As we approach Election Day, furious rhetoric has turned our country into what NPR called "The Divided States of America." Donald Trump has sown offensive messages throughout his campaign, disparaging just about everyone. A report on "The Trump Effect" by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the levels of anxiety, fear, and bullying in schools have increased, due in part to the tone of the Trump campaign. But Donald Trump isn't the only candidate who is guilty of "us vs. them" tactics.
At a September 12th fundraiser in New York, Hillary Clinton said, "... you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables...racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it." She described them as “irredeemable" and "not America."
Affirmations from my left coast friends supported Secretary Clinton's comment, as they brought forth images about "those deplorable, backwoods, uneducated, rednecks and yahoos.” The only image that came up for me was my friend, Donna Burgraff.
When I met Donna in 1994, we couldn't have been more different. She was born and raised in West Virginia. I was born and raised in California. Donna's ancestors, which include the legendary McCoys, emigrated to Appalachia in the 1700's. My ancestors immigrated to the U.S. less than a century ago. Donna was raised on biscuits and gravy. I was raised on rice and stinky tofu. Donna has three graduate degrees, and I have a bachelor's degree. She would be a conservative in my world and I would be flamboyant in hers. She is a Republican and I am a Democrat.
Despite our differences, Donna and I hit it off from the beginning. I credit the curiosity we had about each other that compelled us to figure out what we had in common. A lot, as it turned out. We are proud of our respective Appalachian and Asian|Pacific Islander cultures. We love to laugh and learn. We both come from blue-collar families who value hard work, loyalty, hospitality, and pride that is mixed with humility. We extend those values to one another because we see each other as family. Check out our smiles below and tell me we're not related.
Kevin with Donna Burgraff. Photo Credit: Leslye Orloff
The thought that people might refer to Donna and her people from Mingo County, West Virginia as "deplorable," saddens and offends me, because she is part of my family. If Donna is deplorable, then so am I.
For the record, I am voting for Hillary Clinton. I believe she is the most qualified candidate this country has ever had, and she will make a great president. That said, Secretary Clinton has a lot of work to do to make things right for my family in Appalachia.
I asked Donna, who plans to vote for neither Clinton nor Trump, what Hillary needs to do. "Apologize for her remark*," Donna said, "then she needs to acknowledge the strength and goodness of the people in coal country. We are proud people and have never wanted handouts. We just need the investments and opportunities to diversify our economies to make a decent living and provide for our families."
"Then Hillary needs to take a note from George W. Bush." Donna went on to share that one of the first things President Bush did in 2001 was reach across the aisle to Senator Ted Kennedy and begin to collaborate on joint efforts. "There may be an opening with Paul Ryan," Donna continued. "She needs to have him and his family over for a meal, build a relationship and some common ground to move forward together."
I reflected on Donna's words and thought about how it's not just the responsibility of the politicians but everyone's responsibility to look beyond our differences and work to reunite the country. Donna continues to be my teacher, guide, and shining example of how we can establish common ground that makes way for deep and abiding relationships.
We have our eyes set on November 8th. But what will happen on November 9th and beyond? As Donna said, "whoever gets elected, half of the country is going to be pissed."
We cannot write off the half opposite our own as deplorable, because we are all in the same basket. I ask you to do two things:
1) Please watch the videos and read the articles provided below. They will bring humanity to the nameless "deplorables," and transform your perspective; and
2) Please follow Donna's and my example. Find people in your life who hold different beliefs, cherish them, invite them to have a meal with you, and work like hell to find common ground.
If you can do that, you will enrich your life, expand your family, and move our country forward as the United States of America.
Questions for Reflection and Consideration
- Think about a person in your life who is vastly different from you (if you can't think of someone, you need to consider expanding your circle of friends). What can you do to build common ground with that person?
- What do you think the state of the U.S. will be on November 9th and beyond? What can you do to ensure peace and unity in your community and in our country?
- What do you consider to be non-negotiable in your life? How would you embrace someone who held a contrary point of view?