Triumph the divide and unite
Written by Chenoa Lewis
Two months ago I ventured to San Jose, Costa Rica to study abroad. In illuminating light, or suffocating darkness, brought forth by the inauguration ceremony of the new POTUS; I have the anomalous experience of living in another country and región of this world, which is highly influenced by American government. The first day of orientation was a unique experience unlike any other orientation I’ve witnessed.
At the onset our program director addressed the guidelines on speaking publicly about students’ political beliefs, specifically directed toward Trump supporters. “Costa Ricans don’t like Trump and if you are supporter, that’s fine, no problemo, pero it would be wise for you not advertise your support. It could cause conflict with the locals.” The room groaned with a few uncomfortable chuckles.
Linguistic studies have shown that Trump’s success correlates with the sound of the power associated with his name, simple succinct “Trump,” and its close relation with the word triumph. However, the mention of Trump incites conflict globally and I witnessed first hand in a country that doesn’t have an active military.
A week after orientation, during a weekend excursion to a beach town, my friend randomly asked a guy in our program if he was a Trump supporter. The reply was terse. “I’m not going to comment.” Silence and then, somewhat apologetically, “I mean, I’m from Virginia.” As if being from Virginia is solely the reason he’s a Trump supporter. As if his home state is the justification for his decision. As if Virginia’s votes went to Trump – which they did not. Silence responded even louder after his informative statement with the exception of the young woman who overheard the conversation, “I’m from Virginia and I didn’t vote for Trump.”
While discovering his political views, a flood of stereotypical Trump supporter opinions spiraled into my conscious mind. “He’s racist, sexist, capitalist, selfish, ect.” While these thoughts consumed my mind and the silence echoed in-between the space where we were standing, I thought of Trevor Noah’s interview with Tomi Lahren, the voice of the millennial neo-far right republicans.
After watching the heated interview, I found value in Noah’s focus on communicating and working to understand the mindset of others who don’t share similar views. In his article “Let’s Not Be Divided. Divided People are Easier to Rule,” in the New York Times, Noah hits an important point. “Instead of speaking in measured tones about what unites us, we are screaming at each other about what divides us — which is exactly what authoritarian figures like Mr. Trump want: divided people are easier to rule. That was, after all, the whole point of apartheid.”
Essentially, how will humanity achieve peace when we constantly divide ourselves based by our economic status, class, cultural background, religion, gender, political standpoints and so forth? My stereotypical thoughts weaned after remembering Noah’s article and I decided to try to befriend the Trump supporter to fully understand his political and societal views while straying from political conversations.
I’m in a spirituality, religion, and revolution course taught by a Costa Rican theologian. His studies focus on religions of the Middle East and our first conversation addressed the wars between opposing religions.
“War is not caused by religion, that argument is invalid. There has to be something more to it. There are countries all over the world that reside next to each other, have different religions, and never fought against each other based on religion. Latin America is the perfect example.”
America is a melting pot and never has the U.S. initiated a war – civil or international – by religion solely.
“There is another reason why there is much conflict in the Middle East. Does anyone know?” The room reached contemplative silence as the student’s faces intently pondered the why. “We have forgotten to communicate with each other as human beings.” The answer is quite simple, far less complicated than my pondering mind had wondered.
Within this brief yet paramount statement, I knew that rather than dismissing this young man because of his political views, I must have open dialogue. I must connect with him on a pure, basic human level instead of treating him like he is my worse nemesis, instead of pretending like Trump supporters can’t exist in my subjective world.
Later that evening I ran into the young man walking the hotel grounds and we decided to stargaze on the beach. I briefly chatted with him a few times before this day, however, my intrigue was sparked after his awkward declaration of his political views. I genuinely yearned to know why he supports Trump by uncovering his personality.
We went to grab my speakers from my hotel room and he discovered a tub of shea butter on my roommate’s bed. He picks up the yellow tub, sniffs, and says with complete disgust, “What the fuck is this?” initiating the first micro-aggression in our dialogue.
“It’s shea butter. Black people use it to keep our hair and body moisturized,” I responded. He put the tub back on the bed, with no intent on hiding his vitriol.
“I’m not racist but can I ask you a question?” The second micro-aggression within a minute, which made my stomach sink and churn ever-so-slightly.
Any sentence beginning with “I’m not racist” is always predictable and followed by a discriminating, offensive or racist comment, despite the questioner’s intention to prove the exact opposite. His white privilege and oblivion didn’t seem to find fault within that question.
“Why do black people put Vaseline on their body?”
I wonder why it was necessary to begin that question with “I’m not racist.”
“I work with the football players at my school and they’re always putting Vaseline all over their bodies. It’s gross,” he said with the same look of repulsion after smelling the shea butter.
This young man barely knows me, yet feels comfortable enough to ask me this ignorant question, which I would have found less offensive if he didn’t start it with his triggering introduction accompanied by a tone of disgust.
Why is it my job, the multiracial woman, to teach this man Black Culture 101?
“Everyone gets ashy. Since black people have darker skin, the ashy-ness shows on our skin more. We don’t like to look ashy and Vaseline is a good moisturizer, especially for football players.”
He is studying sports medicine so I would assume he could conjure a logical hypothesis for himself, yet ignorance is bliss, oblivion is a choice, and assumptions are deceitful.
“Ugh, that’s nasty,” he replied, while I watched a shiver travel up his spine as if the image of football players lathering Vaseline on their Black, smooth bodies projects horrific imagery into his head.
In this moment, and moments to follow, I was passive. I did not want to sound condescending or rude, and I wanted him to feel comfortable around me so I could better understand the personality of Trump supporters.
However, once again, as a Black* woman I refrained my anger to make a white person feel comfortable, an idea I struggle and am far too familiar with.
The following day we swam in the serene Pacific Ocean and religion became the topic of conversation whilst wading in serenity. I asked him if he believes in God, heaven and hell.
“Yes, I’m Christian.”
“So do you believe bad people go to hell and good people go to heaven?” I asked with obvious subjectivity.
“Something like that.”
“What do you consider bad?”
“Someone who takes another’s life, someone who is evil and treats people without respect. Someone who does awful acts of inhumanity against society.”
I nod and sink my head under the bathtub warmth of the sea after his detailed description of Trump’s characteristics.
Why I did not respond with, “So someone like Trump?” I am unsure. Maybe the placidity of the transparent, lukewarm salty sea and the palm trees of the tropics leveled out my usual anxiety around white privilege. Additionally, a part of me already knew the response. “Trump isn’t a bad person, he’s a cool guy and has done everything in life,” something he actually said to me a week later after we discussed Trump’s appearance on an old episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
I stopped responding, swimming away from him and the ignorance, reminiscing our prior conversation on the beach underneath the night sky.
We shared intimate details regarding our rebellious adolescent years, relating to one another through our devotion to club soccer for fourteen years of our lives, and our personal demons. We shared stories of losing our friends to substance abuse at young ages and he shared a story of a friend he lost to depression. The conversation was deep, emotional, purely human.
Empathy floated gently between us.
He told me about his “sixth sense” and how he has predicted specific situations that eventually occur. It sounded supernatural, but a part of me believed him after hearing his stories. “I have a feeling while I’m here something is going to happen in my friend group. I don’t know when or why, but I feel it.”
The night ends on that note and we part ways. Two days later I run into him in the hallway on the way to class.
“Hey, remember how I told you something was going to happen?”
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“My best friend’s brother committed suicide today.”
The shivers tingled up my spine, out of empathy instead of disgust this time.
Despite my encounter with micro-aggressions, racism and white privilege, I found value in my conversations with someone who couldn’t acknowledge the detrimental effects Trump will have on the lower class, minorities and women- the oppressed groups of society. As I recall and recollect, there are words I wish I would’ve said in the moment.
Communication is all humanity has left and we must learn how to revert back to basic human dialogue without aggression and predetermined stereotypes. Building trust is imperative between the citizens of this world, especially between those who have incompatible interpretations of society and how it “should” be.
Do you ever wonder why humans laugh in unison when one tells a funny joke? Or why humans clap simultaneously after hearing a speech, watching a show, and so forth? Or why a majority of humans can’t live in isolation from other humans without losing their sanity?
We are one, to phrase it as simply as possible.
Once humans practice and promote impartial communication within opposing cultures, politics, religions and classes, people can empathize with each other. It is within human nature to develop deep sensations of emotion, empathy and sympathy. These advanced sensations are a marvelous facet of the human race.
Once we connect over the natural, distinct characteristics of “feeling,” maybe then we will find common ground within our wants and needs, and unify in an improved, progressive, bipartisan society.
*“In 1929, when the editor for the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed Du Bois that Negro would be lowercased in the article he had submitted for publication, Du Bois quickly wrote a heated retort that called “the use of a small letter for the name of twelve million Americans and two hundred million human beings a personal insult.” Black is far more complex and deeper than a lowercase word, which correlates with a color. Black has transformed into one category for multi-ethnic Black people and deserves the proper acknowledgement. In the theory of Black Studies, Black is capitalized to battle against the stereotype that Black is negative. Not capitalizing white changes the power dynamic because white is generally seen in a positive light. Additionally, most white people have the privilege to know their ancestor’s origin, whereas many Black people were stripped of that right once enslaved.
All photos courtesy of Chenoa Lewis and taken in Costa Rica on the same trip.
Contact Chenoa by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out her website.