When I learned my coworker likes Trump…
This past April in Austin was hot and sticky, but I’d just gotten a new job and didn’t much care. A couple weeks into job training there was a happy hour with all the new hires, and I arrived late. Everyone was a little tipsy already, save me. So I ambled up to one of my new teammates and chatted him up for a little while — and that’s how I learned he liked Trump.
If I had been in the state of mind I picked up at grad school, studying postcolonial politics and raging against the Kyriarchy, that would have been the end of the conversation. I would have written this coworker off rudely, patted myself on the back for a job well done, and grouped up with more like-minded people.
But my new job was in User Experience Design, a role where your number-one skill, the most important talent you need to cultivate to be worth a damn, is empathy.
I’d hated learning this when I was first changing careers.
My usual way of doing things had been deconstructing what someone was saying during normal conversation, and then pointing out all the ways that person was contributing to racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, colonialism, and so on. It showed me where their deep, unspoken allegiances lay. It showed me who to trust, and how much.
It was also a personal power trip where I used morality and academic skills to point out in searing detail just how much I was better than someone else.
But in UX you have to apply what you learn from people — you have to think about what comes next after you interrogate a situation. Usually that’s an afterthought in academia; you write a small paragraph at the end of thesis saying “more research is need,” and that’s it. We all try to be Foucault, leading the way through thought and snubbing calls for “realistic action.”
In UX things are different. Instead of interrogating someone to attack their core values, I listen to what they say, repeat what’s said, and then reply, trying to map out how the person I’m talking to understands the world in my response.
And that’s the approach I took in the bar.
I asked this person to tell me about what made Trump so exciting. Let’s call this person W.
The first thing that came out of W’s mouth was, “Trump’s not a politician.”
“And what was exciting about that?” I asked.
“Politicians never do what they promise and never mean what they say.”
And what was exciting about Trump being different?
Because the country’s in political gridlock, he told me. “D.C. talks about it like marketers,” he went on, trying to spin everything to sound good.
But W’s hometown and friends in the Appalachians were dying — of economic decay, of promised deals gone bad, of drugs and debt, and there are no options save their dignity.
And I agreed. Because W was right. I’ve seen the same things when I lived in Arkansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas, and my native Missouri.
“I just wish the Democratic Party wasn’t so corrupt,” W added. “They threw Sanders under the bus. I had so much hope with him, but they preferred party loyalty over us, the people.”
Yup. W’s right. Not gonna deny that one.
But now that I’d learned about W’s world, I could respond.
This moment was an ins for me to talk about what I admired about Hillary. I told him what Hillary said and did way before she found herself in the political world of Arkansas. Back then she supported most of the things that Sanders did now, both in what she said and did.
In essence, Arkansan politics tore her apart. Who was this Northern, Yankee educated woman coming in and doing whatever she liked and talking like a socialist?
Hillary was forced to choose between sacrificing her beliefs to keep her and her husband’s jobs, or stand firm and (presumably) forever stay a private citizen. She chose the former.
I told W that while I don’t like that choice and its depressing result, that was also an easy critique for me to make. I’m a white, Midwestern, male-bodied person living in 2017’s Austin. Hillary was a white, Chicagoan woman living in a very suspicious Little Rock through the 1970’s-90’s. I’ve learned first hand that social norms are wildly different around the country (see: college in Arkansas, grad school in New York City). Trying to hold Hillary then to my personal standards now would arrogant and unfair.
Turns out this was a side of Hillary that W had never heard of. So I whipped out my phone and pulled up historical documents. Slowly the look of “that’s bullshit” on his face changed to, “Whoa what?”
Our conversation ran all over the spectrum of American politics, from single payer options for healthcare to affirmative action... and Trans rights.
During all that W started talking about how “all this trans rights stuff is so stupid,” which I listened to, and then started asking about what parts make it stupid. He blushed and said that he just didn’t… get it.
“Like the core concept?” I offered.
“Yeah,” he said. “Like the… gender is just your junk, right? I don’t… I don’t get how the whole thing works.”
“Yeah, it’s not exactly something we get taught about in public school,” I said. This got W on a rant on how woefully unhelpful public education is on sex and social topics, but let’s skip that to get to the part where he said, “I mean, I’m looking at you and can tell that you’re a guy and like… why are you giving me that face?”
I was smiling wryly with one popped eyebrow. “DO you know I’m a guy?”
His expression dropped to pure terror. “Oh my god, dude I’m so — or not dude? I don’t — “
And this is where I really laughed and slapped him on the shoulder.
In some weird fit of brilliance I said, “No worries — I never condemn someone who speaks from a place of genuine unknowing and curiosity.”
And that’s all it took for us to talk the ins and outs of gender identity, how it plays with (and mucks up) sexuality, what the bathroom issue looks like from several angles within the Trans world, and a time I did UX research with Trans folk in Texas (during my research interviews, several of those people started throwing the N-word around and talking smack about bisexual folk).
After all that, in his own fit of brilliance W said, “Jeez… is no-one exempt from being a dick?”
“Probably not,” I said.
If I hadn’t started with listening in this conversation …
… then W and I would never have gotten to this moment of shared anger at Racism or hetero-normativity. We wouldn’t have talked gender identity or why the Bathroom bills in North Carolina and Texas put trans folk in danger.
And we wouldn’t have had the chance to see that we were both angry and frustrated with the arrogance and corruption in D.C., how we both wanted the same person in the White House originally, and how we settled into different alternatives based on which of our life experiences hold more sway in our minds.
No Trump supporter, yelling in my face, has changed my mind about anything. And if I had yelled at this person’s face in turn, I’d have convinced him of nothing too.
Society requires you to think about what comes next after what you’re doing right now, and what your long-term goals are for yourself and the larger communities you’re part of. There are a lot of things out there that have made doing this work harder: social media and social networks set up to make us share our lives in pithy snapshots, or media outlets screaming angrily into the too crowded airwaves just trying to stay alive, or decades worth of well-positioned-people using fear, morality, and puritanical ideas of identity to make themselves kings of the country — the list goes on.
But listening first, repeating what you’ve been told, and then replying is a pretty easy way to counteract that compartmentalization. And if this story’s anything to go by, pretty effective too.