So there’s this idea going around right now, that it’s incumbent on white people to reach out to Trump supporters, take seriously their concerns, meet them on their own terms and try to find some kind of common ground–and hopefully in doing so, help them confront the fact of white supremacy and undo it. Derek Black, former scion of the White Power movement, is perhaps the best example of the dream of this effort. He was ostracized by his classmates when they realized who he was (the poster child of StormFront, a white power recruitment site), and then a group of Orthodox Jewish students reached out to him and were willing to engage him in conversation. Over the course of time, he woke up to the effects of his previous actions and is now, at great personal cost, testifying to the danger and seductive lure of white supremacy.
It’s inspiring stuff, and it appeals to my desire for emotional generosity. If people really understood the effects of their actions, the real impact of their commitments to certain beliefs, they’d change, right?
But here’s the thing: as with most things post-election, I have a sick feeling that I’ve been here before. In high school and college, all I did was chase down people who mistreated me. If I could just make it clear to them, if I could just use all the powers of my mind and my body to convince them to stop, of course they would. I’d be safe and the world would be better–I just had to find a way to convince them. And so I’d invite abuser after abuser into my heart and my bed, hoping that this time I’d find the trick. If I were kind enough, smart enough, sexy enough, good enough, they would see my value and treat me with respect. You can guess how successful I was.
Among my friends, I’m seeing this dynamic play out in family relationships over and over again. People who’ve spent their whole lives getting out from under the repressive, conformist, unforgiving atmosphere of their childhoods find out their parents voted for Trump, and then try to have one of these recommended “honest conversations” with them about it. But instead of being met with understanding, it’s just more of the same bullying and intolerance that they’ve been busy trying to undo the effects of for their whole adult lives. Maureen Dowd’s Thanksgiving column probably captures this the best. She’s with her rich, conservative family, and they’re positively gleeful at Trump’s victory, basically telling everyone who is terrified for their human rights to stop being such babies, with all the kindness and sensitivity of a lacrosse-playing douchebag giving you a swirlie. (Honestly, the only message I took away from that is that Maureen Dowd should break up with her terrible family, ASAP.)
Margaret Atwood, of course, nails it with a poem. In “Tricks with Mirrors,” she narrates a conversation between a couple in which the woman in the couple attempts the metaphor of a woman as a mirror in lots of different registers. I suppose “conversation” isn’t really the right word, since it’s just the woman talking, trying again and again to explain herself to the man, to show him the truth of their dynamic. In the final section, she changes gears: “You don’t like these metaphors./ All right:/ Perhaps I am not a mirror./ Perhaps I am a pool./ Think about pools.” As a reader, I get this sinking feeling of the endlessness of the exchange. There’s always another metaphor, another story, but none of them sink in. If she’s a mirror, then so is he, in that her words bounce back to her without ever making an impact. I spent so much of my life in these kinds of echo chambers–only by seeing that I was in a monologue, not a call-and-response structure, was I able to break free.
So my strategy is this: honestly assess my safety before I go into a conversation. Am I putting myself in physical or emotional danger? Has this person indicated that they’ll meet my honesty with love, even if they disagree? If so, then I’m honest and also willing to listen myself. So I start with a reminder of the truth of our relationship, talking to my loved ones like we were in a TV pilot, where people say things like “you’re my brother, and even though we’ve always fought, I love you and I appreciate the way you’ve stood by me and stood up for me” so the audience can understand the plot. It’s a reminder that this is just one act in an ongoing drama, that the relationship can continue past this point. Then I’m as honest as I can be, refusing to grant myself the easy out of pulling punches to protect them or myself. I am willing to explain things that I think should go without saying (people have different experiences of the world, actions have different consequences when they come from different positions), and take seriously the logic that motivates their thinking and behavior, even when I disagree. I ask questions. I admit when I’m being smug or rude and try to stop.
I’ve had a few of these conversations since the election, and they’ve felt powerful. I don’t know if I’ve changed anyone’s mind, but I feel better, and my relationships, while still sometimes difficult, feel more authentic. I have to be willing to risk a break, even if that seems unthinkable. Experience has shown me that if the relationship is one I’m meant to be in, then it will find its way back to me.
For instance, I never thought my parents would be okay with my being queer. And they weren’t, for a really long time. And it was even longer before they went from tooth-grittted “support” to being real allies. When I came out to my mom in high school, her response was “that’s ridiculous, you can’t be gay. You always played with dolls, you never played with trucks.” And her refusal of the possibility ran so deep that, to this day, she doesn’t remember the conversation. Twenty years later, though, the story has changed. When we were talking together about different ways to try to deal with this new world and all the scary shit in it, she told me that her daily action toward justice was to insist on telling her conservative friends about my lesbian sister and me, without closeting us. It’s a small thing, but it’s one she wasn’t willing to take not that long ago, and it’s because I refused to remain silent about the truth of my life and because we both refused to give up on the relationship.
But, of course, the other side is also true. Bullies don’t soften, rakes don’t reform. In those cases, I’m using the logic of nonviolent resistance. I’m boycotting holiday parties where I don’t feel safe–the ones where my wife and I are met with homophobic jokes or anti-Semitic ribbing every year. “What a fairy!””Are you sure you don’t want some ham? Just have some ham!” (Note: not all Jews keep Kosher. Also: you’re a dick.) I went in today to start the process of adopting my son–answering questions I was humiliated to answer, and even more humiliated by my relief that I had the “right” answer (How long have you been together? Were you married when your son was born? Do you own your own home? Would I deserve to be his mother less if we rented? If we weren’t married?).
But I’ll use the resources I have available to me to remind the world that I have a family, that we’ve put in time and energy to become one, that we respect ourselves even if that respect is unmet. I know the adoption won’t mean anything if Trump actually passes his First Amendment Defense Act. In that nightmare scenario, I can still be barred from seeing my wife or children if they are hospitalized while we travel. A born-again hotel clerk isn’t going to change their mind and give us a room after all if I produce Massachusetts adoption papers. But I’m taking the action, making the speech act, calling out into the darkness anyway. The difference is that I’m not doing it in the hopes of changing minds–except, perhaps my own.
Survival is a kind of resistance, in moments like these. I will protect my survival, and announce it, wherever I can, in solidarity with all those who are threatened.