We’re in that weird space between last week’s election and next week’s day of Thanks. And in that middle space, we’ve all had to face some uncomfortable feelings about our nation, our communities, and even our friends and family–especially as we gear up for some potential awkwardness, discomfort, or downright hostility and fear around the turkey and stuffing. Many open letters have been written in the aftermath of this election as a way of dealing with these feelings, and many of them seem to be written toward daughters about their uncertain futures. One of the letters that stands out to me the most is Mira Jacob’s letter to her son.
In her letter, Jacob relates how being brown impacted her life in post-9/11 America and speculates as to how it will continue to impact her life–and the life of her half-brown little boy–in the wake of Trump’s win. In particular, she discusses a conversation she had with her 8-year-old prior to the election:
Your father’s parents are Republicans living in Florida. For years, this had led to the kind of dinner discussions we’ve all tried to avoid, with your father devolving into righteous incoherence as your grandmother cites Fox News references. But even though he falls far from the tree, your grandparents love your father dearly, and he loves them back. With you, they are gentle, funny, loving, and wise, which I think is maybe why you’ve been so confused as national events have played out. In the last few months, your questions have become particularly acute.
“Grandma and Grandpa are really voting for Trump?”
“Last I heard, yes.”
“But aren’t they scared that Trump is racist?”
“I don’t think they think of him that way.”
“So he’s not racist?”
“No, he is, but…I think they don’t really look at that part. They are voting for him for other reasons that make sense to them.”
“But won’t they be scared for us if he wins?”
“Your grandparents love you a lot.”
“But what if—”
And then in bed that night, just when I thought you’d conked out, “But can’t you just ask Grandma and Grandpa not to vote for Trump? Can’t you say, please, you live in Florida, do it for us?”
I said no quickly and firmly and we had to read a whole other book just to get you to go to sleep. But that night, when you were sleeping, I typed up an email. Dear Mom and Dad, I wrote. I made the best case I could. Please, I wrote, for us. I cried as I wrote it. I read it three times to make sure it was the absolute best letter I was capable of writing. Then I deleted it because the only thing worse than having to beg them to imagine our lives would be hearing them say no.
As a Floridian person of color and new mom to a biracial little boy, I faced the same dilemma as Jacob over and over again.
It happened when I read my sister-in-law’s proud declaration on Facebook that her family was a Trump family.
It happened when my grandfather-in-law pointed at the TV during a news segment about the election and said, “I’ve got to vote for Trump. At least He will give us something new.”
It happened when my grandmother-in-law showed up at my doorstep for Sunday dinner wearing Trump’s face on a button affixed to her blouse.
Their rampant support made me queasy. My little boy and I–did we not matter?
In each of these instances, I opened my mouth to make my own Please, for us appeal, but the words never came out. To my sister-in-law’s post, I only replied with a single sad-face emoji. To my grandfather-in-law’s comment, I said nothing at all. And instead of telling my grandmother-in-law, “Take that button off before you come inside; it isn’t welcome here,” I allowed her inside, let her hold my son, and used the opportunity to gently remove the offensive item under the pretense of ensuring it didn’t accidentally prick the baby. (I never gave the button back.)
In each of these instances I didn’t raise hell like the bra-burning feminist I like to think I am. I know my in-laws are genuinely good people (as are many of the people that voted for Trump). I also know I wasn’t going to change their votes (or their minds) with a single-sided impassioned speech. Creating genuine, lasting change requires a different, more long-term approach.
We need to take the time to understand each other. We need to have reasonable conversations where both sides speak and both sides listen–and the best place to start is closest to home. Face to face. Under mutual agreement to be civil. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
My former intern, Caitlin McGill, said it best when she discussed the “scary, awkward, hopeful conversation” with her dad about why he voted for Trump:
After my conversation with my father, I realized that my own bubble might have prevented me from understanding other parts of the country, just as their bubbles might have stopped them from understanding me. I still strongly disagree with my father and Trump voters, but our conversation revealed, among many implicit biases, the danger of these so-called “coastal” and “rural” bubbles and the power and necessity of open dialogue. Sometimes those dialogues are hardest when they include the ones we love, but not engaging in them is a problematic exercise of privilege.
So next Thursday, if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable around the Thanksgiving table, I challenge you to do more than just wear a safety pin. Take action. Start the long-term approach. If it is safe to do so–even if it is scary–engage in thoughtful discussion. You may need to listen more than you speak–but also be sure to speak and be heard. Talk to your family and friends about how to be allies to marginalized communities. A short, 10-minute conversation can go a long way. If you’re not sure where to start, this open letter can give you some ideas for your approach.
And–most importantly–make sure your approach transcends the weekend. Do a little every day–it all adds up.
This is how we change the world. One day–and one person–at a time.