When I went home for Thanksgiving break, I expected to have a very low-stress vacation. At my family gatherings, political arguments never surface despite the fact that I have relatives who are both Democrats and Republicans. At the dinner table, everyone seems to mutually agree to withhold their personal beliefs. In the confines of private conversations, however, these discussions tend to become more abrasive and agitating.
One afternoon, I was able to speak to what I would soon realize to be a conservative cousin about politics. I never get the opportunity to talk with him privately in the midst of our family’s chaotic banter. My cousin and I had a four-hour conversation about everything from college culture, such as his fraternity and my co-op, to the less savory economic and political topics. Although talking about politics often creates strife and tension, we decided to have a respectful discourse about current events. We talked about these issues broadly and refused to use divisive binaries such as “liberal” and “Republican” or “right” and “wrong.” Instead, we discussed specific issues such as safe spaces and white privilege by focusing on the content of the issues rather than on our competing political ideologies.
At the end of our conversation, we agreed that it was productive. He felt comfortable voicing his concerns in a nonjudgmental space. I felt pushed to think critically and apply my UC Berkeley academic voice to a broader audience. Though many of my classes host an array of diverse opinions and perceptions, I often find little tension between my own opinion and those of the general class and professor. So, I never find myself having to re-explain and rethink my own perceptions for an audience like my conservative cousin. We found this conversation valuable because it was one that we often are not able to have in our separate political bubbles of Berkeley and Orange County.
Less than four hours later, I had a much more emotionally bent conversation between my conservative cousin and my liberal parents. Our discussion became heated when my mom started asking questions about immigration policy and the political appeal of the current administration. Her questions began out of innocent curiosity but were deeply carved by political bias. This especially became apparent when she asked him questions about his stance on immigration and, in doing so, insinuated that Republicans are racist and unempathetic.
At this point, my aunt jumped in the conversation and brought up a random case study of the Somali population in Minnesota, which she claimed drained government resources from the local elderly community. Surprisingly, she couldn’t provide a source or discuss specifics of the study.
In response, I asked her to consider how painting immigrants as “illegal” communities leaching our resources is racist. These are the narratives that we discuss philosophically in my courses at UC Berkeley, so seeing them play out in real life made my coursework feel more satisfying. But, how to mitigate these kinds of conversations is less discussed in my classes at college.
My cousin interjected with, “What is structural racism?” For a moment, there was a long pause. When people finally responded, no one could give specific examples. I was partially shocked at what seemed like an obvious question. It initially struck me as ignorant and uninformed, but then I remembered to cast my frustrations aside. Instead, I approached the question as I had once when I was a younger student and also did not have a firm grasp on what “structural racism” is.
Topics of structural injustices are sorely exhausted in my classes at UC Berkeley, but we are hardly ever taught how to equip ourselves with this knowledge and how to bear our academia in a casual setting. This conversation ended with little satisfaction as the attacking of each other’s ideologies made it difficult to reach any resolution. I still think about alternate endings and ways I could have directed the dialogue.
Coming away from these conversations, my cousin privately approached me and asked if we could talk more about these issues because he wanted to learn more about other modes of thinking. We both agreed that our conversation opened our eyes to how we stereotype others based on binary party labels. Though I may not agree with my cousin’s political leaning, I can respect and admire his effort to entertain other ways of thinking and to learn.
This conversation is reflective of a larger national issue. The American two-party system ignores the spectrum and nuance of political ideologies. We enforce a binary system that makes members of each party less likely to compromise or even engage in basic conversation such as the one I had with my cousin.
This moment with my cousin was memorable and valuable for both of us because these interactions with “the other side” are becoming fewer and fewer. Discussions such as these remind me that political conversations must move beyond labels. The instant that we identify whether a person is a Democrat or a Republican, we often stop listening as we expect to learn nothing.