Adventures in the Midwest
Two years ago, when I started a new job, my prospective boss, who had already targeted me as a liberal, asked how I would feel traveling to the Midwest, maybe 1-2 hours from the nearest big city. It was not a simple question. Politically, I was probably going to be at odds with everyone I encountered. I wasn’t sure whether I would encounter racism or sexism. Vaccines had just come out, and I had all the shots I could get, but I imagined running into anti-mask, anti-vaxxers. I considered the possibility of awkward lunchtime conversations. Could I do this? I said yes. And it has been an interesting journey.
You see, people in the Midwest are not particularly political. Oh, they have their opinions, but there are lots of other things to talk about. They talk about family, pets, movies, football – I actually consider myself relatively skilled at that given I don’t pay ANY attention to it beyond Superbowl Sunday. They are happy to talk about their journey to get where they were, their career path, projects they have worked on. I have also learned to be comfortable talking about hunting, and have found that it makes sense in the Midwest, where they may be overrun by wild animals like deer, and have no other way to keep them in check. Part of the reason why what they call “special interest” politics doesn’t come up is that the concerns that I have as a liberal are alien to them. In almost every plant I’ve gone to, the technical staff was made up of lily white men. it was a miracle if I saw one person of color – black, Latino, native American, Asian. The women, all white, were non-technical support staff for the most part. Seeing women on the shop floor was a treat. If anyone was LGBTQ, they were keeping it to themselves. And because I knew that minorities were alien in these places, I recognized that there was no sympathy because these men didn’t even understand the issues involved.
There were two instances in which I got a taste of the conservatism on a job site. One was a man I overheard saying that he didn’t recognize today’s history classes, and couldn’t understand why there was anything wrong with what was taught when he was a child. I smiled and kept walking. It would have taken so much effort to explain why Manifest Destiny was wrong, and how it touched so many aspects of white privilege. Heck, uttering the phrase “white privilege” would probably get me shot. If there are no non-white people, white privilege is an alien concept.
The other was a man who said over lunch that a youth went in to buy cigarettes, and his license said that he was 17. When he was denied the cigarettes, the youth said “I define myself as 21.” I said “That’s ridiculous!”, and the man said “That’s my point”. His stance on transgender people had been made clear, and I wasn’t about to try to explain that gender is fluid, but age is not.
Now, my former mentor was a horse of another color. He was out there conservatively, and made it clear. I had no doubt that he was a MAGA, and I knew that if I found out that he had stormed the Capitol, I would have no hesitation in turning him in. At a staff meeting, when our CEO stated that anyone traveling overseas had to get vaccinated, he stated that if he had to get vaccinated, he would quit. When I first started working, he was training me and we went to a job site together. At the opening meeting with the customers, instead of getting down to business, he announced how many guns he had, asked if anyone else had guns, and then praised his “AK”. Yes, he had a nickname for his AK-47. So, after work, when he invited me to dinner, I think we were both a bit scared. But I’m telling you. Family, animals, work and movies. It just doesn’t get any safer. It was a great dinner and we’ve been friends ever since.
I am about to have a new boss, and things started out perfectly, because we talked about work. We could talk about work for ages. But when the conversation diverted, things got awkward. My new boss has proclaimed himself a libertarian. Not associated with either major party and not trusting them at all. I stated that I had gotten the impression that a lot of people in America are fed up with both parties. And that excused me from detailing my views, although I stepped in it for a minute and said that I ignored the corruption if the policies I wanted were addressed. Stepped in it. If the conversation turned to specific policies, I would have been dead in the water. Luckily it did not. Family, animals, work, movies. He owns a donkey. Great conversation starter.
Thirty years ago, when I was a radical feminist and a newly converted Buddhist, I was very quick to share my views, and to “educate”. Today, I do things very differently when I’m at work. I show instead of telling. Oh, I definitely say that I’m a liberal. I can pass for white, but I weave my race into the conversation. And I’m obviously a woman. But I leave it there. What I then do is demonstrate that I am easy to work with, professional, competent, knowledgeable, and can do and be exactly what they need. In general chatter, I make them comfortable with conversation that is uniting instead of dividing. As a result, they have an experience with a black female liberal that is positive. I think they will remember that. They will remember that they met me, and I wasn’t so bad. I put a crack in the stereotypes. Frankly, I think that it’s something that all liberals should be doing if we want to create change.