A blue-eyed flaxen-haired boy scout with an obnoxious grin waves a red, blue, and white flag in my mind. His merit badges colorfully illuminate his virtues against the drab dun of his uniform. He is loud and precocious, a precious child of the middle class suburbs. One day he will go to a fine college, get a good job, marry a blonde and in his old age throw evening parties for his fraternity buddies in his multimillion dollar mansion. This is what I picture when I hear the word “American”.
I have heard America described as a melting pot, a vibrant patchwork quilt of multiculturalism and tolerance. I have seen the different faces of the diverse peoples who inhabit this country. However, each time I see them I wonder if they and I are indeed “American.” The word “American” holds a connotation, a connotation that seems to change direction with each new gust that sweeps through our political climate. Some say this connotation is a blend of culture. Others angrily shout, waving lit torches as they stroll down a street in Charlottesville, that it is one culture. That it is white culture. Being American has become a question of birth, work ethic, economy, culture and race. And so I wonder: what makes one an American?
This question currently broils at the heart of the furnace that the American political sphere has become. This question comes in forms of the Dreamers, the Muslim ban, white supremacists, Black Lives Matter, and state history curriculums. It comes in the form of the immigrants in my community. It comes in the form of kids whose parents have sent them thousands of miles from their homes on islands like Fiji or Tonga so that they could attend high school in the States. It is the people in my church who work exceptionally hard hoping to get a green card, people who are filled with pride as they sing the anthem in their earthy tones. There are even the exceptional few who have learned to love the snow, because to them the snow is America. To them a good job is America. Education is America. Opportunity is America. Hope is America. These are people who long to be American.
Then there are people like me. I do not feel “American”. I remember being relieved at seventeen years old when Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. I was relieved that I wasn’t alone. I’d stopped saying the pledge years before in middle school. I would still stand because of the social pressures that come with living in a red state. So I would stand, my hands neatly folded in front of me, my vocal chords dry of sound. America caused the downfall of my people, the destruction of the Hawaiian kingdom. America is Hawaiian displacement. America is poverty. America is ignorance. America is invisibility. America is silence. America is a flood of whitewash forced down my throat, choking me as it tries to saturate the center of my being.
When I can ignore this emotion I live happy. Yet, there is always something that manages to pull the nauseous feeling of it back to the surface. I don’t think my feelings will change, even if the president changes. There are some of us who will never feel “American,” even if we were born here. That’s all right. That doesn’t mean others have to feel the same way. If America is truly a land of freedom, there must be the freedom to choose if one is American.
However, the current administration has limited this choice. They are destroying the hopes of those who actually wish to be American. Every time our government and elements in our society support hatred, racism and institutional censure, they dim the light of patriotism that still exists in the hearts of new Americans. Our president believes he is reforging the original American identity, however, it is an identity inherently grounded in the oppression and rejection of others. It is the identity of mass murderers, slavers and Klansmen.
If our government wishes America to last for another century it cannot embrace this false construct of a “white America.” The “white” people of America must remember who they are. Their ancestors were English, German, Irish, Scandinavian, Italian, French, Scottish and so on. They were immigrants. They must not ignore the indigenous peoples that were displaced, the peoples that were forcefully brought, or those driven from their countries. Those who wish to be American must know its true history, good and evil. They must come to terms with it and face the realities this history has created.
For some, like me, this task is beyond our capabilities. Some of us are weary if not embittered, our hearts have been jaded to threads so that they are dry of forgiveness. However, I believe there are the brave few, not few but many, who are capable. These are those who can truly call themselves “American.”
Contact Sophia Kim-O’Sullivan at huali99 ‘at’ stanford.edu.