[OPINION] The Microaggression Behind Demands for “Unity and Healing”

I’ve been thinking about President Biden’s call for the nation to end its “uncivil war” ever since I sat down to watch his inauguration speech on January 20. It had left me cold. His rousing message calling for “unity and healing” didn’t feel like it was meant for me. Last week, in an Instagram Live video recounting her harrowing experience during the January 6 attack on the Capitol, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez echoed my sentiment in even more explicit terms, “These folks that tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize, these are the same tactics of abusers.”

Days after the attack, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) said, “We must come together and put this anger and division behind us,” as billboards campaigns in Texas called for his resignation.

This dogged determination to minimize the harm that has been done over the last five years feels achingly familiar. As a woman of color and immigrant in America, I know what it’s like to be kindly asked “Why stay mad when you could be not mad?” in the aftermath of a racist conflict with white people. I know how quickly that kindness evaporates when I stay mad when I refuse to let it go. My unwillingness to stop exhibiting my pain and anger would suddenly be interpreted as a hostile attack on someone who just wants to “put that unpleasantness behind us” and make peace. It’s also no accident that as a Chinese American, an ostensible “model minority,” I am often expected to never complain and never act ungrateful.

Therefore, the call for “unity and healing,” feels like the ultimate micro-aggression in our post-Trump era. It is the denial of justice and accountability in favor of the appearance of civility. It is the demand for marginalized people to perform forgiveness so that their abusers can move on and feel good about themselves, without accountability or atonement. It makes me afraid that Biden replacing Trump in the White House is being considered a final victory rather than the beginning of a long path of reckoning.

During his inauguration speech, Biden said, “without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness, and fury.” While it’s a lovely sentiment to strive for togetherness, what continues to nag me is the feeling that I am among many who are not given any say in what this “unity and peace” looks like. It feels more like white liberals striving to restore a less messy status quo that retains all the systemic flaws that hurt marginalized people.

I spoke about this issue with Wagatwe Wanjuki, a feminist theorist who specializes in rape prevention. She told me bluntly, “I worry that this version of unity and healing is racist. You can’t unite with people who want to kill the rest of us. The truth is divisive, fighting injustice is divisive. Fighting for unity shifts the goal in what we’re seeking.”

Her words rang true to me. Division is not inherently positive or negative, and, in fact, is key in challenging toxicity and pushing forth progress. To spearhead a singular mainstream vision of unity is to demonize every perspective that seeks to challenge it. Beneath this glittering veneer of healing is the denial that there are things fundamentally wrong with America. What use is “unity and healing” when marginalized and BIPOC people are still, quite literally fighting for their survival against systemic oppression?

“It’s totally DARVO gaslighting,” Dr. Helen Hsu, a clinical psychologist and former president of the Asian American Psychological Association, gave me her professional perspective on “unity and healing.”

DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender,” a common manipulation of abusers. Dr. Hsu likened marginalized, BIPOC people in America to abused people who are pressured to forgive their abusers who are family members.

The message I receive, as a woman of color, is that the outcry regarding unresolved harm perpetrated by Trump, by Republicans, by centuries of racial violence is taking up too much space, space that must be cleared for handshakes and hugs across the aisle. As Ms. Wanjuki said, “you can’t unite with people who want to kill you,” and that is a survival instinct, a stance of self-preservation.

How can this determination to survive, this determination to change this nation for the better be an obstacle to “unity and healing”? We want unity and healing, too, but the genuine article, not something staged and coerced.

For one thing, “unity and healing” must be defined by many, particularly by marginalized people. For another, there needs to be an honest acknowledgment of the tremendous amount of work that must be done and the tremendous amount of harm to be undone. In countries like South Africa, they set up a restorative justice body called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that identified abusers and victims, invited honest testimonies about what happened, and encouraged admissions of guilt, and expressions of remorse. This, rather than empty calls for “unity and healing,” ought to be the bipartisan effort put forth.

Much of what has happened— what is still happening —in the US is harmful, deadly, and enraging. Rage is not a flame that burns down on its own, it must be compelled to shrink and to cool, through truth-telling and grievances redressed. Healing cannot come until the harm is named and undone, and no amount of handshaking could accomplish that.

Frankie Huang is a Chinese American writer, strategist, and artist based in the Boston area. She is a 2020-2021 Encore Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.

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