Stranger Than Fiction
You could say I grew up comfortably. My parents were sales reps for a big telecommunications company in Northern Virginia. I was an only child (of sorts, with much older half siblings), so we didn’t need a five bedroom house, but we had one. It was in one of those neighborhoods that could come up in a google image search for “suburb.” My friends’ houses were identical to mine, except for the color of the siding and the shingles, sprawled in perfect semi-circles at the end of long, straight streets. My friends’ parents were also sales reps, or engineers, or government contractors. When we learned about war, or The Great Depression, or slavery in school, it read like fiction to me. Those things were so divorced from the schemas that I had created to take in the world, that I had trouble incorporating them at all. Then September of 2001 came, and just like that, a world that had only existed on textbook pages exploded into my reality. War became real, civil unrest became real, poverty became real, racism became real. Bitterly and sweetly, reality began to infringe on the parts of my twelve-year-old world that were once fictional.
It was around that time that I began to pay attention to my parents’ conversations about politics and current events. My dad went to Catholic high school in Pennsylvania, he wanted to be a priest (that didn’t pan out, which is why my half-siblings and I exist), he served during the Vietnam War after being drafted, and there are few things he despises more than irrationality. My mom was a teenager during the 60s, a flower child, and an OG SJW. She lived in Salt Lake and NYC and Stevie Nicks is her spirit animal. She’s really into essential oils now. In the 2000s, they rarely agreed on political things, and they often cancelled out each other’s vote on election day.
I considered myself to be 100% half of each of them. I agreed with each of them about different things. Progressive on social issues with my mom, abhorrent of government waste with my dad. A pragmatic idealist. As time went on, I began to lean more to the left, (and honestly, so has my dad, for which I give him credit), but I was never particularly passionate about politics. Throughout high school I wore a beat up grey Kerry/Edwards t-shirt that I got in a yard sale throughout, because I thought it was cool. I still do. I voted for Obama in 2008 in much the same way that I bought a pack of cigarettes in 2008: I had turned 18, and I could. I knew I was pro-choice, pro-green energy, pro-arts and culture, anti-excessive defense spending, and largely anti-war in general.
All that being said, not much in my own life changed based on who was in office at any given time. Until well into my first year of college, I didn’t have the cultural awareness to realize that this wasn’t everyone’s experience. Nor did I have the self-awareness to realize that I experienced the world that way only because I was a white girl from an upper middle class family. I'm not sure if it was because I was away from home, getting older, at a liberal arts university, or because politics were beginning to infect my Facebook feed, but everything began to matter to me. I thought a lot about the cause and effect of it all. Tracing through history the path of how we got “here,” wherever here was, and divining what that meant for tomorrow. I unfortunately was unable to divine what would happen on November 8th, 2016 when, once again, reality hit me hard in the chest.
I was a meme personified, a snowflake whose echo chamber had been forcibly torn open, woken up too soon, the hot water heater out of hot water halfway through the shower. I had made the decision not to vote in that election. I was positive that Clinton would win; I don’t like our electoral college system; and our baby had just come home from the NICU not long before election day, and didn’t want to drag her out to the polls. I will not make that decision again.
It was not that the Republican won and the Democrat lost. Party power shifts have occurred since the beginning of our two party system. Rather, it was that so large a portion of the population felt disenfranchised enough by our government to elect to the highest office in the land someone who represents the antithesis of the America that I knew. I suppose that same privilege that made me blind to the political worries of minority populations, also blinded me to the financial fears of blue collar America, and that those fears could so easily allow people to dismiss racism, misogyny, xenophobia, ableism, and any of the other “isms” and “phobias” we can ascribe to our Commander in Chief and his policies. (Not to discount the actual racists and misogynists who voted for Trump, but those are not the people I feel I have any hope of understanding.)
I now have two goals in my engagement with politics. First, I want make every effort to try to understand the experiences of those individuals who elected our 45th president to office. We are not going to prevent this from happening again by telling people who obviously felt let down by the system that they are bigots, assholes, morally inept, etc. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t call out bigotry, assholery, and moral ineptitude. Now more than ever, we should and we must, but enclosing our torn echo chambers tighter around us to avoid discussions does a disservice to us and to those with whom we disagree. Second, I do not take being a white girl from an upper middle class family for granted anymore. It is my responsibility to use my comfort and privilege to say things that others may be dismissed for saying until they are no longer dismissed. I would charge everyone with a similar experience (especially those who are men) with the same responsibility.
The realization that I had, in fact, been out of touch with at least 63 million Americans was not an easy pill to swallow. It was a far more bitter than sweet adjustment to reality, which has turned out to be stranger than fiction. Tracing the steps of how we got “here” has proved unsuccessful, but I’m going to keep trying.