Something was different about this year’s eighth grade trip to Washington DC.
When the class returned a few weeks ago they were eager to share the usual stories about rich experiences - the Library of Congress, the monuments, the museums. But many also had stories about interactions with other school groups - some with students in MAGA hats and Trump 2020 paraphernalia. For some of our eighth graders, just seeing that outward expression was novel; downtown Manhattan isn’t representative, after all. As one student said, “I used to wonder how Trump won… but I saw there were a lot of Trump supporters.” Then it went deeper. Students talked about being targeted, taunted by individuals from other schools. Some admitted to being fearful while touring a museum, worried that they would wind up in a room alone with some of these students.
I wasn’t there but I believe them. And I have never heard reports like this before. Something is different.
It raises so many questions. What responsibility do we have as adults to name and contextualize experiences like this? Was it these students’ actions or attire that was intimidating? What advice could I give students about responding to subtle (or blatant) racism? Is a MAGA hat itself intimidating? Where is the line between free speech and hate speech? A political perspective and personal bias? Is there any righteous way to engage in moments like this? Is there any way to fight the tide of polarization?
I assembled the whole eighth grade the week after they returned and dedicated two consecutive mornings to hearing their answers to these questions. I remain deeply moved by their answers, and I think it’s important to share what they said with you for two reasons. First, because I want to honor their perspective. Their experience that week was a raw and real example our where we are as a country: tense, divided. Second, because their conversation itself indicates the way forward. They were not all in agreement about what happened or what it meant. But no disagreement threatened the integrity of the community. That’s what it really takes to make a great America.
The comments below have been edited lightly for clarity. I hope having this window into our conversation helps inspire you to have conversations of your own at home. We are all - myself and the teaching team - eager to be a resource for you if you need us.
At first it started as a joke, when we saw Trump supporters, but it started to affect us in a completely different way. It started to affect all of us.
There was a group that had a similar schedule as we had. We kept seeing them in so many places. They were clearly wearing all MAGA stuff. We saw them get kicked out of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Because of that we were focused on them and not on the exhibit sometimes. It took up our time and attention. It was hard to learn at the NMAAHC; it was such a weird environment for them to be in there.
They were horsing around, running up and down the escalators it was not respectful at all. Their teachers weren't doing anything about it. That was strange.
The security guard told them to stop. One kid was screaming back at the guard. They talked back, said they can't be kicked out because of our politics, and they pointed to us and said why aren't you kicking them out. We weren’t doing anything; we were just standing there. It felt like they were targeting us because of our race.
Me personally, I interacted with some MAGA hat kids. I regret it. It wasn’t a good idea. It was unnecessary.
They probably grew up in an environment where they've learned to like Trump. If our parents were Republican then we would like Trump. It's the environment they were raised in.
It was also more than just that. Kids were pointing to their shirts, asking us to read their shirts. It was intimidating. They were fake crying towards us.
As a black girl it was harder. They were giving me looks like I was disgusting or something.
It felt weird to see girls wearing all the pro-Trump stuff. All the things Trump has said about women, it just felt even more weird to see girls wanting to wear that.
I had a really really bad feeling. And I felt like coming from Mexico they already didn't like me.
At the Natural History Museum some MAGA kids came up to me and asked me where I was from. I said New York. They said of cool we are from Brooklyn. But I don’t think they were.
A kid at the Lincoln memorial said “ching chong” to me.
One of them said, "I smell a liberal." One of my classmates had a comeback. Not everybody can respond like that.
There’s nothing wrong with wearing a hat, but it was the way they acted that brought out what was wrong and made us uncomfortable.
They were screaming outside of the Emmitt Till exhibit (where you’re supposed to observe respectful silence). It was actions like that.
Something that sticks with me is about them coming up in a family that is Republican. But I come from a Republican family. It's not that they're Republican, it's that they express their views in a negative way. It's not fair to just say they're Republican.
In the end, it's kind of their opinions and our opinions are just opinions. We shouldn't criticize them for thinking what they are thinking.
But it’s not just opinions. We were getting followed and experiencing racism and sexism. It wasn't their beliefs that we were concerned with, it was how they were acting towards us. It wasn't appropriate to the surroundings. I don't think anyone who is a part of LREI was acting in a negative way.
Also, the reason it felt different was because of all the events that have happened. So many white supremacists and other extremists have endorsed Trump. And he hasn’t spoken out against them. The MAGA slogan is not a political stance anymore it's now about beliefs. It’s racist.
But their actions were based on their political beliefs. They acted like they acted because that's what Republicans believe.
Trump supporters, not Republicans. It’s not the same thing. Not all Republicans support Trump. Or maybe it’s liberal versus conservative.
I think the MAGA outfits made us a lot more sensitive because it's uncomfortable and we're not in that situation often. I don’t know if we would have noticed the bad behavior as much if they weren’t wearing that stuff.
I think it felt the way it did because we’re in the midst of a presidential campaign and that's why there were so many more Trump kids.
It also has to do with the chaperones. Unless they believed in the same thing. The chaperones didn't say anything. They were allowed to do what they wanted.