For the past year, at least, if not for every election cycle, pundits and forecasters in American politics speak about the “bubbles” of the East and West Coasts. Those of us who live in these enclaves don’t know “America”. We don’t understand, or care how those in the middle feel – how they think. We don’t know what life is truly like for them.
I am a native of Oklahoma, the daughter of two attorneys from the middle class Midwest, who moved to New York 15 years ago. I left not to find a safe enclosure of people who thought and believed and looked like me. I left to free myself of it. To find the true America.
The first time I took a subway or a public bus with someone who was black, I was 18, on Chicago’s El Train during my first year of college at Northwestern. Listening to the echoes of things I had heard about certain black people while growing up in Tulsa, I clutched my backpack a little tighter. My first Muslim friend, I also made at Northwestern. She was Iranian, a pre-med student whose parents came to the states after the revolution to give their kids a better life. I didn’t know the difference between Persian and Arab, or that Iranians spoke a language called Farsi.
Grad school in New York City during the year of 2001 only amplified my American experience. Columbia Journalism School, of course, had people from most countries imaginable, including Vietnam, Pakistan, South Africa and Argentina, among many others. But I also lived with an Israeli printmaker whose parents spirited her away before her mandatory year of conscription. I bought my beer at the bodega on the corner from South American cashiers, walked through Italian, Chinese, Indonesian, and West African neighborhoods and of course, took the subway with every “other” person spoken about in political campaigns, including a six-foot tall black gay man, an autopsy technician, who pulled out a pair of size-13 red patent-leather heels to match his jeans and red polo shirt for a night of dancing because, “girl, you gotta live”.
I left not to find a safe enclosure of people who thought and believed and looked like me. I left to free myself of it. To find the true America.
For me now, most people in middle America live in bubbles. They leave their house bubbles, climb into their car bubbles, listen to their broadcasters who speak in bubbles, work in bubble buildings and return to those safe spaces day-in and day-out. When I go home to Oklahoma every year for Christmas, I am relatively shocked about how little of America they think they know. And I am truly dismayed in lack of trust for the “other” that still exists, the gay, lesbian or trans person, the immigrant from Syria and yes, the blacks – always the blacks – because of those bubbles. Most of all, I am ashamed of myself. I had liberal parents, attended one of the best college preparatory schools in the Southwest and considered myself “progressive” through the age of 25. I was such a fool. My true education came from New York.
Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote this week that living in bubbles is the natural state of affairs for human beings – the preferred sociological term is “homophily – and humans often seek out similarities in their marriages, workplaces, neighborhoods, and peer groups. He also postured that American homophily is often a result of public policy. Even before Americans can do “the big sort” – moving near like-minded neighbors – they’re victims of a “little sort.” Children are sorted by their parents’ income, their neighborhoods, their schools and the attitudes of authorities towards these places.
Having dealt with the racism and prejudice I inherited by birth in the United States, I know that every “native” American is born with those traits and chooses either to live in them or fight them. I speak in generalities, but most of who live on the coasts, where we encounter people from around the world, in every economic situation, of every disposition, are either forced to fight them or choose to fight them, or else we perish. I wish every American could have the same experience as me, especially those who voted for Donald J. Trump, who is now destroying my “America”, our “America” with his Executive Orders and proclamations against immigrants, especially Mexicans and Muslims. Trump is, indeed, a native New Yorker, but he is also a panderer who will do or say anything to gain approval. And for those who have lived in their bubbles and want to keep them intact, he is now the perfect president.