As I attempted to put words to paper for my presentation at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, I could not shake the election. Instead, it was the prism through which I saw the whole world: especially my work. The framing I was using in my research that had seemed trite just days before, attending to the importance of young people’s out-of-school literacy practices, community knowledge, and mediated lifeworlds in school settings, had taken on new meaning.
The work I was presenting would offer a glimpse into the multimodal composing practices of a youth-led dance team. The space my students and I cocreated was one that legitimized their cultural knowledge and positioned them as knowledge producers and leaders. In other words, the research affirmed them as human beings who mattered. One day of voting threatened to wipe this away, not just for my students but for all people whose Americanness is constantly questioned and threatened.
I did not sleep much the night of the election. I stopped watching the television at 10 p.m., closed my bedroom door, and told my husband not to give me any more updates. I knew what was coming, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. Eventually, I calmed myself down enough to fall asleep. I awoke a few hours later wondering what had transpired. My worst fears were confirmed, not in words or by checking my phone for updates, but in hearing my husband’s heart beating out of his chest. I could feel the tension and the sadness in the room. I didn’t speak for several minutes, as I imagined the what-ifs: what if the two candidates got an equal number of electoral votes? What if those last two counties in Michigan and Florida did have the ten thousand votes needed? Finally, I opened my mouth: did it happen? Yes, my husband responded. What was left of my beleaguered heart: broken. Tears welled up. All my worst fears were suddenly real.
My thoughts turned to my family: would my parents be harassed as they had been twenty years prior by neighborhood boys and unkind neighbors with misguided notions? What about our friends, two gay fathers who had adopted a baby girl just two weeks before? And then to the thought I did not want to entertain: what about my students? What kind of world awaited them now? I had been hopeful for policies that would support their aspirations and keep them safe, like tuition-free or no-debt access to college, accessible health care, and the continuation of policies to protect vulnerable communities including people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, and young people of color. I had been hopeful that while it was difficult, a new conversation had begun about the realities of being a Black or Brown person in America: one that illuminated the work yet to be done. Instead, just enough Americans had decided that my students would not live in a hopeful America, but a hateful one.
My students are high-school juniors and are mostly Black and Latino. We have been a part of each other’s lives since I began my ethnographic research at their high school two years ago. My research is broadly about reimagining public education to value the interests, passions, and curiosities of young people within the institutional walls of school. My dissertation project is a response to the systemic racism and oppression that exists in American society, which is reified through young people’s schooling experiences—particularly young people from communities of color. For the sake of brevity, I will just say that the relationships I forged with my students and that they forged with one another in the youth-led spaces we cocreated were built around the premise that each person had something to offer, that their ideas, knowledge, ways of communicating, and perspectives mattered in the world. It is my genuine love and affection for them that threw me into a panic in those early hours of the Wednesday after the election.
That morning when I awoke, just after 6 a.m., I saw that I had two text messages in close succession from Denise, one of my students: “He Won,” followed by “How.” I had no idea how I would answer this question, but knew that there was nowhere else I wanted to be that day. I leaped out of bed and rushed downtown to catch the morning bus to Philadelphia, hoping I would find some words by the time I arrived.
As I walked the hallways and spoke to students, I could sense a range of emotions: sadness, disbelief, and fear of the unknown. I walked down the hall to find the four young women who I have worked with most closely: Ruby, Anna, Denise and Jenny. Ruby and Jenny are Black and Denise and Anna are Latina. All four young women have been leaders in their respective youth-led spaces: a dance team, a film club, and a youth activism group. Each had been on a journey for the past two years, trying to articulate and achieve their dreams. Now their future looked uncertain, through no fault of their own.
Anna’s father is in jail for being undocumented and she was frightened to think about what might happen to him. “It’s weird,” she told me, “to know that the president doesn’t like us.” She was referring to how President-Elect Trump had othered Black and Brown people throughout his campaign. Later she noted that receiving an award from President Trump would not be the same as receiving it from President Obama, whose genuine affection she did not doubt. Denise, for her part, was trying to unpack how and why it could have happened; she and I discussed the misogyny and racism that had permeated the campaign. Ruby was disappointed, but I remembered how matter-of-factly she had stated a few weeks prior: “well, we know Donald Trump hates Black people.” Another young woman, Kelly, who had recently converted to Islam was profoundly disturbed by the idea that she and many other students in our school would be counted and labeled.
As we talked, I realized it was the first time that I wasn’t able to confidently tell my students that they would be okay: because I was (and still am) completely unsure. Instead, we discussed how young people of color in Trump’s America would have to work ten times harder, to be vigilant and to continue to draw on their families, communities, and peers for support. On the bus ride home, I cried. I was scared that my students would be further marginalized, that the justice system would double down on extreme sentencing and punitive measures, and that their Black and Brown bodies would be more vulnerable than ever because this horrifying election had emboldened a kind of hatred that had until recently been on the fringes of American society. I cried because the America I had wanted for them—for us—was slipping away.