How This Election Has Changed Me

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I’ve spent the week since the election in a limbo between shock and grief. I’m a pretty progressive democrat, so Tuesday night did not offer me a lot of good news, from a “winning” standpoint. Initially I was shocked that Trump was elected. But as the days passed and I read more, listened more, and spent more time thinking about it, I decided it really shouldn’t be that shocking. This nation has been moving towards change of some sort for a while now. Our national conversation about race has become emotionally-charged and explosive; our nation’s distrust in the “establishment” has taken center stage; we’ve become painfully aware of the rich-poor gap; the frequency with which we, as a people, have turned away from fact and science is overwhelming – yeah, in hindsight – this was coming. But none of that actually matters now, because, here we are.

I stayed away from social media for a few days because my liberal friends were posting about their own grief and disbelief as well as more anti-Trump articles and images. My republican friends were posting “get over it” type of things and both sides simply sent me into a deeper funk.

So here I am, one week later, still trying to decide how I feel. I still feel sad and down-trodden and can’t seem to figure out why I can’t shake it. Then I have a light bulb moment while teaching my freshman English class.  We are beginning A Raisin in the Sun. Before we begin the play, I have the students do some research about the time period, segregation in housing, red-lining and block-busting, Chicago’s “Black Belt” and the Fair Housing Act. As the kids share their research, I add on and find myself telling the kids that it can be hard to wrap our minds around legal discrimination. It can be hard to imagine the government passing outwardly racist legislation. In my mind I’m thinking, “And hopefully we won’t see this again with a Trump presidency”, but I don’t say that out loud, of course. Although, as I’m discussing the historical impact of segregation on the Black community, I find myself wondering if there are kids who are thinking to themselves “Blacks should be segregated.” I’m explaining that thanks to the Fair Housing Act you can’t be discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, religion, family status, disability, etc and I’m wondering if some kid is thinking “too bad.” I’m explaining how difficult it is for groups that have been subjected to discrimination to achieve or even reach for the American dream and I’m wondering if someone is thinking, “then they should go back to where they came from.”

This is how the election has changed me.

I don’t consider myself a Pollyanna. I consider myself informed and highly critical of the world and the systems that run it, yet I think I always assumed that when I was talking about segregation of the past, the kids were, for the most part, agreeing with me that it was wrong and that our country is better for having moved past it. Sure I knew there were a few narrow-minded students among each class, but I think I got complacent in my assumption that “those people” who are racist or bigoted are somewhere else (tho in hindsight, I don’t know where!).

Now I’m wondering if they represent the majority, not the minority. Were they always there, but just keeping their mouths shut? This election has made me second guess what the people around me are thinking. I keep telling myself that these students, my co-workers, friends, and neighbors are the same people they were a year ago, that this is all in my head, and yet, in the back of my mind I’ve become more suspicious of the true nature of those around me anyway.

And I’m white.

So I imagine what it might be like to be gay, or Black, or Hispanic, or Muslim. How might I feel about the people around me? Terrified, I imagine. As a white, U.S. citizen, I really have little to worry about. Sure legislation may be passed that I disagree with (as a woman, some of this may affect me), but even if the rhetoric of anger and hate continues, I feel fairly certain that I will not be a target. How must it feel to be a member of one of these groups that has been targeted though?

There has been much debate and discussion about whether or not these fears are justified, but that doesn’t really matter. When my 3-year-old is afraid of the dark, I don’t dismiss him simply because I know there is nothing to fear. I validate that fear. I comfort him. I offer support. The reality is, this fear, this paranoia, is real. It’s not about whether or not it should be here, it’s about the fact that it is.

And so, I challenge you to consider this viewpoint from a targeted group’s perspective. Whether or not this fear is justified, consider that members of the LGBTQ community may be feeling afraid, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, and women may be feeling afraid. You might not be afraid, but others are and, just as you’d comfort a child afraid of the dark, acknowledge this fear and bring compassion to the table, rather than judgement and hate.

As a warm-up activity, I asked my students to rank, the following in order of “most likely to hold people together” to “least likely”: family, shared interests, religion, race and/or ethnicity, and a student said, “You forgot to include Trump on this list. He brings people together.” Now I’ve been a teacher for 13 years, through other elections, and yet, this comment sent an emotional jolt through my body. I have a strong, personal opposition to the statement this student made and, while I’m used to this (I rarely agree with 15-year-olds) I rarely find it so difficult to respond in a neutral manner. Likewise another student in one of my classes has been an active Trump supporter all along and after the election he asked me, “Don’t you feel better now? You can breathe easy knowing that the country will finally be in good hands.” Generally I use humor to diffuse situations such as these, but this time around, I was speechless. I simply responded with, “I don’t know how I feel” and smiled. And that was the truth.

This is how the election has changed me.

I am a club adviser for my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and the morning after the election a student was in my room sobbing, absolutely sobbing. She was terrified about what this means for the LGBTQ community. I tried to reassure her, our country has been through tough times before, right? And she said to me, through tears, “But this time it’s so personal.” I felt like crying myself; not just because my candidate lost, but because this whole process has left her sad, disheartened and afraid.

And I might be feeling the same way.

In the meantime, I will work to find that fire that once burned so strongly in my heart. That desire to fight, to be heard, and to make change. That flame is weak right now, nearly non-existent. But I do know that giving in to fear will cause me to pull back from life, to push people away.  I’m sure my passion will return, but figuring out my feelings seems to be a place to start and fear is currently the most prominent.

And so I will leave you with these words from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

 

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