I can only hope that, as we work through these changes, we are able to morph into a new breed.
I remember election night in stages. Some friends were throwing an election party at their house so we could gather and watch the results together. I waited for my roommate to get home from work and we drove over together, stopping to get beer and takeout food so we could hunker down. When we left the house, Hillary Clinton was ahead in the polls. Texas was shaded a light blue on the map. By the time we got to my friends’ house about a half-hour later, Trump had caught up in the polls. On the walk to the front door my roommate began to question, if by chance he won, what would happen to Planned Parenthood? After all, Mike Pence did say we should hold funerals for aborted fetuses. What would that mean for us as women? I walked mostly in silence, letting her talk to herself. In retrospect, I think this was because I did not want to consider the repercussions of Trump as president until I was 100% sure I had to.
We walked into a house full of people and I took a seat on the floor, right in front of the TV screen. I cracked a beer. I looked at the electoral map. Most of the night I was at a loss for words. I pulled my hair, rubbed my temples, cracked a second beer and then a third that I was unable to finish because my stomach had turned into a queasy knot. I stepped outside to stress smoke a Black and Mild cigar, a bad habit I picked up in high school and try not to indulge too often. I cuddled with the new dog my friend adopted, a three-legged Pitt mix named Champ. He sat in my lap and I scratched him behind the ears with my left hand, my right holding a bone that he gnawed relentlessly. Whether he could read the stress in the room, or was just being a dog, I have no idea.
One thing I will always remember about that night was when Van Jones, the only black man on CNN that night, questioned what he should tell his children in the morning. How could he explain that, although he had taught them to work hard and respect others, their future president would be a man with no political experience who “grabs women by the pussy” and believes that some Mexicans might, maybe, be good people. I looked to my friends in the room at that moment and found the two teachers in the room in a similar pose: heads bent down, eyes on the screen, hands in front of their mouths. I had no doubt they too questioned how they would face their children in the morning.
We live in a world full of bias, and I am no exception. I live in a bubble. I was born into a liberal, white, middle class Philadelphia suburb and moved to New Orleans, a tiny blue blue blip in the largely red state of Louisiana. I interact mainly with liberals. My Facebook feed is full of Shaun King posts and my gay friend’s engagement photos. The truth is that I never un-friended a Trump supporter on my Facebook feed because I never had one show up. When Trump won this election, I was in shock. I knew that my world was insular but this election taught me just how small it really is. If half the country wanted this man to be president, how is it that I had never had a meaningful conversation with one? This is one of the questions I have heard over and over again since Tuesday. Where was this silent majority? How could one vote for Barack Obama and then turn around and vote for Trump? Even now I have very few answers.
By around 1:00 am that night most of the people at the party left. It was only my roommate, the people that lived there, and I. We mostly sat in silence, occasionally taking turns to go on rambling soliloquies that no one knew how to respond to. One friend, a southern democrat born and raised in Louisiana, wondered out loud if he should just get out of his chosen field in politics. My roommate, who voted for Bernie, stated that if Trump won it would truly mean that her vote had no meaning. I don’t think I said anything that night. I remember envying my roommate for believing, even up to that point, that her single vote could make a difference. I think the insignificance of my vote is something I accepted a while ago.
We left the party before the results were finalized. I wanted to be alone when I saw Trump’s acceptance speech. I could not sleep that night. Though alone in my room, I spent those quiet hours in constant communication. I texted a friend whose family is from Honduras. He remarked that his grandmother had only just become a citizen and that several of his extended family members, who were here on green cards, would likely be deported. I facebook messaged my friends around the world, continuing conversations I had already been having with a group of friends who currently live in Egypt.
I had been interviewing them for a future article on Jetset Times, asking them questions about Egyptian revolution in 2011. Before the American election, I recall asking one of them what it felt like to vote for the first time after the Egyptian revolution. My friend spoke with so much pride. He said that, no matter the outcome, he was proud to be Egyptian in the moment and optimistic about the future of his country. He said that it was easy to vote, he felt like his vote mattered, and that turn-out was extremely high. Hearing his pride, I felt a touch of shame. I know that Americans do not feel this way about our elections and have not for a long time. It took an Egyptian, who has only lived in a democratic country since 2012, to remind me how American democracy is supposed to empower us. In one of the more surreal moments of election night, a different Egyptian friend, who had demonstrated in Tahrir Square and currently serves in the Egyptian army despite the fact that they tear-gassed him 5 years ago, told me to “believe in democracy. America is run by institutions not by people,” he said. Don’t worry.
And he is right. Intuitions, not people, run America. We were founded on the idea of a contract between the governed and the governing, on checks and balances, on the separation of church and state. And yet, the very people who created our country also represent our worst demons. They were all men. They were all white. They owned slaves. We are a country of contradictions and yet, I thought, we are a country that always rises to our highest ideals. I cannot help but see Trump’s election as a repudiation of that. We might preach acceptance but we elected a man who will refuse refuge to Syrian refugees. We preach justice but the man who murdered Michael Brown walked free. We preach that hard work is rewarded but fail to provide many with the education they need to be competitive. Our institutions are failing us, and I can’t help but think that will become worse over the next four years.
This is because our institutions are, in turn, run by people. And we as a people just handed the entire government – executive, legislative, and judiciary – to one political party. Because there are no checks on their power, there can be no balance to their decisions. I am scared for our future. As a woman, I fear for my reproductive rights. As a Jew, I am terrified to hear that there were swastikas spray-painted in my hometown of Philadelphia and that our President elect would appoint an anti-Semite to the highest level of our government to provide him with special counsel. And yet I still recognize my outstanding privilege. What about my friends of color? What about my friends with different sexual orientations? What about my Muslim friends? I have no idea what to say to them to make any of this better, and frankly, I’m not sure they know what to say to me. It is something I have struggled with a lot, particularly while writing this piece. I decided that, ultimately, I can only speak to my personal experiences, limited though they may be. I have always found it disrespectful to speak for others. Having not lived those experiences, I would be speaking only on assumptions. Worse perhaps, I would be speaking over others, making it harder for people that are different than me to share in turn because I have already placed them in a box. Even with pure intentions, I think this is a grave mistake that is made all too often. I write now with no pretense. I am a white Jewish woman with a lot of privilege. I hope this piece will inspire others to share their personal experiences. I greatly look forward to learning how they differ from my own.
I recently had a discussion with one of my friends whose parents came here from South Africa. Both had participated in protests there and both had voted for Nelson Mandela. This friend remarked that his parents were taking the election of Trump particularly hard. He believed that was because, as immigrants, they were the ones who perhaps had the most faith in the American Dream. They came from a place where they felt they were not free, and choose America over home, because of its outstanding promise. Perhaps, he said, they held the ideals that America preaches even more dearly than he does as someone who has lived here most of his life. The day after the election my friend’s father posted on Facebook, which is an extremely rare occurrence. He said:
“I came from South Africa, a country that used to be lead by white men with fear and hate in their hearts, to the US, a country with freedom and opportunity. This morning I feel like my life has come full circle.”
On election night we failed this man. On election night we failed all the immigrants in this country and all the people who might have moved here but will no longer be given that opportunity. Immigration is the life-blood of this country. It has always been our cutting edge. If we no longer accept “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, can we still call ourselves Americans?
This election exposed some dividing lines within this country that I have no idea how to cross. I hear people saying after this election that we need to learn how to communicate better with those around us. Our worlds cannot afford to be so insular, so divided. We have to open our minds, and our hearts, to those that are different than us. In all honesty, that is something I thought I was already doing. It is something I have been trying to do my entire life. Have I been doing it wrong this whole time? While I have been reaching out to people of color, people of different sexual orientations, people of different religions, should I instead have been reaching out to people who believe that Mexicans are stealing their jobs? Or perhaps are these the very dividing lines and categorical boxes that silence the inherent contradictions within each and every human being.
Unexpectedly, my Bubbie (Yiddish for grandmother), said something that has helped me the most since the election. This is unexpected because I have spent the past couple weeks being the one who re-assures her. I told her a few weeks ago to stop watching the news because it was giving her anxiety. I said there was no way Trump would win and it was not worth the heartache it was causing her to consider the possibility. Wednesday morning I called her and admitted I was wrong. She told me it was ok. She said there was a god in Hinduism called Shiva and that he was the god of destruction and change. This destruction was holy, she told me, not only because it is a natural part of the world, but also because it makes way for new life. Without the havoc that Shiva creates, there would be no space for the infinite possibilities of new growth. I was in awe. To be honest, I had no idea my Bubbie knew anything about Hinduism, let alone who Shiva was. It is amazing how much you can learn from other people, even those you thought you knew inside and out.
My Bubbie taught me two lessons that morning that I will carry with me for the next four years. The first is that change is not necessarily bad. Just because I cannot see what good can possibly come from this election does not mean that no good is possible. Personally, I hope this will be a wake up call to all that we take for granted as Americans. I hope that we will learn to be more active in speaking up for ourselves and for others, and also to be more receptive when it is our time to sit down and listen. I hope we emerge from this crucible stronger, better citizens and better people. Sometimes it takes great adversity to realize what we hold most dear.
The other thing my Bubbie reminded is that I need own up to my biases. I need to realize that I have put others in boxes, labeling them and silencing them, even as they do this to me and to those that I love. Not everyone who voted for Trump agrees with the bigotry and racism he espoused. I owe those people, and this president, an open mind. If I expect them to listen and respect me, I must afford them the same favor. Very few in this country would deny that our political system is broken. I have no idea what to expect from the next four years but I do know that we have some major changes ahead of us. I can only hope that, as we work through these changes, we are able to morph into a new breed: more aware, more active, more receptive, and more worthy of the great honor of being called Americans.