As I sat in the living room with my roommate Abby and her boyfriend David on the afternoon of January 6, 2021, our eyes glued to the TV screen as we watched the steps in front of the U.S. Capitol be overrun by rioters looking to stop the congressional confirmation of Joe Biden’s electoral win, we couldn’t help but make jokes about the coming apocalypse.
“Next we’ll see a mushroom cloud on the horizon,” David joked, as if we might soon hear the TV anchors say that the White House had fallen. The whole mood was that of the start of a dystopian movie as we huddled together watching history unfold on our TV in real time.
While some historic moments might pass us by, only recognized as such after the fact, there are other times in our lives that we are made forcibly aware that we are living through history. 2020 had been chock full of these historic moments, the most obvious being the global coronavirus pandemic as well as the worst recession since 2008 or even since the Great Depression. On a more hopeful note, the summer of 2020 also saw large-scale protests against police brutality in response to the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, bringing issues of racial justice to the center of public consciousness.
Other less-ongoing historic moments also passed, though the barrage of them made them hard to process and they now seem like surreal dreams. The Australian bush fires? The fires in California? The brief threat of World War III? Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and acquittal? The Pentagon releasing videos of UFOs? Murder hornets? Tiger King?
All in all, it’s a lot to process to the point where it doesn’t feel like reality, and then this feeling of surreality actually becomes a way of dealing with these events, turning them into memes and TikToks and jokes about what the writers room has planned next for 2020.
But while surreality can be a way of processing the various traumas that we have faced either individually or collectively as a nation this past year, it can also act as an excuse to not engage seriously with what’s going on.
It can be tempting to focus on the buffoonery of several of the rioters at the Capitol, some who opted to scale walls when there were steps right around the corner or who dressed in wild costumes or who took blatantly incriminating photos of themselves breaking into and looting offices. However, other rioters were equipped with tactical gear, automatic weapons, and restraints, obviously intending violence to elected representatives.
While the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 can seem hodge-podge and laughable on one side and extensively planned and deadly serious on the other, either way it is the result of the cancer of white supremacy that lies at the heart of the USA.
If one reaction to these historic events is incredulity and a feeling of surreality, the opposite reaction would be a sort of grim acceptance, that we should not be surprised by the terribleness of what humans are capable of when it comes to racism or dealing with COVID. As BIPOC and other marginalized groups can tell you, this was neither unbelievable nor unexpected.
As rioters stormed the Capitol and representatives were evacuated, president-elect Joe Biden went on air to say, “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America, do not represent who we are.” I have to disagree with this wishful thinking because to do otherwise would be to overlook the myriad injustices that America has institutionally perpetuated in its two-and-a-half centuries of existence.
Surreality would posit that this is just another unbelievably strange moment in a series of unbelievably strange moments that have come to pass in the last year. But the reality is that this is who we are as America, even if it is not all that we are.
Maybe the statements “This is who we are” and “We are better than this” are both true; however, there’s no getting to the latter without first addressing and defining the former. And that starts with an acceptance of—not an escape from—our surreal reality.
Lauren Cole (’20) graduated with a major in English and minors in French and psychology. She grew up in Grand Rapids and wants to live as she wants to die—surrounded by trees. She loves adding books to her TBR, but actually reading them is another matter.