I find that now, as the dust settles on an election where the popular vote and the electoral college were at extreme odds, I am almost hypersensitively aware of my surroundings. Being a woman of color, I’ve been the subject of hateful and derogatory speech in the past, and I was raised to always pay attention to my surroundings for safety, but this is different. This time and space we find ourselves in as a country is different. On a personal level, I find myself hyper aware — practically on edge — gauging my level of safety in every room I enter.
This week has been emotionally draining for me. I flew to Chicago for conferences, and I made a plan with colleagues to meet at the hotel lobby bar, so that we could make a plan for dinner. The hotel lobby is this vast room, with detailed paintings spanning the ceiling, high above massive chandeliers. Seated at the bar, I drank a Manhattan and greeted colleagues as they arrived. As our group grew, the bar area became fragrant with the scent of garlic fries and buzzed with general merriment.
As we sat unwinding and catching up, a man sat to my left, between me and a dividing wall. I sat turned in my chair, facing my friends, with my back to him. He was quiet for a time, but he began speaking to the bartenders about my group once he gained some liquid courage. He gestured toward us and said to the closest bartender, “I bet they’re talking about Trump.”
To this, I turned, and said, “We weren’t, actually.”
My response surprised him. “Oh, so you can hear me? I didn’t think you understood what I was saying. You didn’t turn around before.”
People who know me recognize my dry humor, but my response was not intended to be funny. “Yes, I understand and speak English just fine.”
To this, my friends ears all perked up, and they took notice of the man next to me. The watched as the man and I spoke for an hour, while he quizzed me on race relations and why it is that “Afro Americans” felt the need to be at the center of gang violence and drug trades. In my heart of hearts, I believe that this man really wanted to know how to get to know people of color, how to come from a place of respect, and how to start a dialogue. He just had a terrible delivery.
Our conversation grew heated at moments, and there were several times that he had to walk away to digest what I had to say. I chose not to flower my words; I was as blunt as I could be, because I wanted him to understand the gravity of his approach and how it was perceived. If he really wanted to start a sincere dialogue, he needed to calibrate for his audience.
As we continued to talk, there was a moment where I realized that, as obtuse and completely unaware as this man was, he was genuine in trying to understand the struggles that people of color experience. He didn’t have friends outside of his own demographic, he was a self-proclaimed Republican who had not supported the President Elect, and I got the sense that he was really trying to figure out how to define his identity moving forward.
I had to walk away toward the end. I excused myself to go to the ladies room, but it was primarily because I was so overwhelmed at the prospect of having to justify my frustration and challenges I’ve faced simply for being a person of color. When I reached the restroom, I burst into tears. I didn’t want him to see me cry; that what he said or how he thought affected me. That he unintentionally made me feel inferior.
I regrouped and came back for our last round of conversation. He was a bit drunk by this point, but he was still talking. I finished my drink and decided I’d had my fill. I looked away, and tears filled my eyes that I couldn’t hold back. One Donny friends saw, and she came to envelope me in a big hug, as other friends and colleagues crowded around me. The man sensed that the conversation was over, and he left quietly, but I know he felt bad.
I explained to my friends that, though this was a tough conversation, I appreciated that this stranger took the time to try and hear me out. He tried to process what I’d said, and he took the time to walk away and came back for more. I had to respect that.
These conversations aren’t easy. Ones where people have assumed the absolute worst about your culture, your family, and you have to find a way to reconcile what they were taught and what really exists. It is so overwhelming to teach someone a history they didn’t learn in school or in life, to help someone understand that my community is how it is as the result of continuous prejudice and discrimination.
I can’t even imagine what the harder conversations will be, how my nerves will fare, or if emotions will get the better of me. I don’t want to think the worst of these next four years, but I’m going into 2017 understanding that it could be more challenging than anything I’ve faced thus far.
Let’s prepare ourselves. This next year is going to be a beast.