Reflections on My Country’s Worst Nightmare

Kai Milici - Ecuador


November 10, 2016

Full disclosure: I went to bed an hour before the results were official. The prospects looked bad and I thought that if–on the off-chance that the polls would change–I would be able to wake up to a pleasant surprise.

 

As I was going to bed I remembered eight years ago staying up until 1:00 a.m. with my family, eagerly watching as Barack Obama won more and more electoral votes. When the newscaster declared that we would officially have our first black president, my dad reminded me to “remember this exact moment.” I didn’t really understand then why he thought to tell me that. For me, it was the first election that I really paid attention to, and growing up in the liberal school, community, and city that I did, I wasn’t in an environment where it would be okay to oppose someone’s leadership due to their race. But later I was able to realize that for the adults in my life, just a few years prior, this seemed impossible. The fact that we could have a black president was an unprecedented symbol of social progress.

 

When I woke up I assumed it was bad. I turned on my phone, looked up the results, turned it off, and stared at my ceiling for a few minutes. I thought about the assumption I had made that our country was ready for a woman to lead us. Or the assumption that, yes, there were so many racist, close-minded, bigoted people in our country, but not enough to allow Donald Trump to become the most influential person in one of the world’s most influential (and potentially-destructive) countries. How eight years prior to this everyone assumed that the U.S. had finally started a much-needed chapter of inclusiveness. That breaking down the long-held systems that oppress people of color, women, disabled people and LGBTQ people would finally be a central part of our narrative. Obviously I was wrong to assume.

 

I was going to say “it was hard hearing about this abroad,” because today nobody could understand why I was so quiet, why I couldn’t smile, why I was crying and why I couldn’t laugh when they joked about Donald Trump or America or anything. I had to go about my day as usual. But it’s not like the news is harder to take here than it is in the U.S. I don’t have to deal face-to-face with the start of Donald Trump’s reign (even if it’s not official for a couple of months).

 

With the confusion of being so far away from something so personal, I reflected today on where we went wrong and what I didn’t understand, so I could find how I can best take advantage of the months ahead in Ecuador.

 

Here’s what I came up with:

 

(Try) to never just accept that someone is racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. without looking at how they got there. At this point this is pretty much impossible for me to do. I am in no way saying that these views aren’t disgusting, or that they are justified. What I am saying is that we liberals had a part in radicalizing these people. Most Trump supporters live in areas that simply missed how much America has developed over the last decades. They have missed seeing the importance of immigration. They weren’t taught the benefits of diversity. They live in traditionally conservative areas. This election, instead of liberals trying to bring them into the fold steadily, we shared Facebook articles and protested calling them idiots and rednecks. Of course they were going to view that as hearing that half of America thinks their traditions, their homes and their faiths are outdated and “disgusting.” We didn’t do a good enough job explaining with the facts at our disposal before we turned potential Trump supporters into full-on supporters. We (by “we” I mean “I”) assumed everyone grew up being taught tolerance by their families, schools, and communities. They didn’t. We weren’t patient enough in trying to teach before we attacked. Not that patience should have been expected all of the time, because the opposite views are (and were) so frustrating that it makes sense how liberals continued to lash out. But we could have done more.

 

I, for one, could not be friends with a Trump supporter. But I could have taken more efforts to trace their opinions and “facts” as far back as I possibly could by asking the right questions. If I did this I could have found the core values/confusions that they were holding onto, and I would have known exactly what facts to bring to the table to try to change their mind.

 

Ecuador, overall, is more conservative than the U.S. To take one issue as an example, the education system does not have sex education. They teach abstinence due to the majority Catholic population and traditional values. Teen pregnancy is high and safe abortions are very hard to come by. This refusal to address the teen pregnancy problem that ends up limiting women and families so much can be linked back to the conservative values of the country. But the majority of Ecuadorian people are taught that these rigid values come first. For the majority of us, we are taught are values from the interactions we have when we are young. Yes, we all have agency to believe what we want to believe and make our own decisions, but our initial values that shape so much of how we interact with the world were fed to us. I haven’t come up with answers on how to change the minds of people that were simply taught to value opposite things than I was. But being in Ecuador and living with a family in a culture that teaches beliefs opposite to mine gives me the opportunity to see more humanity in people with opposing views. I don’t look at my host mom who has only lived with people of one race her whole life, who was taught by her religion to think of gay people as taboo, as crazy. I think her views are crazy but I honestly can’t be surprised that she thinks that way because her ideas have been instilled in her, just as the opposite ideas have been instilled in me. We are all malleable. We are all products of the environments we have been a part of. Nobody has disgusting views just because they are filled with hatred. Hatred comes after people are taught to value certain things, they feel disenfranchised in one way or another, and they see their values being attacked without evidence. This is what happened with Trump supporters. Living in Ecuador has given me the privilege to see that these ideas don’t immediately stem from hate. How do we interrupt the cycle of fundamental values turning into hate? How do we alter a culture, community, or family’s values that directly contradict progress and equality? Where we go with that, I’m not sure, but in the coming months I want to heed the idea that values are taught, they aren’t an individual’s fault for believing in them initially. How we react to, break down, and learn about others’ values can get us into trouble or help us.

 

Some of my major goals for this year centered around educating myself, whether that be reading tons of books, researching, or writing about things I’ve never had the chance to prioritize. In having prioritized these things for even just a couple of months by now, I have found that I am able to take greater advantage of my time in an unfamiliar place. I am able to come up with new questions through reading or research and have space to refine my ideas with writing. My time in Ecuador has taught me the value of making time to learn voraciously about the questions you have and everything around you. Knowledge is power, and education is the one thing that cannot be taken away from you. Knowledge means you are a better contributor to your purpose, your movements, and your community. I think everyone wishes they could have done more to prevent the outcome of the election. I wish I had prioritized voraciously educating myself on things of consequence earlier. I think I would have had better things to say in debates with Trump supporters, and those debates mattered.

 

You have to be curious living abroad. There is so much you don’t know and you don’t understand. I didn’t feel this out of place in the U.S. because I am used to it, but clearly that doesn’t mean there aren’t as many contradictions, ambiguities, and things that don’t make sense in the U.S. When you are confused and curious about a place, you ask questions. You figure out the contradictions, the injustices, and the original values. More Americans should have embraced the confusion and contradictions that are so clearly there in our country. They should have asked more questions and gotten to the bottom of the issues rather than glazing over the issues and facts with “I just want America to Be Great Again.” Asking the right questions and pursuing the curiosity that comes from knowing there are issues would have shown us all that the American Dream was never alive because it was never accessible to everyone.

 

I am beyond grateful for the experiences I have had in Ecuador so far and for everything that is to come for me over the next few months. But that doesn’t change the fact that in April I will be back in the U.S. under dangerous leadership in a culture that is increasingly hateful. All I can do here is try to learn as much as possible and bring it back with me to continue the fight back home. For everyone in the U.S. that is in danger, or has loved ones in danger, all I can say is I’m sorry. We may not understand how we got to where we are, but we will fight back. We will not lose sight of our goals and of the dream we got so close to achieving last night. Because now, in part thanks to my dad, I will always vividly remember the moment we elected our first black president and all of the hopeful things that revealed about our country. Those things are still there. And now none of us will forget the feeling we had waking up to realize Donald Trump would be our next president. But what we do with that sickening feeling is up to us. Whether abroad or at home, we can reflect on what we missed, what we can learn, and what we can do now.

Kai Milici