When I was a little girl, my mother told me a story about an emperor who hires a couple of weavers to make him a magnificent suit. The weavers know the emperor is vain, so they tell him that the fabric is special, so special that it is invisible to all but the smartest in the land. Afraid to speak up and risk being viewed as unfit or unwise, his closest associates play along, pretending they could see the invisible suit.
They aren’t the only ones. One day, there is a great procession through the town. As the emperor began the march dressed in his invisible clothes, the townspeople line the streets, watching in an uncomfortable silence. Exchanging glances, they look straight ahead, refusing to see what is right in front of them. Finally, a little boy in the crowd shatters the illusion. There, in front of everyone, they must acknowledge what is true, what they had known all along. He is naked.
Through much of the past week, I have struggled to make sense of the feelings that have continued to wash over me. Tears stream down my face when I least expect them. Despair greets me when I close my eyes. All week I have read copious articles about what happened. I will spare you the reasoning and the rationale given by people far smarter than me. I know you have read them too.
I’m a person who needs to understand why.
I understand that we have different values. I understand that my family in the Midwest is worried about different things than I am in California. I understand what it means to feel left out, disenfranchised and ignored.
What I don’t understand, what I may never understand is this. Why did we collude with bigotry, hatred and fear? Why did we listen while the campaign spun wildly into disgusting rhetoric, humiliation and shame? Why were we content to separate our heads from our hearts? Why did we pretend like it was business as usual when it really truly wasn’t?
Why did we choose to ignore what was right in front of us all along?
This isn’t a new phenomenon. I talked to my college students recently about how ashamed I was by the way the first African American president of this country had been treated. I’ve been around since Kennedy. I’ve seen many presidents come and go, some that I agreed with and others I did not. Through it all, however, I could not remember a moment when dignity and decorum had been lost.
That all changed when a black man came into office.
Somehow, over the last eight years, we have watched decorum slip away. We have watched as he has been insulted, denigrated and disrespected. We have stood by and watched from the sidelines pretending that things are normal when nothing could be farther from the truth.
This election has stripped us naked, exposing truths that we have not wanted to see. We can continue to make excuses for the hate that has infected our society and the denial that still runs so deep. We can continue to pretend that it is business as usual, that this behavior is acceptable to all of us. We can continue to stand by silently, colluding with racism, hate and fear.
Or we can choose something different.
We can choose to no longer be clothed in denial. Like the young boy standing in the crowd, we can choose to find our voices. We can embrace our nakedness. We can fight for justice, kindness and each other. We can face our shame.
We can choose to learn this lesson so it will never happen again.