The dangers of generalization in 2016 America
(inspired by Tim Layden’s excellent column for SI on division in American society and sports, which you can and should read here)
There are days I wish I had stayed in my bubble.
I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Baltimore, Maryland -the state which has gone blue in every presidential election since Reagan in 1984. My street had 32 houses on it, about 28 of which had Menorahs in their windowsills during holiday time rather than a Christmas tree. I went to a Jewish high school…to go along with the Jewish sleep-away camp where I spent summers. My worldview was insulated not just religiously, but with social class, political beliefs and race. At the time, I didn’t really think it was a problem. At the time, I didn’t even acknowledge it.
I went to Indiana University, joined the student newspaper and a (non-Jewish) fraternity, which helped widen my worldview a little. I met a lot of folks from different backgrounds. My girlfriend was Catholic from a conservative suburb of Chicago and I went to church for the first time (I passed on communion) and enjoyed some pre-meal Grace. I enjoyed learning about others and sharing my own beliefs with some people who had never met a Jewish person before. But my experience in college was still largely filled with other white people who came from families that could afford or help subsidize the steep price of tuition (not saying that’s representative of the university’s enrollment as a whole, but just my experience).
If going from Maryland to Indiana was a jump, graduating from Indiana and working in Beaumont, Texas was a friggin’ leap. There were many days I lamented being outside my bubble. I watched from afar as my friends moved to Chicago, New York, Baltimore, etc. and went about usual motions of life that are so ordinary, yet I longed for. When I visited friends in Chicago for the first time after college, having a night out was like a holiday to me while a shoulder shrug for everybody else. Meanwhile, my reality in Southeast Texas was a community lacking 20-somethings, a dwindling Jewish population and nightlife scene which was -well- a work in progress.
I’ve now lived in Texas for four years (does that make me a Texan?!?) and Dallas for a year-and-a-half. There are still days I wish I had stayed in my bubble, but I thank God I didn’t.
Reporting in Southeast Texas took me to the Eastern Star Baptist Church in Port Arthur, where I was the only white person in a packed house on Sunday morning (it was awesome).
It took me to a ball field in Lumberton, where I asked a kid if he thought his high school was racist.
And a dirt road in Newton, where the street’s name was a number and my Mazda had to be mindful of the horse and chickens roaming around.
And a rented-out warehouse, where Pakistani and Indian natives played cricket in the middle of Beaumont.
And the community of Sabine Pass, where you have to “go to town” to get groceries.
And a school where the football coach leaned in and quietly told me, “high school football is all we got. This community, this school are not getting any better.”
And a living room where a high school senior with a father in prison and mother coping with chronic seizures explained that he ran so hard on the football field because that was his only shot at becoming the first person in his family to go to college.
And just in general, I had never heard so much country music in my life.
The range of people I met and talked over two years in Southeast Texas is crazy. Because part of my job was getting these folks to feel comfortable enough with me to have a conversation, I never judged them. I kept an open mind heading into -and throughout- an interview, no matter what was said. Just treat people the way you want to be treated, ya know? They said some things I didn’t agree with and I had to clench my teeth and tell myself to keep smiling and nodding. They had different beliefs than me, different upbringings. They had their own biases and I had mine.
But I was just nice to them and they were kind to me. I would occasionally mention how things were different in my faith or where I came from and they relished the opportunity to learn about it. Maybe my background and makeup wasn’t what they necessarily wanted for their kids, but that didn’t really matter.
The three counties I used to cover in Southeast Texas went red. In Jefferson County, Trump won 49 percent of the vote. In Orange County, 80 percent. In Hardin County, 86. I know all of these people are not horrible, bigoted, racist fiends because I’ve met them. And they don’t think all left-leaning citizens are anti-American, anti-police, baby-killing elitists.
Social media has put us in danger of making mass assumptions about each other. This election season, thousands of alt-right Twitter and Facebook accounts spewed hate speech one meme at a time against religious groups and races that didn’t align with traditional white conservative Christians. I heard the KKK in North Carolina had a victory parade Wednesday. That doesn’t mean everybody who voted for Trump shares these values. That doesn’t mean you’re allowed to paint a large stroke of guilt by association. That doesn’t make the Republicans, or white males, or rich people, your enemy.
Wednesday night, there were protests across the country. Some people burned the American flag. Some people wished death upon the President-elect. That doesn’t mean everybody who voted for Hillary Clinton supports burning flags or the protests. That doesn’t mean you’re allowed to paint a large stroke of guilt by association. That doesn’t make the Democrats, or minorities, or millennials, your enemy.
But in this day in age, we jump so quickly to assuming the loudest voices in the room are representative of a whole when that’s not the case. It happened post-9/11 with Muslims and it’s happening again with so much more. We hate people we’ve never met and then assume that voting one way defines other parts of your life.
[This being said, I’m not giving everybody the presumption of innocence. There’s still evil people in this country, but sometimes I think as a society we overestimate how great that number is.]
There are folks out there who go to church every Sunday and believe in climate change. I like country music and support gay marriage.You can support Planned Parenthood and belong to a SEC school’s fraternity. We shouldn’t assume two sizes fit all -and perhaps just as importantly- we shouldn’t feel like we should fit into those two sizes.
I’ve seen a lot of calls to come together in these times and be united. Like many things, it’s easy to say, but much harder to do. The only way to do this as a country is to get outside our bubbles and comfort zones. I never would have met any of those Texans mentioned above by living in my bubble. Had I lived in a big city after college, those folks would have been grouped under the same umbrella of inhabitants of some place in Texas near Louisiana.
It’s so hard because our system is designed to keep people within their own bubbles; whether by region and/or class and/or religion and/or race. But somehow, make an effort to break the trend or raise your kids to break that trend. Meet people who make you feel uncomfortable. Talk to them. Disagree! Really, it’s ok to disagree. You can still get along. Just understand each other and understand you’re not the root of all evil.
My experiences outside my bubble weren’t easy. They made me long for home. But I like to think they’ve made me a better person -a better American- and somebody willing to sit down and listen, no matter who’s speaking.