While many have written essays, created art, recorded documentaries, et cetera, answering this question, I’ve never really tried to answer it myself. This weekend I was asked that question after a heated discussion about whether or not it’s divisive for grads to wear sashes that represent different racial/cultural/ethnic identities like the one below:
(For the record, I don’t think it’s divisive, but my thoughts on that deserve its own post.)
I’m not really going to answer the question today either. I don’t have the time or mental energy to do it justice. In the moment, I gave a trite answer, as a reflex, I blurted, “It’s a land of opportunity.” It was an answer given without any thought behind it. But after some reflection, I do believe that statement is true. There’s a lot more than that, of course, but it is part of how I view the country I was born in. From the first colonists to the refugees that are arriving at our borders today, people have been coming to these shores looking for a better life, new opportunities. However, what I have found is that those who might find ethnic pride accessories divisive, may not have reflected on or given thought to why it is that those first immigrants are seen as more legitimate, more acceptable, more worthy than others doing the exact same thing. Perhaps they’ve never taken a moment to see the perspective of those of us who have been “othered” our whole lives. The people I know and love that fall into this group are good-hearted and well-intentioned; they’ve just never had to question their place in America.
I have to get to work so I’ll leave it at that for now…
Thanks so much for your honesty. Genuine perspective taking is not a national strength.
I think so many of us are so far removed from our ancestors who were the immigrants to this country that we sometimes forget our ancestors wore their ethnic pride accessories as well. Not an excuse. We just need to think long and hard about where we came from, and in my case, what my grandparents brought from the “old country”.
This isn’t an easy question to answer, and (as you said) it’s certainly not one that lends itself to a short answer. This is a country of opportunity, but it’s also a county with a short memory. Folks who might be critical of something like a graduation sash also might not think twice about attending an Octoberfest this fall. As a nation, we’re funny like that. Thanks for your post–I appreciate the food for thought.
I appreciate your perspective!
Quite frankly, I’m all for adorning caps and gowns in any way that’s meaningful to the graduates.
Sometimes I think about folks who get upset about things like this and I just get curious – what is it that’s behind the resistance? It’s not something that really affects anybody else – it’s just a sign of identity and it’s hard for me to understand what the problem might be. Which means maybe I need to turn on my empathy muscles. Or MAYBE it means that I need to give naysayers less room rent-free in my brain. It also strikes me as odd that pretty much everyone who came to this country was seen as a scourge or an outsider when they first came. But that, as they say, is the stuff of other posts…
I’m also thinking more, especially about your title. It’s a challenge – what does America mean to YOU? As in, is there really a *correct* answer to that question? I don’t think so. It reminds me of the “4 sons” section of the Passover seder – the evil child asks “What do these customs mean to you?” As in, I’m demanding an answer from you while at the same time seeing myself as apart or better.
I’m going to have to think more on this.
And then we get into the issue of the difference between America and The United States of America. This understanding is still an area of growth for many who wave the flag of the U.S.A. Understanding that our words, and accessories, matter may lead us to a place of more inclusion. Thanks for keeping us thinking.
I am always fascinated by the things that make people (and here I am specifically talking about the people who hold power: white people) fearful and defensive. My ears always perk up when emotions begin to filter into these conversations because I know, from my own experiences, that often those emotions are driven by fear…and fear, when it comes to conversations about race and heritage, can quickly turn to ugly anger. I appreciate the grace underneath your words for the folks that were engaged in this conversation with you.
The original prompt–that of acknowledging one’s heritage as being divisive–speaks to assimilation…which of course assumes that there is only one culture that is “okay”, which in this case would be “white culture”. Why does the pursuit of opportunity have to include erasing one’s identity? Definitely an ongoing conversation that would fill many, many blog posts and conversations….thanks for the food for thought today.
You pose so many deep questions, but your reflexive answer sheds light on something others may not have thought about. It never occurred to me that such sashes would be deemed divisive. If anything, they’ve made me want a do-over so I could wear one too.