What Happened When My 12-Year-Old Black Son Sat Next To A Trump Supporter On A Plane

My son is growing up to face dangers made worse by the president this woman voted for.
"The more my son told me about his seatmate, the more I wish I had said something to her."
"The more my son told me about his seatmate, the more I wish I had said something to her."
LIVINUS via Getty Images

The days on either end of Thanksgiving are the nation’s busiest when it comes to travel. When my husband and I decided to spend the holiday with my family in Kansas, we knew that the flights from New York would be packed, that the airport security lines would be long, that everything would be slower and more frustrating because of the volume of fellow travelers. My husband, a frequent business flyer, dreaded the chaos of being trapped on a plane with a bunch of screaming babies. Our son, who is 12, was mostly concerned about whether we’d get an airplane with a screen so he could watch a movie.

As for me, being a sap for holidays, I tried to focus on the fact that even the most aggravatingly befuddled person in front of me at the kiosk was likely going to see loved ones. So what if he couldn’t figure out how to insert his credit card, or she didn’t know about taking off shoes? Their presence in the busy airport was a sign of love ― the enduring bonds of which prompt so many of us to make a pilgrimage to that place we call home.

For inspiration, I replayed the airport scenes from “Love Actually” in my mind, imagining Beach Boys singing “God Only Knows” as random passengers hug their dear ones. After all, I thought, the only thing that matters ever ― and which at their best, holidays remind us of ― is our connection to family, or the chosen family of friends, that feeling of warmth, safety, and belonging that all human beings crave.

What I hadn’t prepared myself for was my child having to sit next to a Trump supporter.

A little background: My family is multiracial, my son is a person of color, and at 12 he’s soaking up knowledge about everything. His obsession in kindergarten was memorizing the names and order of the U.S. presidents. In fourth grade, he fell in love with “Hamilton.” These days, he’s fascinated by politics, if slightly dismayed by each new thing he learns ― and frankly, given what’s going down in The White House right now, I try to shield him from the worst of it. In addition to being a smart kid who likes to talk about politics, my son is friendly and chatty. Even as he sometimes displays a sullen tween attitude to me, he’s reliably courteous and poised with strangers.

So, it wasn’t a shock when my son responded gracefully to a very talkative seatmate on our return flight from Kansas City. My husband had flown back earlier; my son and I were across the aisle from one another. My son’s seatmate was a middle-aged white woman (as am I), who told us she was from Topeka, Kansas, one of the towns my husband grew up in. As we taxied toward takeoff, I put on noise-canceling headphones and tuned out. My son and his seatmate kept talking.

I glanced over once or twice and noticed they remained in conversation. One time I glimpsed a scowl on my son’s face, but figured if he needed rescuing he’d try to get my attention.

After we landed, on the way to get our luggage, my son was uncharacteristically quiet. “Mom,” he finally said, “that woman I was talking to? She’s a Trump supporter.”

“Oh yeah? How did that come up?” I asked him.

“I brought up something about Trump, and she said she’d voted for him. Then she said she isn’t really a Republican, she just hated Hillary. But she also said her favorite president was Reagan.”

I didn’t want to tell him that he’d just spoken to the typical white woman of my age and home state. And to be honest, I was kind of bemused he’d met so few Trump fans that he found it noteworthy. Maybe it’s good to get out of our liberal bubble from time to time. After all, aren’t the pundits always saying that our real problem is political polarization, division, an inability to reach across the aisle? My son had met a person who voted for the person our family didn’t vote for, and she was friendly to him, and so wasn’t this a good thing? I mean, David Brooks and all those No Labels people would approve, right?

“When she whispered to me what a great young man I was raising and offered her kudos to me for being his mother, I wanted to ask her what she thought of Trump’s consistent and clear disdain for Black people.”

But that’s not how it felt. The more my son told me about his seatmate, the more I wish I had said something to her. While we waited for our luggage at baggage claim, she came over and whispered to me what a great young man I was raising and offered her kudos to me for being his mother. I wanted to ask her what she thought of Trump’s consistent and clear disdain for Black people. I wanted to tell her about the damage being done to my son’s friends who have gay parents. I wanted to yell at her that a vote for Trump was a vote against finallytaking climate change seriously, even now that it’s likely too late. If you like my son, I wanted to say, you should vote for people who will try to make the world better, not worse ― because he, and his generation, will live in it a lot longer than you or I.

“I can’t get that Trump woman out of my head,” my son told me later. “She was so nice in other ways. But she acted like politics is a game, not something that affects real life.”

There’s no more reliable marker of privilege than believing, or pretending to believe, that politics has no impact on real life. As a Black male, my son is growing up to face dangers that his seatmate’s choice of president has increased. He will inherit a world shaped by a man whose core values are rotten. Trump may be incompetent, but he’s been able to do a lot of damage already.

My son said he thought the seatmate was a little embarrassed by her Trump vote. She told him she didn’t want to be judged for it, any more than she wanted to be judged for being from Kansas. And I agree ― nobody should be judged for where they come from. But if there were ever a fair basis on which to judge someone, it’s on the actions they take in situations that affect other people. There’s no more obvious example than voting.

So yes, I do judge her. And I hope she felt something ― maybe a little doubt about her own choices, values, and politics. If she liked my son so much, maybe she’ll carry his face and voice in her head a little bit, perhaps when she goes into the voting booth. I’m probably kidding myself that it had any effect on her. But she had an effect on us. My son did the math and realized he’ll be eligible to vote in 2024. If he could register right this second, he would. And I catch myself looking across the aisle at his seatmate and thinking, things are going to change. They have to.

Kate Tuttle writes about books and authors for The Boston Globe. Her reviews, as well as profiles of literary figures ranging from Salman Rushdie to Leslie Jamison, have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and Newsday. Her essays on childhood, race, and politics have appeared in DAME, Salon, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle. Read more of her writing at katetuttle.net.

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