I was surprised by the turnout. The Super Tuesday voting line was extending down the street. I knew I had to get out of my car but I didn’t want to. I was scared. The small town I live in is majority conservative and majority white. It’s not like I was advertising who I was voting for but if the last few years have been testimony enough I know by simply existing I could incite that crowd to violence. But I had to vote. Too many people paid for that right with their blood, sweat, and tears. I had to go.
I walked cautiously towards the end of the line and kept to myself. There was a black woman in front of me and a black man behind me. For a while we were the only ones there. The line slowly started to grow and I kept checking on my car…just in case I had to make a run for it. The strangest thing happened though. I watched as this elderly black couple left the building to get to their car and as they tried to back out, an older white man helped guide them out of the parking spot. Now you might not think this is a monumental deal but they had a Hillary sticker on the back of their van and I had overheard him talking about his admiration of Ted Cruz. He was helpful and the two parties exchanged a wave and a smile as the van sped off. He didn’t return to the line and start spewing hateful grumbles to the other similarly aged white men standing with him. They just talked about their grandkids as the line moved.
The couple two people in front of me took turns holding their newborn and talking about car payments. The dad in front of the woman in front of me was playing with his son. All of the vitriol and hate I had seen on television and social media wasn’t present. These were neighbors who I’m sure I didn’t agree with on everything but neighbors nontheless. I got stopped and complimented on my outfit by older white women who thought I was the cutest thing. One woman asked me to come to her Mary Kay party. A few highschoolers showed up in the lettermen jackets trying to pretend that they were cool, calm, and collected but were obviously excited that they had a chance to vote. I became less concerned with who the people standing around me were voting for and more interested in who they were.
We talked about shows, our families, our vocations, our travels, and more. We all shared and we all laughed. When the volunteers announced that they were doing a periodic count we collectively grumbled to ourselves but the weather was nice and we could feel the air conditioning. All the anxiety I had felt in the beginning had all but dissipated. But that changed as soon as we got inside the building. It was a meeting room used for small functions and baby showers. The little boy in front with his dad was asking him about dinner and going home.
“Why are we here? Are you going to vote for Barack Nobama?”
The energy dimmed and the father quickly shushed his son. He never turned around to talk to anyone after that. The couple with the baby couldn’t stand in line because she was getting antsy. When it was the mother’s turn, one of the volunteers asked her what party she was voting for and she tried to whisper but was too far away.
“Republican,” she said audibly but she turned her back almost as soon as she said it. The woman in front of me went next and had the same reaction when she answered, “Democrat.” It was such an odd thing to witness, minutes beforehand we were all laughing with one another. As judgmental as it seems we could all tell who was voting for who but it didn’t seem to matter when we were sharing our lives. We stood, quite literally, as a community but we left scattered and divided.
It was my turn. When asked, I answered. I didn’t turn to see a response or reaction. My feet were too tired from standing in heels for over an hour. I didn’t feel fear the way I did when I got in line but this weird sense of disappointment. I went off to cast my ballot and then I walked out. The line was longer but people were still doing the same thing. They were talking to one another and they were listening. They were laughing. The were sharing. They were opening themselves up. They were coexisting.
I walked across the street so I could discretely slip into my flats but an older couple saw me anyways. “Smart girls always have a plan b!” The sweet woman who said this was helped into the Ford-150 by her husband, a stern looking man with a Vietnam Vet cap on his head. He tilted his cap and went to the other side. As they pulled off she waved at me. It wasn’t til they turned the corner that I saw the Carson bumper sticker.
I went home with that still odd feeling. I let it sit overnight but I think I know what it was that I felt yesterday. It was optimism. Brilliant, unrelenting optimism. I don’t for a second think that Donald Trump is some benign force that we can laugh off or that his followers are to be taken lightly. We are living in dangerous and terrifying times. But so did our parents and our grandparents and their grandparents. They laid the foundation for the steps we are on now and it’s every generation’s duty to do the same. Go a little further and push a little harder in hopes that our future children and their children can look back in relief that they don’t have to live what we lived.
There have been many pieces written by much better writers than me with much better insight than me on the problems we face as a nation. We are approaching a time that was some of our ancestors’ dream and others’ a nightmare. We are all scared but for different reasons. For people of color, for the lgbt community, for immigrants, for the poor, we are in fear of our lives. We are in fear of our rights being stripped away. We are in fear of being further erased and silenced. I think the conservative white base would like to think they’re afraid of the same thing but without admitting one fatal thing. Their intangible fear is based on the very tangible actions their parents, grandparents, and millenia of ancestry profited from. They’re afraid of receiving instead of delegating. They’re afraid of being us; of having to reap what generations have sowed. They’re afraid of being erased, of their privileges being stripped away, of their bigoted voices being silenced, without realizing there’s a good reason for those things to be left behind.
We are in a deep shift. Possibly the biggest our young country has ever experienced. The headlines that have come up in the news, the hashtags, the discussion of the history of racism in this country, these are not new things. These are all conversations that we overheard in our kitchens or at church. These sentiments aren’t new but our ability to publicly speak about them without getting dragged off and lynched is. So our voices are much louder but the very people who should be listening only seem to plunge their fingers farther into their ears. How can we change people’s minds if they aren’t willing to listen to ours?
It may be naive, hell I know it’s naive but I don’t believe you change a person’s mind without first changing their heart. People are hardly moved by data or facts, they’re moved by feelings. Effect always follows affect. There are always going to be opportunists and hate-mongers. They are usually too far gone for anyone to effectively reach them. But the large majority of this country does not live in that world. Prejudice is inherited, it is taught but the only way it’s allowed to grow is with ignorance. The only solution is interaction. Every terribly ignorant thing I got taught in rigidly southern baptist bible studies got dismantled by my interactions with people. It starts with a question that needs answering, a question that sits in opposition to your idea, a question that will not move until you sit with and confront it. Truth always requires confrontation because along with being obvious, it’s also extremely difficult to accept. It’s a challenge but it’s always worth taking.
We are at that confrontation stage now. We’ve watched on in horror at people’s attempts to suppress it, to even kill it. But the truth always prevails. The truth always wins. Change is inevitable. The only option is to navigate how we get there.
We are a nation at war with ourselves because we are a nation in fear of one another. We are paranoid (some of us not without reason). We are reclusive and now more than ever we need to reach out. We can’t wait for it to be right, for someone to say what we want to hear, even for others to listen. We have to reach now, without inhibition and with love, simply because we must. Is it annoying to have to carry the burden of righting a wrong you didn’t create? Of course it is. Is it fair? Hell no. But if not us, who? If not now, when?