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compassionate listening

Christian, Muslim, Trump-supporting, Pantsuit-wearing, Black, White Family Talks Politics Over Christmas

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.
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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.

Talking across political divides or Don’t cancel Thanksgiving

I don’t know your family. Or your many well-thought-out reasons why you don’t want to hang out with them and their crazy opinions, especially after this election. Or maybe you’re super stoked for Thanksgiving with The Fam.

Either way and regardless of your politics, I’m guessing that it’s pretty tempting right now to hole up and talk with people who agree with you. Let’s face it, that’s what most of us did in the lead up to November 8th, and probably long before that too.

This strikes me as a big, fat problem.

Conservatives and liberals are afraid of each other, and talking to each other less and less. So how do we move forward in a political system engineered to help us find common ground when we barely know how to have a conversation with a member of the other party?

Political conversation
Photo by Steve McFarland

I know this divide well, since mine is a family made up of liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, Muslims and Christians.

Before the election, we didn’t talk politics at all. But since November 9th, it’s been our main topic of conversation in texts, over the phone and on Skype. I’m shocked to report that the result of all this talking across political divides has not been debilitating waves of fear, anger and dread. In fact, I feel closer to my family than I have since I was a kid. This is not because everyone suddenly agrees. It’s because somehow, we’ve found a way to talk about our widely ranging opinions that leaves me wanting to call back or follow up with a text question rather than run far far away. We’ve stumbled upon a rare, cultural occurrence in this day and age; ours is the dodo bird of political conversations.

I’m working on an essay about this whole experience that I hope will get published on a larger platform, since I think our conversations can offer some hope and a way forward for families and friends who are feeling more divided than ever.

For now, let me share what has been helpful to all of us so far.

Stop trying to convert each other.

We all know what it’s like to have a crappy political conversation. It gets sweaty and fast, brows are furrowed, voices get tense, and talking points get volleyed back and forth. The whole thing lurches to a close with everyone feeling dissatisfied and trying to patch things up with inane sports or weather talk.

I suspect that these types of discussions suck because we walk into them with the goal of converting each other. Turns out that talking to people who are trying to change us feels patronizing as hell. It feels like they’re assuming we’re idiots or that they know better or both. And if you’re the one on a crusade, well, it gets lonely up there on your know-it-all high horse.

Stop assuming that people are their labels, and that you are yours.

As the dreamy Walt Whitman once said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Damn straight, Walt. Everyone you know is a person first and a liberal or a conservative or [insert political label] second. Since my family stopped assuming what we each think based on who we voted for, we’re discovering that few (if any) of us adhere to a strict party line on everything. So we actually have a few things—gasp!—on which we agree.

Start asking questions and actually listening.

It’s been awkward to try to understand each other without making assumptions, because it means we’ve been asking very basic and sometimes embarrassing questions, like “Has anyone ever been racist to you?” or “What’s actually so bad about the national debt? I remember reading something about why it isn’t so bad.” When you stop assuming, it means you actually have to ask questions to discover things. And the space that all those assumptions took up starts being replaced by good, old-fashioned curiosity.

Start sharing personal experiences.

Pretty much everyone I know would rather listen to a story about someone’s life rather than some list of bullet points about why they support some political ideology. When you dig deep into why you believe the stuff you do, I bet you’ll find some stories. Tell those. Ask others about theirs.

This other type of conversation I’m describing—this non-converting, non-assuming, curious, personal type of conversation—tends to not suck. You walk away thoughtful. Sure, maybe you’re still pissed or freaked out, even betrayed by Aunt Edna’s politics, but you learned a couple things you didn’t know about her, and maybe even started to question what you actually do think about the national debt.

This little list of Dos and Don’ts is essentially a recipe for openness, learning and respect, three things I want as the starting point for any family or nation of mine.

If we all had more practice having conversations across party lines in this way, I think we’d find ourselves in a different America.

That’s the America I want.


I know I’m not the only one having these conversations. If you have tips or tricks or revelations of your own in talking across the political divide, please share them in a comment below.