memorial for my grandmother

Champa Rani Vaid was a painter, a poet, & a feminist who also happened to be my grandmother. She died last weekend in the same hospital I was born in 26 years ago. She was surrounded by family & community singing her favorite songs. This scene: her, surrounded by a motley crew of adoration & sleep deprivation in small town college station -- was just one of many masterpieces in her life. 

She always possessed a distinctly femme power of willing things into being, creating everything out of nothing: a man into a husband, a country into a home, a word into a prophesy. It's a form of magic she channeled later in her life when she started writing poetry to say all of the things she was never allowed to. later when she started painting hundreds of paintings after her arthritis got so bad she couldn't leave the house. 

Convention would have me say that she "left behind" a husband, three daughters, four grandkids -- but it is still to be determined if "I" am still here by which I mean so much of who I am was constituted -- willed into being, if you will -- by her. I used to sit with her for hours & talk about history & politics & gender and we would struggle through it everyone used to say "she won't change" but I had to do it, had to keep going, just like she had to do it, had to impart her blessings & judgment & tradition. & I adored her most in that collision, that clash of ideology, because I now understand it to be the 'stuff' with which art is made, I mean memory, I mean love, I mean me. Later we would call each other say, "have you been writing?" by which we meant, "try better next time." On the other side, in the absence of her which still feels like presence, i find myself most grateful for the struggle, the stubbornness, the contradiction. Most blessed by the tension -- the collapsing of borders & cultures & genders, most grounded & resolute in the instability of it all. 

At her cremation ceremony i read her poem aloud in "men's" clothes & i heard her voice in mine & it was separate but still the same & there I stood on the other side surrounded by her art smiling through the tears because she found a way, once again, to do the impossible: to live after death.


our natural state is water

hello my name is alok and i believe that feelings are real and that gender is not. i believe that loneliness is an international state of emergency. i believe that crying in public is political. i believe everyone in the world is mourning the disconnect between who they are and who they pretend to be. i believe that performing is the closest i have ever come to being honest. i believe that i am weak and scared and confused and i believe that is ok. i believe that everyone in the world needs someone to have hot chocolate/mango laasi/coffee (your choice) and just talk about it. i don't know what "it" is but I believe it haunts you like it does me. i believe it has the capacity to unravel you at the seams. i believe we want to fall apart because water is our most natural state. i believe in falling apart routinely -- every once in a while. like a forest burns and a heart bends, i believe in breaking down just to see what was waiting there underneath.

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Traveling While Brown & Trans

the acrobatics i am forced to undergo while traveling brown, gender non-conforming, and bearded are so exhausting & demoralizing. i am of course almost always *randomly* selected, i am of course almost always groped & violated. often i am forced to be pat down, instructed to lift up the soles of my feet, show every part of myself in front of crowds of other passengers. there's almost a sense of pleasure in the officers desire to humiliate me in public, to perform "security" & "safety" by dealing with the problem of the brown gender variant freak for a white & cis audience. my job requires me to travel a lot so most of the time i just numb myself to how much this hurts: how painful it is to smile constantly, to act excessively polite as i am actively being violated. how devastating it is to have to think about shaving & butching up every time i need to go somewhere -- all the strategies we do to correct & compensate for other people's racism & transmisogyny. i think that's why i need performance so bad. the stage is really the only place in the world i can talk about that pain, work through it publically, say "this hurts!" say: racial & gender profiling made me scared of my own body. one day i looked in the mirror and didn't see me, but saw what they told me i was. i am crying here on the stage because i am trying to remember who i am. i am trying to remember what it means to love a body, a people who i have been taught to fear.

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Writing to Live

navigating the world as a gender non-conforming transfeminine person of color teaches you that this world has been primed to hate you, be disgusted by you, & reject you. it is to experience the antithesis of desire. we have to carry the shame of our racial communities, the shame of cisgender gays, lesbians, & bisexuals, & the shame of binary trans people -- we become emblematic of both their failure & our own. hatred & distrust of us is a sacrosanct tradition: one enshrined & fortified at all levels. there are no safe spaces when we are harassed every day wherever we go. there are no safe spaces when we are not believed for the violence we experience &, indeed, are most often blamed for it. we are persecuted not only by cishet men, but also by cis queer people and cis women who are constantly scrutinizing us to confirm the preconceived colonial stereotypes they have about us (imposters, villains, parodies, freaks). in the very places we are told we can find refuge, we are misgendered, dismissed. when we speak about our pain and the violence that engenders it, we are told to "think positively" (not "i will fight for you") as if we can somehow self-love ourselves out of structural racism & transmisogyny alone. often the only way to keep going is to numb oneself, is to keep quiet, is to internalize. but when i sit down to write my poetry all of the wounds throb. i remember all of the places i have been groped. i remember all of the times i have feared for my life. i remember every time i have been most afraid of the people who are supposed to protect me. when trans people voice our concerns about being lumped into "LGBT," it is because we have been harassed by cisgender people, regardless of their sexual orientation. is because we know what we experience is unique & deserves its own language & attention. to exist in this body and in this world is to know a type of loneliness that comes from everyone staring at you, but never seeing you. people clapping for you, but never caring for you. is knowing that all of the worlds you create for yourself crumble when you walk outside or go online & are told to die. i write to remember why i chose to live. choose to live. 💔

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The Grief of Having No Language to Express Your Grief

do trans women and transfeminine have utility beyond our aesthetics? or do we exist simply to be reduced to symbols and metaphors for inspiration and transcendence for other people? the condition of trans femme existence is one of constant anxiety, isolation, and loss -- knowing that we must undergo constant harassment from many genders with a smile (or else), knowing that when we speak openly about what we undergo we will be dismissed as exaggerating and/or playing the victim card. we must constantly navigate a world that actively abuses us while simultaneously stripping us of the language and frameworks to even articulate it. it is to suffer not just the physical and psychological pain of being constantly scrutinized and punished, but also the grief of having no discourse with which to legitimate it.

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Transmisogyny Is a State of Emergency

Originally Published Winter 2016

I'm feeling concerned about the way that people are speaking about the flurry of anti-trans legislation popping up all over the country. There seems to be a sense of surprise like, "How did this happen?" "How did things get so bad?" As usual, "conservatives" are being demonized: the prototypical white straight southern racist becomes the straw man for all of the virulent transphobia and backwardness more generally. As always the liberal establishment is quick to produce a foreign enemy responsible for all of the hatred rather than taking responsibility for driving an agenda that not only disenfranchised trans people, but made us even more susceptible to violence.

Certainly there are many factors driving these policies (the rise of right wing nationalism being one of them), but what gets lost here is the complicity of cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and their political organizations and allies. 

Never forget: there is no gay victory without trans backlash. The history of the gay movement is a history not just of trans exclusion, but of forging the very ideas, conditions, rhetorics, and politics that contribute to trans violence. This movement made a series of strategic choices that contributed to increasing the vulnerability of so many trans people (and especially gender non-conforming people.) "Gender identity" was defined (medically, legally, socially, politically) as separate from "sexual orientation," because "love" is more palatable than gender non-conformity. 

Trans people as a group, as a symbol, as a rhetoric -- were construed as a threatening and abhorrent character foil (read: failure) for acceptable and friendly cisgender gay people (read: success). We cannot understand the ongoing criminalization of gender non-conformity without understanding that #LoveWins precisely because #GenderDoesn't. 

This is the time and place "somewhere over the rainbow." This is where frameworks of "equality," commitments to "love," and pleas of "we're just like you," reveal themselves to be morally bankrupt. This is the moment where those of us who have never had the privilege to escape the condemnation of our difference are left behind. 

So the solution is not just about educating conservatives about trans people, it's also about challenging progressive liberalism for its inability (and in fact refusal) to seriously account for the historical & continued demonization of gender non-conformity (especially against transfeminine people). 

Let's be clear: that if these policies were targeting cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people there would be a very different sense of urgency.

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Beyond Trans Visibility

Originally written on Trans Day of Visibility 2015

1) “Trans” “Visibility” is an oxymoron. Trans is who we are, not what we we look like. We shouldn’t have to look like anything in particular in order to be believed for who we are. Visibility often is a form of (nonconsensual) labor that we have to in order to make our experiences coherent to others.

2) Trans Visibility is a cis framework. Who are we becoming visible for? Why do we have to become visible in order to be taken seriously? Non-trans people will congratulate themselves for our visibility but will not mention how they are the ones were responsible for erasing us in the first place. The trans movement isn’t about trans people moving forward, it’s about cis people catching up with us.

3) Invisibility is not the problem, transmisogyny is the problem. Trans people are harassed precisely because we ARE visible. Mandating visibility increases violence against the most vulnerable among us. The same system that will require trans people to be visible will not give institutional support to us when we are harassed precisely because we are visible.

4) Visibility often means incorporation. Often the only way we are respected as “legitimately” trans is if we appeal to dominant norms of beauty, gender, race, and establishment politics. Trans people should not have to be patriotic, change what we wear, undergo medical or legal transition, really should not have to do anything in order to be respected. We were and already are enough.

5) Visibility is easy. Organizing is hard. Sharing photos of trans people and calling us “resilient” and “beautiful” does little to address the persecution so many of us face. We cannot love ourselves out of structural oppression alone. How come media visibility of trans people has not resulted in the funding and support of our organizations, campaigns, and struggles?

Let’s push harder and demand more.

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We Should Not Have to Be Women To Be Feminists

Originally composed in April 2015

The other day as I was walking into the restroom an older, white, cisgender woman accosted me and said, "Excuse me sir. What do you think you are doing?" I responded: "Going to the bathroom." She looked disgusted and pointed to the symbol on the door, "This is the women's restroom, what do you think you're doing." I said, "Your point being?" and she said, "This restroom is for WOMEN!" and in this moment I was faced with a dilemma. I knew that if I responded, "Your idea of 'woman' just like your idea of 'man' is a colonial fiction that was assigned to my people to keep us down" she would have spit on me. I knew that the only way she would let me go is if I said, "I am a woman." So I did and she responded "Oh you must understand why I was concerned" and backed away apologetically.

And even though I got to pee I felt defeated because in so many levels trans femmes have to claim *womanhood* or else we are -- politically, physically, ontologically -- denied entry (to the bathroom, to the movement, to the narrative of violence). I wish that our gender justice movements would recognize that femininity does not have to be attached to womanhood to be legitimate. I wish that we would stop rehearsing a trope that womanhood is more sacred because it is *real* gender while other femininities are just artificial. I wish that we could understand how (trans)misogyny enacts violence on bodies that are not cis or trans women.

We should not have to claim the identity *woman* to be worthy subjects of feminism, (trans)misogyny, and let alone restrooms.

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Pronouns Aren't Preferred

trans people do not have *preferred* pronouns as if our genders are some sort of opinion up for debate. we have pronouns. that's a fact. so misgendering us isn't about being insensitive, it's about being incorrect.

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having my gender acknowledged by cis men not cis women

i am feeling vulnerable from all of the hate mail i have been receiving and determined to move from a place inspired by it to make something salvageable out of all of this hurt -- so i am just going to put this out there. 

growing up it was the men who harassed me who first acknowledged my difference. from literally the age of 4 i remember being called a girl and a sissy which eventually became faggot as i grew up and now tranny. what has always struck me is how cis men have been so much more able (and willing in their own perverse and vitriolic ways) to acknowledge my difference and the ways in which i am failing to be a "man" much more than cis woman have. cis women continued to insist that i was "just a man," just a little different: "he just loves his sister." for cis men my femininity was regarded as something that disqualified me from manhood, but for cis women my femininity was observed as something less salient than my manhood (an addition to it, if you will).

these days when cis men harass me there is a sense of recognition and acknowledgement: i am that which they had to destroy in themselves and so therefore i must be destroyed otherwise i remind them another world is possible. when cis women harass me there's a sense of confusion: "what even is that, it must be a man!" 

so what i am trying to get at is we have this weird situation where deeply misogynist men are able to acknowledge my difference in ways that progressive cis feminists still cannot. there is a disaggregation of what masculinity/manhood is, a complexity afforded to it, a recognition of internal hierarchy and lateral violence -- and none of this makes it to cis feminism's insistence on dismissing and homogenizing this and me all as "man" on the basis of my genitalia. 

cis feminism refuses to acknowledge, validate, and center forms of patriarchal violence that run contrary to the gender binary of cis man against cis woman. but what my experiences as a gender non-conforming person have shown me is that cis men can be deeply misogynist and violent to each other, to men who they perceive as feminine, and to trans and gender non-conforming people. femininity is what is under attack here, not necessarily "womanhood." the forms of patriarchal violence that are enacted are not just about genitalia, they're about femininity more generally (speech, dress, gestures, interests, etc).

the question remains: why are misogynist men often able to recognize (often through economies of violence) forms of femininity that are not linked to womanhood whereas so many cis women refuse to? i often find that many cis men -- and especially queer cis men -- understand what i go through much better than cis women because of this fact.

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What Has Always Been

Originally Published in Harpers Magazine
A Diary of Gender Under Trump

November 2, 2016

Who affords privacy? Who gets to come out and who is outed? There is no gay progress without trans backlash. There was no gay marriage victory without hundreds of anti-trans bathroom bills. There is no protection of the private without criminalization of the public.

I read today about how “LGBT” foundations and nonprofits like the Gill Foundation have decided to back nondiscrimination legislation that excludes public accommodation protections. It is decisions like this that make so many trans people like myself believe that we should just say “trans” instead of “LGBT”: when you look at the policies, when you look at the experiences of violence on the ground, it is gender non-conforming people who are experiencing the brunt of the backlash. Many of the “victories” that the gay movement has enjoyed (marriage, state protections, etc.) have come from campaigns that distanced “LGBT people” from gender non-conformity. “Love” becomes something that happens in private whereas “gender” becomes that thing that haunts the public.

Trump is not anti-LGBT. He is anti-trans. There is a difference.

November 7, 2016

A trans woman in Tennessee had her car spray painted “TRUMP” and then torched on fire in her driveway.

I am horrified. While it has been encouraging to see so much mobilization by young feminists against the rampant misogyny of his campaign, I am dismayed that the presumed subject of Trump’s vitriol is always already seen as a white cisgender woman. I worry for my transfeminine sisters and siblings who are always gendered as perpetrators and never victims of patriarchal violence. It’s not a question of if violence against trans people will increase under this administration, it’s a question of how we are going to respond once it does.

I worry because I know that we will be bashed, attacked, harassed, assaulted, and I worry because I know that we will be blamed for it. I worry that there will be no movements to rally for us because we are not desirable victims. I worry that there will be no feminists to rally for us because we may not identify as women. I worry that they will be able to get away with this because the one thing that bonds liberals and conservatives is their ingrained hatred and suspicion of transfeminine people.

In times of heightened nationalism: borders are erected, fortified, and militarized. Some will talk about the border between the United States and Mexico, but few will talk about the border between man and woman. How there are walls that are being erected there, too—and, how if you cross them, you are punished.

I consider enrolling for self-defense classes. I ask myself why it’s taken so long.

November 8, 2016

I am sitting in the living room with two non-binary friends of color as the election results come in. We sought out each other’s company on this night because we wanted to be somewhere where we were affirmed for our cynicism. We are not surprised when Donald Trump is declared the next president. Just like we were not surprised when we were harassed on the street on the way to my apartment. Just like we were not surprised when we had to leave our hometowns to be safe when we were younger. Just like we were not surprised when we weren’t safe in New York City, either. Just like we are not surprised when we read that fifty-seven percent of white women who voted went for Trump. We have experienced firsthand white women screaming at us on the streets. We have understood that white women’s allegiance has always been to racism and money.

The news anchors ask: “What happened?” And we want to shout, “You didn’t consult us.” You never consult us.

November 9, 2016

I have never seen so many people cry in public before. It’s as if the entire city is in mourning. There is a possibility in this tragedy. Will this pain propel rage against the system and not just an individual?

But in the streets, they are already chanting that Hillary should have won. And I remember how much easier it is to believe that something is broken, and not just working the way it was supposed to.

November 10, 2016

Eight transgender youth commit suicide after Trump is elected. Many are saying that this data has not been “confirmed.” But what they do not understand is that violence against trans people is rarely confirmed. We do not have the data about what you do to us because you misgender us after it happens. To be a trans activist is to learn the art of believing people over publications.

My inbox is full of journalists asking questions about trans issues and mental health. I wonder why they only reach out when we are under attack. I think about how the only space trans people have in the cultural imagination is as entertainers. I close my laptop and I go have dinner with my trans friend. They are sixteen years old and they are much stronger than me. I tell them to text me when they are getting home. They tell me to text them when I wake up.

November 11, 2016

I am walking home with another transfemme after a party in Hells Kitchen when an older white man starts screaming, “GRAB HIM BY THE PUSSY!! TRUMP!! GRAB HIM BY THE PUSSY!!” I laugh in his face and call him a patriarchal pig. I go home and post a Facebook status discussing how transfeminine people will be uniquely targeted by this state-legitimating of misogyny and how we will be erased nonetheless. Multiple white cis women comment and tell me that I am a man masquerading as something I am not. That feminism isn’t for me. That I should shut up. I am only supposed to be afraid of the man on the screen (Trump), but I find myself just as afraid of the cis feminists afraid of him.

November 12, 2016

There are hundreds of thought pieces going around with everyone’s attempt to understand how the unthinkable happened—how did Donald Trump win? The white liberals keep on blaming people like me: Why did Hilary spend so much time campaigning to transgender people? Why didn’t people take white working-class men’s rage more seriously? I can’t tell whether I’m more hurt by this election’s blatant endorsement of white supremacy, or by white liberals’ continual denial of it. It’s such a strange feeling to witness something so simple be theorized into oblivion.

November 15, 2016

I am giving a poetry reading tonight at Hamilton College in upstate New York. The organizers emailed me a few days ago expressing concerns about my safety. They said that there had been pro-Trump rallies in town. I thank them for letting me know and tell them that I think it is more important than ever to keep events like this going. During my rehearsal, the tech supervisor introduces me to his daughter. “I just wanted my daughter to see someone like you. You are like what America should look like.” I know it’s supposed to be a compliment, but it feels like a slur. I am tired. I don’t want to be a symbol of anything other than myself.

November 22, 2016

I am back in my hometown of College Station, Texas, visiting family. I read online about trans people choosing to go stealth (pass as cisgender) in light of the Trump election. I look outside and see Trump signs everywhere. I see American flags everywhere. I see churches everywhere. And I understand. I hate how we romanticize people “persisting despite the odds,” and don’t allow people to do what they need to do to survive. To truly love trans people would require you to accept our ownership of our bodies and safeties. I often wonder whether being your inspiration matters more to you than our safety. Being stealth and “invisible” (whatever that means) doesn’t make you any less real, any less trans.

November 29, 2016

My mom and I walk around our neighborhood as we always do in the evening. She tells me that she is worried about me living in New York as a gender non-conforming person during the Trump era. I tell her that I’m afraid of her and our grandparents living in Texas as Indian immigrants. We tell each other to be safe. I wish I could believe that was enough.

December 3, 2016

I’m in Saigon connecting with LGBT activists and artists for a few days. Tonight I am at a bar run by local artists that serves exquisite teas in little petri dishes. It is all very quaint. My hosts tell me about how when President Obama came to visit Vietnam a couple of years ago, their government put all of the political artists under house arrest for several months. They spoke about it so matter-of-factly: how they organized meals for one another, kept each other company inside. Being abroad is a constant lesson in how limiting U.S. exceptionalism is. People across the world have been living under surveillance for a very long time.

December 5, 2016

Today was supposed to be a day of celebration. A new HBO documentary called “The Trans List” was released, and I’m one of the interview subjects in the film. After of slew of congratulatory texts from my friends, I get a text that feels starkly different. “Are you okay? I just saw your Facebook.” I log online and see that there are hundreds of comments on my photos from people telling me to kill myself. I am used to things like this, but not in this concentration and intensity.

Every time I participate in a mainstream project I get vitriol like this. The current moment of trans politics is that trans people are somehow supposed to courageously declare ourselves (with little to no support from anyone else) and then weather the backlash—looking fabulous throughout!

Later that night I receive a message from a young Indian trans person telling me that I was the first person they had ever seen who looked like them.

January 20, 2017

Today, the day that 45 is being inaugurated, I am with my family in Kerala. My uncle looks out at the Indian Ocean from the beach near our family home. “I wish everyone got a vote in the U.S. election,” he says, “They don’t understand that what happens over there affects us over here the most.” I nod my head. Later that day, we eat a big lunch. We do not watch the news.

January 21, 2017

They say that the Women’s March in the United States had over 600 locations with over four million protesters, making it perhaps the largest protest in U.S. history. As I look at all of the photos from the march thousands of miles away, I think about how I wish there was more space in our movements to hold contradiction. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand I am inspired by the sheer mass of people who took to the streets. This is an unprecedented testament to the power of direct action. But on the other, I wonder: would as many people have mobilized if this was a march for refugees, a march against Islamophobia, a march for trans people, a march against incarceration, a march against white supremacy? Why “women?” When the majority of white women voted for Trump what does it mean to march for “women?” I think about who is not invited to speak at marches – I think about how absence isn’t a passive process, it’s an active one. Is the future “female,” as they suggest – or is the future beyond essentialist ideas of gender to begin with? It is much easier to march for women, then it is to march against misogyny.

There are so many photos of white cis women wearing pussy hats from the march. Everyone wants me to write a thought piece or a response about how this prioritization of genitalia is misguided. But I’m exhausted. It feels as if the only political space we have to express critique anymore is to perform a narrative of trauma, is to say: “I [insert identity] felt erased because you [insert identity] erased me.” The critique has to be articulated as a minority speaking to a majority. The critique has to be articulated as an individual speaking to an individual. What would it take to get people to realize that trans feminism isn’t just about trans people, but about everyone? A critique of vagina-centered feminism is a critique that expands the horizons of what is possible for all people, of all genders.

February 3, 2017

Everyone is celebrating because Ivanka Trump and her husband convinced the president not to pass an anti-LGBT executive order. But all of the other executive orders were anti-LGBT too. Last time I checked, LGBT people were Muslim, were poor, were black, were incarcerated, were undocumented, were not just rich, white, and cisgender.

February 22, 2017

I am in London for a performance when I read the news that 45 has repealed protections for transgender students to use the restrooms of their choice. What this election has made very clear is that an “LGBT friendly” administration is one that is ruthlessly anti-trans. That in fact the current moment of trans politics in one in which the symbolic act of saying “LGBT” is actually how trans violence gets pushed under the rug. They don’t know who we are; they don’t know what we go through. This becomes evident to me when I see people post statuses that it is “time to stand with our transgender brothers and sisters.” I appreciate the effort, but I can’t help but roll my eyes.

Where do those of us who are gender non-conforming go? Those of us who are neither brothers nor sisters, neither men nor women, neither girls nor boys? Those of us cut out of LGBT nonprofit campaigns for public accommodations, those of us ignored by the trans movement for being complicated, those of us most directly scapegoated by the rise of racist nationalism. I want to post statuses online telling transgender youth that I am there for them. But where is there? What does it mean to be ‘there’ when I am actually over here?

February 23, 2017

My achamma (grandmother) texts me from Kerala saying that she is worried about my father’s safety after reading that Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer, was murdered in Kansas. I don’t really know what to tell her that wouldn’t involve me lying. But isn’t this what love is about? Lying so that the people you love don’t have to worry anymore. I tell her that everything will be fine.

February 28, 2017

Today I receive the news that Jaquarius Holland, an eighteen-year-old black trans woman was murdered in Louisiana. This makes her the seventh black and/or Latinx trans woman pronounced dead in 2017. I am devastated. Last year at least twenty-six trans women of color were murdered. The ongoing genocide of black and indigenous transfeminine people is relentless.

I remember how easy it is to understand this Trump moment – with all of its tumult and terror – as unprecedented. But then I remember how important it is to resist that temptation. Our country was founded on this kind of violence. “Shock,” then is already always racialized and gendered. Who is surprised? And why? For many this is just a continuation of what has always been. There is something sobering about this recognition: not just a president, but a system.