My parents are conservative Christians who voted for Donald Trump. My brother-in-law is a Sudanese Muslim immigrant who voted Hilary. My sister and I are liberal feminists. Despite the fact that just about every political fault line runs through our small family, we chose to be together this Christmas, and we’ve been talking politics.
Any other time in my life, I would have run screaming from a political conversation with my family. We’ve shied away from triggering topics for years, initially because my sister and I grew away from our conservative, Christian upbringing and more recently, since my sister’s interracial, inter-religious marriage. We all spent 2 weeks in Khartoum for her wedding, and despite our worries that my father might simply drop dead of fear and anxiety, the trip was a smashing success. My parents returned home to their small Southwest town with the glow and enthusiasm of the recently converted.
Our family dynamic is held together by keeping things light, by avoiding the murky waters of political disagreement.
So when I checked my phone the morning after the election, I was surprised to see that my Mom had sent a text to all of us.
This exchange started the first conversation we’d all had about the election, ever, and it was so not awful that we agreed to follow up later with a video call.
As the time for the call approached, I wondered how we’d manage to broach the subject again, but the mission was clear from our sober hellos.
“I hardly told anyone who I was voting for,” my mom admitted. She knew full well the shaming she’d receive in her town full of Hillary signs, so she kept her mouth shut.
She hadn’t liked many things Trump said during the campaign, and disagreed with some of his ideas, but her concern for the national debt and economy ultimately sided her with him. We all let that sink in. My sister and I had been hoping that maybe my mom hadn’t voted Trump, since she once mentioned not wanting to vote for either candidate.
Through tears, my sister asked my mom if she remembered a day from our childhood when we were playing in our driveway and some boys biked by and taunted us. We ran inside, crying and scared. Mom packed us immediately into the car, and drove up the street, fuming. As she towered over those boys, booming grown up words about how wrong they’d been, we felt valuable, protected, safe.
My sister continued, “This feels like the opposite of that. A betrayal. You had a chance to protect our family, and you chose not to.”
I saw those words hit my mother. It hurts to remember her soft, sad face as she apologized. She hadn’t thought that the safety of her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were at stake in this election. My dad reassured us that congress would keep Trump in check, that law enforcement would keep people safe.
“I hope you’re right,” was my brother-in-law’s solemn reply.
My dad was concerned. “Has anything happened? Have you been mistreated since the election?”
Though my sister’s family has not yet been the target of a post-election hate crime, she explained their fear. She said her family is mistreated in little ways all the time.
“What little ways?” Dad asked.
My sister explained how people will yell “Go home!” out their car windows at her mother-in-law who covers her head. How my sister was the one to fill out rental applications during their apartment search, since landlords often don’t reply when they see her husband’s Sudanese name.
My parents were shocked. They had no idea that my brother-in-law and his family are often targets of racism and Islamophobia.
They’ve been slowly absorbing those facts and have been asking my sister and I what they can do to help. They’ve been Facetiming my brother-in-law’s parents in Phoenix to see how they’re doing. And we’re continuing, tentatively, to explore this vast new terrain of political discussion.
It’s been isolating to feel this upsurgence of family closeness in the wake of an election that demonstrates how bitterly divided we are as a country. As my friends gather in corners at work to shake their heads and muse about what Republicans could possibly be thinking, I wince, because they’re looking down their noses at my people. I may not agree with their vote, but they are still my people, and we are doing the vulnerable and difficult work of trying to understand each other.
All those years, by keeping things light, we were trying to protect our ties from weakening. But we’re starting to see that there’s enough love and trust between us to make the risks of knowing each other worthwhile.
This week, I inflated the air mattress and picked my parents up from the airport. As always, their eyes twinkled at the sight of me. They scooped my two sons into their arms, and we tumbled into the easy grace of family who have long loved each other.
We still disagree. There are still sharp frustrations and betrayals among us. My sister and her family are still upset and scared, and I’m afraid for them and the fate of our country. My dad continues to reassure us of his confidence in the system, and my mom is pensive, and reaching out more often to my sister. And for the first time, I feel safe talking to my parents about who I am and what I think, and I’m curious to learn more about who they are.
It turns out that we don’t know each other as well as we thought. Ours is not a family of of deplorables or elitists, immoral bleeding hearts or extremist idiots. And I’d venture to guess that yours isn’t either.