Regrets (not) Engaging My Friends in a Conversation about Trump

Comedian Samantha Bee imitating Donald Trump’s photo on Cinco de Mayo

A couple of months ago, two friends came over for lunch. During this convivial meal, our conversation drifted toward the 2016 Republican race. At that time, many candidates still hoped to secure the Republican nomination, but really, Donald Trump was the meat of the matter.

My husband and I thought the conversation with our guests would mimic any previous dialogs we had with our closest friends over politics: they would be stunned that Donald Trump made it so far in the race and we would be horrified by the insults or amalgams made toward Mexicans, women, Muslims, and people with disabilities to name only a few of the groups Trump discriminated against. Finally, we would commiserate together on the tale of Trump, a reality TV bully who preached inconsistent diatribes, yet whose speeches fueled our fears of the unknown. But, one of our guests hinted he supported Trump.

An Uncomfortable Silence

An uncomfortable silence followed his announcement. My guest did not declare: “I am with Trump”. He only mentioned that the media were not reporting Trump’s message accurately and if we were to go on his website, we could read that in fact…I stopped listening there. I had already gauged how this meal may end up if my husband and I took the bait.

Trump, a reality TV bully who preached inconsistent diatribes, yet whose speeches fueled our fears of the unknown

We are not Trump’s supporters. For full disclosure, we hung a poster of Barack Obama in our entry way, because he made history as the first African- American President of the United States; most heartedly, because as the world’s most famous Kenyan descendant, he makes my Kenyan husband proud. On my part, I soaked in the values of freedom, equality, and fraternity as listed in the national motto of France, where I grew up. This lunch could have gone down the drain. Instead, we said a few words, but did nothing. We listened to our guest, and moved on. Months later, I still regret that we didn’t talk more.

See Something, Say Something

Last week, I reflected on this awkward conversation while I attended the True Story Theater’s workshop “Being an Active Bystander,” co-sponsored by Arlington Diversity Task Group. This event explored situations in which the audience may have witnessed violence or mistreatment. Practical exercises gave attendees tools and techniques to become active and empowered bystanders.

After an introduction by Maureen Scully, Associate Professor of Management at UMass Boston, who researches diversity and inclusion in professional settings, the audience, now divided in small groups, created scenario and elaborate solutions to resolve tense situations. My group role-played family members at Thanksgiving dinner during which a cousin made discriminatory comments about new neighbors on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or economical situations among others biases. Each member of our group alternatively practiced being the silent eater who feel embarrassed but only spoke to rave about the turkey and mash potatoes; the outraged bystander who sometimes compassionately listens to the argumentation, sometimes interjects fallacies; or the outspoken consciously biased family member who singles out the fictional unwelcome neighbors.

Months later, I still regret that we didn’t talk more.

In this eye-opening experience, I learned I needed to practice being an active bystander and spoke out louder when I witness actions or hear comments with which I disagree. If I had practiced more, I may have been more reactive while my guest shared his surprising political opinion a few months ago.

The Day After

Trump, now the presumptive Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential election, rallies more political leaders and influential figures behind his escutcheon of bigotry while his ideology move mainstream. Regardless of the results of the general election, I wonder how we will continue to live together in neighborhoods where Trump’s flag flies on properties, in towns like Arlington where 41.32% of the Republicans registrants voted for Trump on Super Tuesday, and in settings where individuals know someone who voted for Trump.

“My parents, who escaped from Germany just in time, urged me to always keep my passport current […] I thought they were paranoid. But I don’t think this anymore.”

In December 2015, Miriam Stein, the daughter of Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany, an advocacy trainer, and one of the former chairs of the Arlington Diversity Task Group, alerted us of Trumpism in an open letter to the Boston Globe. She reframed the political climate with a stabbing historical reminder: “My parents, who escaped from Germany just in time, urged me to always keep my passport current […] I thought they were paranoid. But I don’t think this anymore.”

Some light-hearted initiatives from Maple Match, the dating website vowing to match Americans with Canadians for migration purposes in case of a Trump’s presidency, to the limited Trump-themed expansion pack of the game Card against Humanity offers deus-ex-machina-like exit strategies to a dramatic scenario that becomes more plausible.

The future is uncertain, but as we move closer to the general 2016 presidential election, more tense conversations may occur with your friends or loved ones. With the workshop “Being an Active Bystander,” True Story Theater gave us tools to become an upstander and reinvigorates values that the Arlington Diversity Task Group champions: community, awareness, and action.

Article by Yawa Degboe

Yawa Degboe is co-chair of the Arlington Diversity Task Groups and a Human Rights Commissioner. She lives in Arlington with her husband and her daughter.

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