On a recent Saturday morning in Austin, Texas, my daughter and I took a shortcut through the city’s downtown district after running and biking farther than we’d planned on the Town Lake Trail. We made our way home, up Congress Avenue toward the state Capitol—an area we’d found ourselves avoiding over the past few years, as it was increasingly the site of protests making demands of those in elected office.
But today, we were 10 blocks from the Capitol complex, exhilarated from the dopamine spike that came from the exercise, when we heard the loudspeaker behind us. “Doo doo doo [the sound of an intercom chime]. This is your government speaking. And we would like to thank you for wearing your mask—uh, we mean, your muzzle. Your government thanks you for your capitulation.”
From where we were, we couldn’t see that the announcement came from loudspeakers mounted atop a utility truck. “Doo doo doo,” it came again. “The Freedom Convoy is here to remind you: You can’t fight for freedom if you’re muzzled.”
“I’m scared. I want to go home,” my daughter said, squeezing my hand, as the voice over the loudspeaker continued and the convoy approached nearer. “Me too,” I answered—not picturing our house a few blocks away, but rather visualizing my home, in Montreal, Canada, where I was born and raised. In that moment, I didn’t know that the mayor of Ottawa was preparing to declare a state of emergency as a group of truckers calling themselves the Freedom Convoy had occupied the capital city of Canada. On that Saturday afternoon in Austin, I still believed things were different (read: better) “over there”—still not fully understanding that the distance between here and there, and us and them, is shrinking.
I’m a first-generation Canadian. My parents’ emigration from Trinidad to Montreal never struck me as odd—moving to a new country when you grew into an adult seemed typical, judging by what most of my uncles and aunts did too. So, moving to the U.S. when I was an adult seemed entirely natural.
I lived in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia before arriving in Texas—a state with surprising similarities to the Canadian province in which I was raised. Both have struggled with secession debates. Both are home to the second largest populations in their respective countries. Both have seen an uptick in hate crimes. And in early February, the attorney general of Texas drew the connection closer, citing, “Patriotic Texans donated to Canadian truckers’ worthy cause” in a tweet. The Washington Post revealed an even more direct and disturbing link, finding, “Residents in wealthy enclaves across the United States — from Beverly Hills, Calif., to suburbs of Austin, to Florida beach communities — sent millions of dollars to support trucker convoys that occupied the Canadian capital.”
Yet my Canadian friends act as if I’ve moved to Mars when they learn I live here. I face various versions of, “Austin—like, Texas?” or “Texas? So, when are you coming back to Canada?”
Even when not encountering a Freedom Convoy, I ask myself this question nearly every day. Why did I leave a country where I feel safe for one where I feel increasingly unsafe?
I get it. People are exhausted—worn down by the pandemic, by having to follow so many rules and constantly being told what to do. As control of our day-to-day lives appears caught in a loosening grip, I get how some might believe the Freedom Convoy strengthens waning control.
But what about those of us who feel threatened, not empowered, by calls for freedom, a call that means different things to different people?
It turns out Americans increasingly want to leave this country, yet outsiders yearn to enter. According to data from the Internal Revenue Service, in the first six months of 2020, the number of Americans who gave up their citizenship or U.S. residency soared to 5,816, compared with 2,072 in all of 2019. Still, according to Pew Research Center, the United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world.
Today, more than 40 million people living in the U.S. were born in another country, with just about every country in the world represented among immigrants. Even still, xenophobia is on the rise. Heather Segal, a Canadian immigration attorney, said that when the former president of the United States hesitated to condemn White supremacists, her Toronto office was inundated with calls from Americans wanting to emigrate north.
I have definitely thought about making such a call. Yet emotional exhaustion from seeing the increasing tolerance for White supremacy, combined with the pressures of day-to-day of life and a good dose of apathy as a coping mechanism, have stopped me each time.
History, however, has repeatedly shown us the dangers of apathy—such as when genocides and refugee crises are ignored until it’s too late. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, says “psychic numbing” is the reason people don’t react to mass atrocities. His research shows that the human mind has difficulty empathizing with millions, or billions, of individuals.
But maybe empathy can start with one person at a time and with the realization that we’re each more alike than we think—a realization that may be triggered when the Freedom Convoy crosses borders, literally and figuratively, and the distance between “us” and “them” shrinks. And when my daughter and I cross paths with the Convoy in Austin, Texas, while its counterpart occupies Ottawa and blocks the borders that would allow me to get home, the line between Canadians and Americans, conservative and liberal, “here” and “there,” gets blurred.
This isn’t an argument for or against efforts to globalize economies and dismantle borders. It is simply a call to reconsider how we think about “those people over there.” It would be naïve to believe that one community, one party, or even one country’s antics can be contained, and that the ideas we may shrug at as the tantrums of megalomaniacs—such as a Mexican border wall or a Ukrainian invasion—are easier to swallow when it’s happening over there. It might feel like we’re looking with detachment at a bunch of rowdy neighbor kids through our window—until they come crashing through our front door.
On that sunny Saturday when we encountered the Freedom Convoy in Austin, my daughter repeated, “I’m scared.” I replied, “I get it, that’s what they want. But I swear I won’t let anything happen to you.” My heart raced. We walked quickly—dodging tourists, street cleaners, and people queuing for brisket. And yes, I felt nuts for trying to figure out if I could actually throw her bike at someone if I needed to, while people around us, seemingly oblivious to the protesters, took selfies in front of a popular BBQ joint. Maybe it only looked like they couldn’t see or hear the Freedom Convoy because they, like me, were too afraid to gawk? Or maybe they were just numb.
I thought twice about writing this essay—bracing myself for comments like “Go back to where you came from” or “If you’re not happy, leave.” But I also heard the Freedom Convoy’s message about not being muzzled loud and clear. And whether or not they intended for someone like me to take that message to heart, I—like them—choose to be heard.
is an art curator and writer living in Austin, Texas, where she directs the Art Galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas.