It was unusual for my friend Dimitri to be watching a wildlife documentary, instead of following the news a day after a historic election. When I showed up at his home on Wednesday evening, he looked up from the television screen, rubbed his eyes, and said drily, “Welcome to America.”
His girlfriend, Sarah, sat at a table nearby, staring at maps of the US. The grids representing the country’s states were coloured with crayons in blue and red. On election night, they had played a game with their friends: whoever came closest to the results would win. In the course of the evening, it had become amply clear that their maps bore little resemblance to what was happening across large sections of the country, turning a crimson red. They all lost the game. Donald Trump and his battery of supporters emerged victors.
Almost 24 hours later, the couple kept going over those maps with me, trying to wrap their heads around what had happened. “How did he get Michigan? Pennsylvania? How did we get it so wrong?” Dimitri wondered aloud.
This was in Houston, a city that voted Democrat. But overall in the state of Texas, 53 per cent of the voters went Republican, awarding Trump a whopping 38 electoral votes. Both Dimitri and Sarah, who are in their 50s and were born and raised in Houston, said this was the worst election of their lives. While they were devastated when George Bush took charge, they had never betrayed the kind of despondence they felt this time.
I moved to the US only two years ago, but I shared their dejection. On election night, I went to bed way past 3.30 am, long after hearing the President-elect give his victory speech in an uncharacteristically tempered-down tone. I woke up four hours later, with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the kind that bodes ill. Could over 50 million people have really entrusted an openly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamophobic, bigoted, slanderous demagogue with power? Tears started flowing freely. They were a spontaneous response more to the people who believed in the phenomenon of Donald Trump, than to the phenomenon itself.
Having seen how the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 emboldened Hindu nationalists in India, an acute fear took hold of me. I’m a woman of colour in the US and I was suddenly aware of my minority status. I felt trapped in my skin in a country where Trump now inspires white supremacists. Unsurprisingly, soon after election results, reports of hate messages targeting Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Muslims on college campuses and social media began to emerge. Fears of heightened bigotry have turned into a reality as some people have been attacked.
I reached out to friends, as one does when lonely, in the hope of fortifying myself with walls of support. As the hours passed, others started reaching out to me. Throughout the day, I came across people trying to make sense of this watershed moment; sullen faces, mourning faces. Houston was shrouded in gloom, and the pall didn’t lift until the following day.
My friends and I didn’t know it then, but we were all grappling with the many stages of grief. First, there was disbelief and denial. Then anger; followed by bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. All between 24 and 48 hours.
The air was sombre and everyone had different ways of coping with it: My husband stopped following the news and recoiled into silence. I, on the other hand, followed it closely and kept talking all day. A friend went for a haircut; yet another kept breaking down in fits and starts. Someone started her process of naturalisation in the US; another invited her friends over for cupcakes and conversation.
As the day wore on, a question began to weigh down heavily on us: How had we not sensed the pulse? In India, interactions with people with whom I cross paths daily, gave me glimpses into differing and divergent points of view. The results in the US came as a shock because many of us failed to peel away at the nuanced layers in American society, or perceive what lay concealed on the other side of the thin veils of courtesy and small talk.
We had underestimated how easy it was, especially in America, to be ensnared in our bubble of like-minded people within our social network online, as well as beyond the blue screen. There is a lesson in Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s research here. For her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, she travelled deep into Louisiana to truly understand how entrenched in convictions people are and how divorced from different co-existing realities. She found that the white working class felt betrayed by the American Dream and were genuinely angry with immigrants and minorities taking their place.
But what about the wealthy white American man who voted for Trump? Or the wealthy white American woman? I wouldn’t have any answers if I didn’t attempt to depart from my own seemingly hard-boiled convictions.
A kneejerk reaction at such a time would be to shut out all dissenting voices, shake Trump voters out of the shackles of their supposed foolhardiness, dismiss and even shame them. But to what end? Not only is that antithetical to the very idea of democracy, but in doing that, we might have the fleeting illusion of an antidote to an immediate problem. But what it would do in the long run is further deepen the cleavages in society.
In this sullied political climate, dialogue and conversation are of utmost importance. To be an informed citizen, there is no option but to understand and engage with people who think differently from us. Grief, anger and despair are in order for all of us, of course, as are involvement and action to mobilise our collective energies into progressive change. To soften the edges and blur boundaries, Toni Morrison reminds us in an essay, that “in times of dread, artists must never choose to remain silent.”
Being a woman of colour means being aware of the terrifying times ahead. But for the 50 million people who voted for Trump, there were more who didn’t. This gives me hope that for every hater lurking around the corner, there is at least one person rallying for, and celebrating diversity.