Three days after the 2016 election, I sat next to a Trump supporter on a plane . . . and I didn’t punch him in the face.
Some people know the craziness that is currently my life right now. I spend a lot of time in airports and airplanes, and I’ve had a host of experiences that sit on the entire spectrum of human interaction from weird to amazing.
- I unknowingly sat right next to Anita Baker in the DTW Delta Skyclub for about an hour (I’m 97.3% sure it was her).
- I once had an older gentleman from Iowa recount a (very long) story to me about how he watched a “little colored boy” steal watermelons from a downtown farmer’s market and resell them to unwitting strangers at high prices for 100% profit.
- I spent a night in the Toyko Narita International Airport because of weather delays and spent most of the time trying out many of the bathrooms to see how advanced their toilets were, all because an also-stranded Japanese stranger recommended specific ones during a long conversation (truly amazing).
- I sat at a gate in a remote Chinese airport for hours once with dozens of people staring at me in bewilderment because they had not seen too many black people in real life.
In all of this, I feel like I’ve learned how to engage with many different kinds of people (and toilets). Even so, I don’t think any of these experiences quite prepared me for what happened today, a mere three days after America elected Donald Trump as its 45th president.
I, unlike many people I’ve spoken with, wasn’t surprised by the election’s results. I grew up in the deep south and learned early on never to underestimate the power of deeply entrenched ideologies. I think Trump’s rise and win exposes what marginalized people have been saying all along about America – that racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-intellectual belief systems run deep and rampant. That isn't to say that I believe all Trump supporters ARE these things. But at some level, people who voted for Trump had to balance his public statements that fell in to these categories and decide that other things mattered more to them, similar to what Clinton voters had to do with negative information about her.
When I heard people complain about Trump’s methods or Clinton's private server, I often recalled what Psalm 37 says about this - we are not to fret when people we don't like/believe are evil succeed in their ways. It isn’t fair, but it is life. I can’t say I predicted Trump’s win, but I also wasn’t overly optimistic about America being ready to shatter the glass ceiling.
I was, however, disappointed, and I’ve been in and out of my feelings about it for the past few days. I work at a small liberal arts university with mostly left-leaning colleagues, and my students include many of those vulnerable to Trump’s stated policies (if we can call them policies): Muslims, people of color, the undocumented, etc. This week, literally 95% of my discussions at work have been with colleagues and students who expressed everything from sadness, to shock, to fear over it all. My office has been a revolving door of people coming in to talk, cry and strategize. Yesterday, I took a breather and went to the library to check out some books, and a young woman from Zimbabwe helped me at the checkout desk. When she realized I was a faculty member (and the only domestic black woman on the entire university faculty at that), a wave of relief rushed over her face and she unloaded her fears and concerns to me. I invited her to come to my office any time.
When I left the library, I went to a late lunch with a colleague. On the walk over, I read an email from a university faculty member explaining that someone driving by campus shouted “FUCKING NIGGER, GO BACK TO AFRICA” last night at a student who attends my university.
When I got to lunch, my colleague and I talked about how we both knew students on campus who might be deported and/or have their immediate family members deported if Trump implemented the immigration policies he touted on the campaign trail. We also pondered what strategies the university might implement in the event U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement comes on campus to forcibly remove them. This activist told me he would be willing to step in front of ICE agents and go to jail for these students. During this lunch, I also learned that two Clinton-supporting students had violently approached/assaulted (I couldn't understand exactly whether physical violence occurred) a Trump-supporting student on campus.
While we were talking, another university colleague came in to the restaurant on unrelated business. This colleague spotted us, walked over crying, and gave both of us hugs as if a close friend had just died.
This has all been exhausting.
So, when it was time to make yesterday’s trip, I was looking forward to the opportunity to finally sit in relative silence, unplug, and not have to commiserate over my country’s uncertain future. Once I boarded and got settled in my seat, both I and the 60-ish white guy sitting next to me ordered a Jack and Coke. He mentioned to me that he was going home to Louisiana, and we spent the next while talking about our love of Creole food (I lived in New Orleans before relocating to Iowa), college football programs and how players should get paid (he’s an LSU fan and I attended Clemson), and our common hatred of oversold flights, which Delta seems to have a lot of these days. We also talked about our families – my kids and his grandkids are about the same age. He even gave me a recipe for Natchitoches meat pies.
He seemed pretty cool and we had several things in common. We both ordered more Jack and Coke.
In all of this, I couldn’t help but wonder internally if he had voted for Trump. Frankly, I have been wondering that about every white person I come into contact with. I’ve spent the past while researching and studying social trends and reading about how Americans avoid political discussions and are mostly segregated from people with significantly differing viewpoints. So, the possible rarity of this exchange wasn’t lost on me. I had not, to my knowledge, had any personal interactions with a person who I KNEW was a Trump supporter during the entire election cycle. I certainly hadn’t talked to a person who openly supported Trump about why they supported him.
My curiosity got the best of me – I finally said to my seat-neighbor – we’ve been talking for a while about all kinds of things, but we’ve ignored what is perhaps the most shocking political result in modern history. I can’t help but ask what you thought about Tuesday’s election results. Oh boy.
His didn’t initially come out and tell me who he voted for, but he talked a lot about his disappointment in the post-election protests and that he hoped the country could move forward in a united fashion. He also lamented how “they” have taken God out of everything. Obviously, these were signals, right?
I have to say though, he had earlier mentioned (more than once) that he doesn’t talk about religion or politics, so I appreciated him traveling this far down the road with me. I was even more surprised when, after a few minutes, he told me that he voted for Trump and wanted to make America great again. I asked him to explain his position to me. He did, and he even answered several of my follow up questions. He complained about career politicians who don't seem to do much to help their constituents, which I agreed with.
I, in turn, explained to him why I was concerned about a lot of what I had heard over the past 18 months from the president-elect, and we had a healthy, though at some times heated, dialogue. There were times when he was visibly uncomfortable, and I’m sure I was too.
I told him that this was literally the first discussion I’d had with a Trump supporter. I told him that I have a black husband, black son, black daughter, and obviously a black body myself, and I explained to him how my husband and I have placed our undergraduate and law school logos on the back windows of our vehicles to signal to police that: #1 we are not a threat and #2 we know the law (or we at least know enough to file a large lawsuit if things go south).
I explained to him that we do not live in a slum and that we believe in treating all people with respect. I told him that I am a Christian who believes it is possible to simultaneously treat people with different beliefs with respect. I also told him that the constitution I studied in law school, though founded on some supremacist ideals, requires that the federal government separate religious beliefs from national policy.
To this gentleman’s credit, he listened and engaged with me. It seemed like he had never thought of some (or many) of these things before. He asked me questions about my positions. He said he had liberal friends who he had never talked to about any of this because he was turned off from their Facebook posts. I explained to him what the research shows about social media and real world interactions and asked him to please continue to think about how his candidate’s message threatens millions of people. And to try again.
People are losing family and friends they've had for years all because of who they voted for on November 8th. Maybe some of those relationships aren't worth saving. But, if there is a way to stop the hemorrhaging, it would behoove us to try.
THIS IS NOT AN ATTEMPT TO PUSH RESPECTABILITY POLITICS ON ANYONE. I’m not asking anyone to be nice to others, get over it, or extend olive branches to random white guys. Maybe you do feel the urge to punch someone in the face. Many people are going through stages of grief right now. I personally wore all black for two days straight. Before yesterday, I never would have thought that I could have this discussion so soon without flying into a fit of rage and/or punching someone in the face.
Obviously, we weren’t going to solve the world’s problems in 90 minutes. Trump is still the president elect. My seat-neighbor may have walked off of that flight feeling exactly the same about everything. But I didn’t.
What this experience confirmed for me is that, though it was incredibly difficult, communication is critical. I suppose I’d assumed Trump supporters were all angry, racist demagogues who could not intelligently articulate their positions. This is not to suggest that his gentleman is not any or all of these things, but at least for those 90 minutes from Des Moines to Detroit, he was not a terrible human being at all. We all know that media sources tend to paint people at the broadest possible extremes - I hate when it happens with people of color and know how harmful that messaging can be. I had not fairly thought about how the same could be true for people who voted for Trump.
After this discussion, I was mentally spent. The person I sat next to on the next leg of my flight was also a Trump supporter. I only know this because of the stuff she had on her laptop. I did not engage with her at all – perhaps concerned that this would be the point where I would not be so open-minded and unwilling to resort to fisticuffs.
I still fundamentally disagree with many of the positions my earlier seat-neighbor articulated, but I wonder how similar interactions might inform my future discussions.
America is deeply flawed. It is hard to know how and if we will claw our way out of the many messes we are in. I do not consider myself a democrat or republican, but I am committed to doing my part.
I recognize that a monolithic approach to change is impossible. It takes activists and grassroots organizing and established organizations and politicians and men and women and young people and everyone in between. As I shared with my seat-neighbor, I believe we too often move further apart – pulling against each other and counteracting other efforts designed to rectify injustices.
Yesterday I sat next to a Trump supporter on a plane and did not punch him in the face. Today, tomorrow, and for the rest of my tomorrows, I remain committed to doing what I believe will positively impact my local, national, and global communities. I will continue to disagree with rhetoric and policies that I believe are harmful.
This will likely include many more difficult conversations (and Jack and Cokes). While some are building walls, I hope these conversations lead to the building of bridges.
By the way, I gave my seat-neighbor my card and asked him to reach out the next time he was in Iowa. He said he would.