as they age. We just need one more revolutionary idea, and it won’t be the act of revenge the generationally incumbent powers that be fear, but it will be something that our successors will remember for millenia to come.
Still, I know I can’t possibly live to see humanity be rid of the entirety of discrimination as a whole, from ageism and islamophobia, to queer erasure and size hate. The stereotyping would take even longer, but I think the open nature of social media might be the crack in the dam we need for the river to come through, where transparency is both a rarity and a currency. In this “Age of Free Knowledge,” where the truth can be clouded by filters and editing and atemporal changes to the details and contexts surrounding it, all I can really do is keep speaking for the ones living in the margin, from the margins, and move for change to come. And change it shall, whether or not if I am still breathing once the tide pulls with the most of its might.
Tylyn K. Johnson: "From Indianapolis, I currently attend the University of Indianapolis on a Dean's Scholarship. I have published a short story in Severance Publications' Depravity anthology. I have also had a winning essay published by the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy, an article published in the Urban Media Project's Speak Your Truth Magazine, and other essays published by the NUHA Foundation. I've also had a short memoir published by the Preservation Foundation."