Last August, I was sent on a business trip to do education consulting work in a small town in rural Louisiana.
As I picked up my rental car around 8:30pm and started to drive, a lightning storm swept through the dark skies. My heart beat quickly as I realized I had never been to this part of America. I was intrigued, albeit a little nervous, as you can imagine. I am a South Asian woman who has spent my life in cities like Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. and Seattle.
In the months since that trip, we’ve witnessed some of the most divisive politics this country has seen in a long time. We’re hearing a lot about how our identities define who we are and how we vote — even identities we might not know we had.
For instance, I didn’t know until last month that I am now part of the ‘Democratic urban elite.’ And there is a disenfranchised rural group who I’m told I should have increased empathy for. I’m being told by some that I live in a bubble, one that doesn’t represent the ‘real America.’
Demographically, the town in Louisiana where I spent time is 70 percent white, 25 percent black, and 5 percent other races. The median income for a family is $33,000.
I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many places in this world, but my biases surprisingly began to emerge as I headed down South. My experience with this part of the country came from books, movies and historical events. I had created my interpretation of a vast region based on an amalgamation of images from To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, Roots, Jim Crow laws and the Civil War. Heading to Louisiana, I was apprehensive about racism and closed-minded people.
“The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy,” — Parker Palmer
These fears dissipated when I met my school district contact. She was a warm and gregarious white woman who exuded love and had an incredible sense of humor. What is it about the human connection that relieves us of anxiety? The next two days felt purposeful. We worked with 50 school leaders on challenges facing their students, the same ones experienced by students across this country. Twenty-one percent of all children in the United States are living in poverty: 15 million children. In Louisiana alone, there are 293,000 children living in poverty.
We worked on ways to support teachers to grow in their practice and better serve their students. I was inspired. These people were committed to the cause of helping children and their teachers. This was not a political issue (as much as we often politicize education), this was a human issue. We came together because of a common vision.
During a break, I spoke to one person about the nearby rice paddies that her family owned and worked. My memory went straight to the rice fields behind my grandmother’s home in Kerala, India. Even though thousands of miles separate them, I started to see similarities between the people who worked those fields in Louisiana and the ones in Kerala – people who do backbreaking work every day to survive and provide for their families.
My parents both grew up in small towns in Kerala. When I was younger, my mother would tell me often about how she went to school with Muslims, Christians, Jewish, and Hindu students and how she loved having friends from different backgrounds. On a political level, Kerala represented a successful vision of religious pluralism. That made it an anomaly — a bubble itself — within the larger country that had experienced religion-based violence during Partition.
In the month following the U.S. election, there were over a thousand bias-related incidents reported around the country.
I keep reading about how people feel misunderstood and forgotten on all sides, and wondering, “How did we get to this place? Are people’s biases becoming their truths? When did we lose our ability to connect to each other?”
I refuse to believe the sudden spate of irrational behavior — from hate crimes to unwillingness to engage in open-hearted dialogue — reflects people’s true nature. We see people acting out in hateful ways because of the fear and anxiety that have been triggered in them.
I recently listened to an interview Krista Tippett did with Civil Rights leader Vincent Harding. “How do we work together? How do we talk together in ways that will open up our best capacities and our best gifts?” he asked. “My own feeling … is that when it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious, democratic society, we are still a developing nation.”
I long to create this democratic society Vincent Harding describes. But I’m scared that there is a growing and influential group of people who don’t.
It feels like we are losing the common vision that brings us together as Americans. When we don’t interact with each other or try to understand each other on a deeper level, when we hate each other because of what we represent, when we don’t want to heal, but we want to blame, we are getting into dangerous territory.
On my flight home from Louisiana, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, my fears were off base.’ I realized that my experience in the South helped to change some of my perceptions. I’d made connections with and learned from people with whom I normally wouldn’t interact. I felt a growing bond with a group of people that went beyond my typical universe of obligation. We cared about children, and our belief in education brought us together.
I’m sure that if we had talked more, we would have disagreed on certain issues. But I want to believe that the initial bond that connected us would help us really listen to each other.
“The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy,” Parker Palmer explains in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.
When I have children, I dream about telling them that the country we live in mirrors the pluralism of my mother’s Kerala.
But if we are a developing nation, as Vincent Harding stated, we have a lot of work to do in order to build the America that fulfills that dream.
I don’t want to run away from this hard work, even though the divide can seem so insurmountable these days. I am weary of leaders who create ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomies. We have too much history behind us to believe these dichotomies ever end up in anything good. We need spiritual leaders. We need to confront our fears so we can heal. We need compassion. We need to protect the next generation of children.
For now, I think we just keep trying to interact as humanely as possible with everyone who comes our way, listening with an open heart. The America I know is full of decent human beings who wake up every day trying to be the best we can be.
Isn’t that the ‘real America?’