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Donald Trump and the Gritters

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“Gritter.” It was such a completely foreign and wrong word, yet it was also very powerful.

Until I moved to West Virginia as an awkward adolescent, I never knew such words even existed. I was aware that some people used negative words to describe different races, but I didn’t know that there were also words to describe people by their social status. I had certainly witnessed my share of ridicule of the poor and outcast, but I didn’t know there were actual labels for such individuals.

What I did know was that associating with people who wore such labels was social suicide and defending them could be just as dangerous.

I was already teetering on the edge of not belonging, and I was worried that even the slightest mistake would send me hurtling over the edge. I was already considered weird because I had transferred from a state that was thousands of miles away. Then I had made a near fatal error of  comparing my old life to my new one. In other words, in the eyes of my peers, I thought I was better than they were.

Nothing was farther from the truth. Maybe, if we hadn’t all been so wrapped up in the complexity of adolescence, my classmates might have recognized how completely alone and alien I felt.

But, they didn’t. Or, if they did, they didn’t care.

And so, I felt a complete urgency to assimilate into a new culture and to adopt a new language, even when it went in the face of everything in which I believed.

I made the mistake of trying out my newly acquired word “gritter” on my family during dinner.

“What does that mean?” my mom asked

I tried my best to explain about the kids on the bus that were gritters and how they wore the same clothes over and over again, lived in the mobile home park and were generally unacceptable.

My parents got really, really angry.

More than 30 years later, I don’t remember much of what my parents said, but I do remember the look on my dad’s face when he said that he would have been a “gritter” in high school. And I remember my ambivalence.

To the depths of my soul, I knew how wrong judging and labeling other people was. But I also knew that I had absolutely no social footing, so standing up against what was a social norm would just further alienate me. My peers had a pecking order, and I wasn’t about to question it.

Until this past week, I’d completely forgotten all about gritters and my parents complete outrage at the ease with which I had used the word.

But then the West Virginia primary election brought it all back.

Donald Trump easily won West Virginia’s nod for President of the United States. While this wasn’t a surprise, the political pundits immediately began analyzing how one of the nation’s poorest states could engage in a love affair with a man who has nothing in common with the people, the culture and, of course, the lack of resources.

And even though I’m personally frustrated by the whole situation, I kind of get it.

West Virginians have been ridiculed for decades. The entire population is often stereotyped as poor, uneducated hillbillies whose culture is defined as being on par with the dueling banjos in the movie Deliverance. 

No one wants to be called the equivalent of a gritter. We want people to believe we are better than that, even if that means we point our fingers at other people and blame them, not ourselves, for our problems.

That is Donald Trump’s schtick.

He builds himself up while tearing others down – the poor, the undocumented, women, people with disabilities, people with accents, etc. Basically, he has taken license to belittle anyone who isn’t exactly like him.

No wonder West Virginians are buying it. If elected, they will have a leader who gives them license to call their neighbors gritters and blame others for their problems.

I am only grateful that I am no longer that awkward adolescent that was afraid to speak out or embrace the wisdom of her parents. Now, I’m willing to yell at the top of my lungs “Putting other people down doesn’t make you a leader or a better person. In fact, it does the exact opposite.”

Maybe Donald Trump will never hear me, but at least I know someone will.

And that’s a start.