The Real America

My parents always referred to themselves as expatriates. They were both born in London, England, but met by chance in Atlanta, GA. Neither had planned on staying in the U.S., but that’s what they ended up doing, I assume because they had good jobs and were uninclined to cope with the financial upheaval of moving back–they were happy with their jobs, and a few years later Britain was grappling with the energy crisis (if there’s anything my mother hated, it was being cold). Eventually they had me, and bought a house, and here we stayed.

I read somewhere recently that people who take up residence in a new country refer to themselves as expatriates when they look down on the country they’ve come to, whereas self-described immigrants look up to and admire their new home. I never thought much about my parents’ preference for the word “expatriate” over “immigrant”. I doubt they considered it in any conscious sense–it has a ring to it, and evokes British colonialism in a way that they remained faintly (or very, in my father’s case) nostalgic for and makes me distinctly uncomfortable. My mother considered applying for citizenship at one time and studied for the exam, but never went through with it, because time or, later, physical energy was always lacking; my father has never wanted to. When I was growing up we listened to Garrison Keillor and watched every minute of Ken Burns’ The Civil War many times over, we celebrated Thanksgiving without fail and looked forward to the Boston Pops concert every July 4th, but the most important tastes and traditions in my household growing up were the ones they brought with them from England. Whenever my mother heard certain Americanisms creeping into my speech, she would correct me constantly until I stopped doing it, from saying “ben” instead of “been” when I was eight to interspersing every sentence with three or four ‘likes’ when I was fifteen. (Oddly, she never objected to me saying “Y’all”.)

I was born in Atlanta, and so the appellation “expatriate” has never applied to me. I never thought of myself as an immigrant either, or the child of immigrants, until I recently, but I always knew myself to be foreign, “not from around here” despite my birth. People recognized my accent as not local, but, unless one of my parents was with me, could rarely tell where it was from–some asked if I was Canadian, but most people assumed I was from up north. Until I corrected them, that is, as I’ve always been insufferably proud of my heritage. For a long time I wished I had been born in London like my parents, that I was fully English; but I did, after all, grow up here. I may be able to change my accent at will, but I can’t entirely eradicate either part of the blend, no matter how much I concentrate, and I no longer wish to. I am American as much as I am English.

I know what it is to be subject to xenophobia, albeit such experiences have been rare for me. I remember occasions growing up when my mother would be pointedly ignored by staff when we were out shopping. When I moved to Scotland I encountered a regular, if not universal, assumption that because I was American I wasn’t as prepared for university as everyone else, and that St Andrews lowered its standards in accepting students from the U.S. because we paid more in tuition. When I visited Japan, there was one occasion when I was standing in a queue to pay for food and the person behind me insisted on pushing the edge of the tray she was holding into my back, no matter how many times I stepped from one side or the other to get out of her way. These incidents were few and far between and by no means characteristic of the reception I’ve found wherever I’ve traveled, but few though they are I found them maddening, infuriating, sometimes to the point that they kept me up at night. I can’t imagine the frustration of having to live with such behavior on a daily and weekly basis; I’m not surprised that persistent racism has been linked to PTSD and other psychological disorders in PoC.

I started to think more carefully about the question of immigration and personal identity when I returned to the U.S. at the end of 2006 and endured the 2007 presidential election. I started hearing frequent references to the “real America”–a specific segment of the U.S. population distinguished by a particular income bracket and living in the land-locked parts of the U.S., or at least that’s what I thought the phrase meant the first few times I heard it. Its meaning seemed to morph and grow the more Sarah Palin and other politicians and media figures used it, and like a lot of such catchphrases, it was used more exclude than to include. The real America wasn’t the liberal strongholds in California and the east coast; the real America wasn’t respected universities and research institutions; the real America wasn’t communities where a significant percentage of the population spoke English as a second language, or had dual nationality, or retained any sort of multi-ethnic character. It didn’t include me (liberal elitist, apparently), or many of my friends (not white or not Christian or, like me, liberal elitist). Palin lost the election for McCain, but the idea persisted, under different names, taking on additional implications. Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the “47%” who would vote for President Obama in the 2012 election revived the idea, giving it different parameters–which bore little resemblance to his technical definition of this group as those who don’t pay income tax, as most of the states with the highest populations of non-payers are reliably red states, not blue ones. Now we have Trump, and the “real” America–the Americans who want to “make America great again”–is predominately white, Christian, and heterosexual. Where does that leave us, the “not real” Americans, who still comprise a majority even as the race grows a little tighter?

I fit the definition of the so-called “anchor baby”. My parents were never citizens, and when they arrived in the U.S. they had high-school educations. However, no one ever accused them of being under-achieving or lazy. They had high-paying jobs that could, after all, have gone to U.S. citizens, but no one ever accused them of “stealing American jobs”. No one ever hissed or shouted at us to go back where we came from. This is what white privilege is; in a crowd I am accepted, whereas people who can’t–or have no desire to–conceal their accent or the color of their skin or their hair are not. People of color, from various backgrounds and heritages, are every day told to go back where they came from, that their parents must have been engaged in illegal activities to earn a living, that they don’t belong here, even when in many cases they were born here, as I was, or come from families who have been American citizens for generations, centuries. Now there is talk of rescinding birthright citizenship, which would make me and everyone else whose parents came and remained here legally, never breaking any laws or avoiding any taxes, no longer Americans in fact as as well as in the minds of Trump’s supporters. I find this monstrous, coming as it does from the mouths of politicians and members of the public who constantly criticize the President, democrats, and liberals alike for not understanding or respecting the Constitution.

The backlash against Barack Obama snowballed, as calls grew for immigration reform, as gay people were granted the right to marry, as our arts and culture began to better represent the country’s demographic reality. Now the backlash has gained not just a local habitation but a name: the alt-right. The people comprising this group are not by definition Trump supporters, nor do I imagine that all Trump supporters would define themselves as alt-right, but there is a significant and frankly quite frightening overlap between the two. The past few months have brought a barrage of defensive pundits, Trump supporters, and Trump surrogates–not to mention a broad variety of thinkpieces from left and right alike–insisting that Trump’s popularity is rooted in the economic grievances of working-class Americans. If I hear one more such tirade I think I’ll scream. I know that the ramifications of the Great Recession and economic policy over the last several decades has fueled a great deal of this bitterness. What I would like some of the people writing these thinkpieces and arguing this point in the media to acknowledge is that while financial strain may have been the spark, the tinder and now the fuel is a strong desire to return to the America before Obergefell v. Hodges, before Roe v. Wade, before the Civil Rights Act. I do not hear Trump supporters on television discussing the complexity of U.S. tax law and how it has given major corporations and manufacturers incentives to move jobs overseas, where they can pay their workers less, or admitting the damage that trickle-down economics has done. They do not discuss how Donald and Ivanka Trump have taken advantage of the cheap labour available overseas to increase their own profits from their clothing and fashion lines. Instead they talk about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, complain about NAFTA as though it Bill Clinton was responsible for it (he wasn’t–it was George H. W. Bush who signed the treaty), and suggest instigating a trade war with China. There is a lot of heated discussion about severely reducing or stopping immigration (from some countries) and doing more to deport those who have arrived in this country illegally, but I’ve yet to hear Trump or any of his surrogates present a practical policy proposal to do this. Many of Trump’s suggestions over the past few months have been just as irrational and ridiculous as the idea of having open borders, but any time this point is made in the media it is dismissed as ‘liberal bias’ rather than a reflection of a decent grasp of policy, law, and economics.

Trump and his son Eric have many times retweeted and reposted comments and slurs against Hillary Clinton and a variety of other targets that originated from white supremacist and neo-Nazi accounts. Trump, despite crowing about how ‘the blacks’ love him, last week noticed a black supporter of his in the audience at a rally, called him a thug, and had him removed. The man hadn’t said anything; the color of his skin was enough to identify him as an enemy. There’s a bumper sticker of a figure representing the confederate flag delivering a roundhouse kick to another figure representing the pride flag, the image of which is making the rounds on the Internet. Anti-Semitic harassment of journalists and anyone who doesn’t support Trump have surged, particularly online. Kurt Eichenwald found himself the subject of a barrage of attacks and harassment when he began reporting on the many questionable aspects of Trump’s personal, financial, and business history, including one email that included a flashing image capable of inducing an epileptic seizure (Eichenwald has been very open about his struggle with the disorder). A politician who considered running against Trump decided against it after receiving images of his adopted daughter superimposed on pictures of gas chambers and other violent scenarios. Children are being harassed at school, and some schools have cancelled classes for the day of the election. These attacks aren’t manifestations of the desire for greater economic equality; they are the product of racial and ethnic hatred, a belief that being white, Christian, and heterosexual makes a person superior to any one with a differing skin color, creed, or sexuality.

I’m tired of hearing how American was founded as a Christian nation, and thus everyone should say “Merry Christmas” to all and sundry during the holiday season, school children should be required to recite Christian prayers, and the Ten Commandments should be posted on the wall in courtrooms. The founding fathers also lived in a world where it was taken for granted that only white men had the right to vote, where it was legal to enslave other people based on the color of their skin, and Native Americans were often as not ignored or massacred if they got in the way of what the U.S. government decided to do on American land. The America that exists today would be unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers–we have cars and smartphones and medical practices that would be tantamount to miracles to someone from the 18th century; women vote, being gay is no longer a crime or a form of madness, and slavery is illegal. (I guess the “ignoring Native Americans” part hasn’t changed much.) Quite frankly, I find the idea that people are nostalgic for a time when women were second-class citizens and people of color barely citizens at all rather nauseating. Every nation, every culture has committed wrongs that it must come to terms with, accept responsibility for; reverting to the conditions that gave rise to those wrongs is not going to make anything better. The United States is not the same place it was in 1775–not geographically, not demographically, not technologically, not environmentally. What this country has always done right is the struggle to fully manifest the words of the Declaration of Independence: that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident and inalienable. The alt-right is the latest manifestation of the idea that these rights are not self-evident and inalienable, but can be denied based on one’s skin color, sexual orientation, religion, gender, and apparently, in some minds, the birthplace of one’s parents. If that is the Real America, if Trump wins the election next Tuesday, I am alarmed to think of what might happen to the millions of Americans who don’t fit into that mould, me and most of those I hold dear among them.

 

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