It was June 2016 and I was standing in line at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to check in for my flight home. It had been an intense week, spent with a remarkable group of people from all over the world discussing everything from love and relationships to communities, communication and the disturbing rise of xenophobia, bigotry and racism. The latter had been bubbling in Europe quietly for a few years and now appeared to be gathering steam. The Brexit vote was about to take place, and the American Presidential election cycle had begun to take an unquestionably disturbing turn.
I stood in line, a final cup of perfectly brewed Parisian coffee in hand, quietly observing my fellow passengers. As always when traveling in and around Europe I smiled at how delightfully stylish and comfortably put together even the most casual of travelers appeared. Fresh jeans, crisply pressed shirts and a light sweater draped ever-so-gallantly over shoulders seemed a steady uniform for the men – at least those who weren’t turned out in sharp suits and ties with jackets carefully folded over their arms. The women’s fashion was equally classic, if not more so. Whether jeans or slacks, skirt or dress, each woman was more polished than the next – simply yet elegantly clad and holding themselves with poise – despite the chaos and cacophony of an early morning terminal experience.
Then the line shifted, and there he stood.
His slight build was wrapped in rumpled khaki cargo shorts, a half wrinkled white t-shirt and those utterly fashion-lacking weird “finger” shoes that looked more like something in which Fred Flintsone might be shod. A rough scruff of shadow dusted his chin in the same caramel blonde that stuck out from the bottom of … that hat. That unmistakable hat. With that phrase on it. That phrase that made my stomach turn, even then. The passport he clutched in his hand, the tell-tale blue of the United States of America.
I watched as he looked up and down the line. I watched as one passenger after the other – with passports from all over Europe – either avoided his glance or looked back somewhat disapprovingly and then looked away. He was becoming visibly uncomfortable, shifting side to side, glancing at his boarding pass and then up to the passengers. He looked my way and caught my gaze. His eyes shifted to my hand and as he noted the American passport I carried, his eyes seemed to brighten and he looked towards my face with a smile.
This is the point where I suppose I could have had a teaching moment. I suppose I could have engaged. I could have smiled back and ended up talking with this fellow to see where our differences lay and even perhaps found some points of similarity. Maybe, just maybe I could have swayed his perspective and changed his mind about that hat – and more importantly about the person behind it.
I didn’t do that. Instead I let my eyes travel upwards to just above the brim of his cap and allowed the look to remain there a moment – just long enough to let him know I was reading it. Dropping my eyes back to his I let my gaze harden, stared him in the eye, and turned away.
Fast forward to later in the summer of 2016. The Brexit vote has happened and the US Presidential election cycle has gotten ugly. Very ugly. I’m attending an event for the Human Rights Campaign and among the items on the auction table is that hat … kind of. This time the words on the brim make me smile. Truthfully the words on the brim make me do a near spit take across the auction table. I had to have it.
In the months leading up to the election I wear it. A lot. During the last weeks of the campaign – as I canvassed neighborhoods, sat in various campaign offices phone banking, and attending rally after rally after rally, I wore the hat.
During that entire time I think I got maybe a handful of comments.
Then the election happened.
When I woke up the next morning and went for the hat, I found myself hesitating. I found myself afraid. What before had felt a witty counter to the ridiculous premise that America somehow wasn’t great already, suddenly felt dangerous. It appeared that the bigotry and racism spewed during the campaign had been confirmed and by wearing the hat effectively I was putting a target on my head.
So I put the hat away.
A few weeks went by and the anger I felt at all that had transpired blasted open the virtual closet doors that had slammed on me.
I dusted off the hat and began wearing it. This time, something fascinating happened. People noticed.
During a drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas in mid December, I found myself deep in the Central Valley of California at an isolated truck stop to refill my gas tank. It was blustery, gray with a damp chill thanks to a series of storms that had blown through. A truck pulled up to the next pump and a young man jumped out to fill his tank. He smiled and turned to get his gas. Huddling against the spitting rain that was slicing through my jacket, I smiled back and pulled down the brim of my cap to shield my face against the weather. The young man, still facing me, stopped briefly, his smile freezing a bit. He then turned back to his truck. My tank filled first so I wandered inside to complete the transaction and grab a snack for the road. As I meandered through the aisles seeking the perfect balance of sweet and salty sustenance for my journey, I heard the ding as the door into the store opened and closed. I finished my shopping and headed towards the register where the young man leaned forward talking to the girl at the register. When I approached they looked at each other and then turned to me. She looked up at the brim of my cap, looked down at my purchases, rang them up silently and then gave me a dead stare as I handed her the cash.
Guess that was payback for how I handled things with that guy back in Paris.
Heading back to my car, admittedly walking a bit quickly as the whole experience made me more than a little nervous, I vowed that the next time someone confronted me on the hat – good or bad – I would hold my ground and use it as a teaching moment.
I wish I could say that I’d had more of that latter experience so that I could be using this cap as a way to build bridges, engage with folks who are different than I am and to do my part to heal the world. I would, but I haven’t had any negative reaction to the hat since that December day. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite.
When I wore the hat to the Women’s March in Las Vegas on January 21, the hat grabbed more than a handful of double takes – people first glaring at me, and then realizing what it said, smiling wide and asking me where they could get their own (answer: right here).
A few days later I was in Southern California for a conference and met up with a friend for brunch. We sat in a great diner enjoying some pancakes and a lengthy chat about life, new chapters and of course, the actions we were taking with regards to local activism. I was wearing the hat. Throughout the meal I felt diners at several nearby tables staring. My dining pal is a terribly handsome fellow and so I just figured they were looking at him. It became clear after a while they were staring my way. Then I remembered my hat. As two older gentlemen got up to leave the restaurant they passed by our table. They stopped, glanced more closely at the hat, and laughed. One of them spoke: “We are sorry to have been staring, but we saw your hat and from over there thought it said something else. We were mustering up the courage to try and say something that wasn’t too rude.” About 20 minutes later while leaving the ladies room, two young women who’d been at another adjacent table stopped me to ask where to get the hat and we also talked about ways to get involved politically at a local level to get more engaged.
This week I’m in New York City. While standing in line at Ess-a-Bagel I could feel someone staring at me. You know, that all-hair-on-the-neck-super-creepy feeling that you’re getting “a look”. I turned to find a 40-something woman glaring at me, her hand protectively on the shoulder of a gangly 10 year old daughter. Her look wavered as she glanced at the words on the cap. Then she blushed. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I thought. I mean, I thought your hat said something else. I was wondering who would dare wear something like that … here of all places.”
I smiled back, I told her about some of my experiences with the hat and that the reason I wore it now was less about thumbing my nose at the individual whose bigotry and misogyny had shredded the fabric of American society in less than a month, and more about trying to catalyze and engage others to action. We spoke briefly about how each of us had been getting involved (me: protests, calling legislators and starting to support candidates running for office; she: protests and talking with her daughter and teaching her about the political process). We then smiled at each other, discussed the finer points of a good bagel, and I was on my way.
It wasn’t a teaching moment, but it did provide some connection … and with the cap jammed firmly on my head I hope that I shall find the other sort of engagement as well. This time I won’t give a dirty look, but will smile and do my part to show that America doesn’t have to be great again … because it already is.