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Post-Election Empathy Is a Two-Way Street

I keep reading that I need to empathize with Trump voters—but I’m going to need white people to learn to empathize with me

The morning after last Tuesday, I woke up with a story in my head.

This happens to me often. Sometimes they’re left over from dreams. Other times they’re songs and thoughts rattling around my brain. Often they’re answers to questions that I fell asleep wondering.

On November 8 I went to bed wondering how the hell this happened.

The next morning, the story in my head kind of answered it.

Exactly 21 years earlier to the day, I was in a car accident with my mom. I have written about the injuries I had as a 5-year-old girl — my face swelled up and was covered in bright red burns.

My mom reported the accident to a police officer over the phone a bit after it happened. It hadn’t been her fault at all — the older white couple who’d been driving in front of us had turned directly into our car. But when my mom was talking about her little daughter — the only person injured in the accident — the police officer said, “They’re very upset.”

The older white couple’s unhappiness with their mistake and the annoyance of the accident was more important to him than an Indian woman and her injured 5-year-old girl.

My mom replied, “You’re not asking about my little girl.”

“Well, of course they’re upset about that too,” he responded.

Did I mention they were at fault?

This was the story I woke up to the morning after the election, and the memory keeps coming back to me as I think about how much voting for Trump — whether for reasons of race, gender, or inchoate frustration — was a selfish decision. It was looking at all the promises he made to harm fellow Americans, and deciding one’s own discomfort or unhappiness was bigger than that. It may not be your safety, your body, your ability to survive the next four years at stake, but it is certainly mine, and that of so many other Americans.

Right now, we are being urged to unite as a country, and to try to empathize with the voters who weren’t heard until they caused a political upset for the ages. I will say I don’t have it in me to spend a lot of time hating these people. I’ve never been good at building up energy to hate people, and I don’t have it in me to do that now.

But it’s difficult to feel the desire to empathize with people who made such a momentous decision based on their own outsize feelings, with no regard for my painful realities.

(This isn’t even taking into account climate change, which will come for us all. Greenhouse gases don’t discriminate — though I suppose the technologies to escape into outer space do.)

I don’t tell that story about my accident often — in fact, hardly ever. Which is funny, because it’s a good candidate for a “White People Horror Story,” the kind of story my friends of color like to tell each other — the kind of story that when we tell white people about, they react with an IRL version of the shocked-face emoji. I’ve perfected several of these stories, a polished performance with pauses for laughs and gasps in all the right places.

The humor here is a defense mechanism, a way to burn off some of the shame and pain of the occurrences, but even before the election, the strategy felt like it no longer worked. The shock from my white acquaintances started to feel misplaced. Instead of thinking about what I might have felt — i.e., being empathetic — their focus was on how the story made them feel; how they couldn’t believe such a thing had happened.

They could be sympathetic, they could see the injustice, but I wondered if they could feel the pain of where I was when that happened. Outsize reactions of shock or disbelief seem to pull white people away from the situation, while a membrane of privilege and ignorance protects them. Meanwhile, I’m still over here, dealing with the pain of it.

Having empathy means taking my problem personally — seeing yourself in my situation and understanding the emotional discord I’m going through. I don’t need white people to gasp and gawk for me; I need them to be standing with me. I don’t need white people to get mad for me; I need them to get mad with me. I don’t need white people to just listen to my stories; I need them to see the emotional turmoil they add up to.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Election Day. More and more, I’ve been thinking I have so many more stories like that. Some less terrible, some more so. Other people certainly have more of these stories than I do. But I know I have a lot more than I’m willing to tell — maybe because they can’t be as neatly packaged into a narrative, or because digging up those memories is something I don’t always have the emotional wherewithal to deal with.

But now I feel like I need to tell everyone. I need you all to know when those things happen. Because, while I was shocked by the election results, the more I think about it, the more I wonder how many stories people have like this — not just people of color, but women and LGBTQ+ people. I wonder how much we’re not telling each other. I know there are stories I’ve been avoiding talking about, but now I realize everyone must have even more; more than I could have comprehended.

There have been many hate crimes since the election, and we need to talk about those. But we also need to talk about the stories that are sneakier, quieter. The slow-acting poisons. Because there was a reason we didn’t see this coming. Even if we were telling these stories, people weren’t really listening.

Last year I made a list of “Life Hacks for the Marginalized” which included tips like, “Meet people who can and do only consume the stories that mirror theirs. Wonder how they can survive on the diet of the same thing over and over again. You yourself would starve. Engage at your own risk.”

Reading this piece again now, I feel my heart breaking with recognition, because the advice still holds. Maybe more people will just understand what I’m talking about now, but the piece is still true.

Since Election Day, I’ve been reaching out to most of my friends for affection and connection. I’ve told so many people I love them, and I’ve done it without the worry and fear I’ve had in the past. I’ve done it with my love of them surging in my chest, with our conversations raw and vulnerable in a way that I would have been too scared to be earlier. I’ve talked to strangers, reveling in the connection, no matter how brief, and kindness, no matter how small.

One white friend told me she couldn’t stop crying, and you know what? This was a relief. She felt just as scared and in pain as I did, and I was relieved. I wasn’t expected to make her feel better or to give her answers. We were just depressed together. “It’s important to me that you are here for me and I am here for you,” I told her. “We’re a team.”