Building American Identity

By Sarah Viets

When I talk about my American Identity, I also talk about race. But when I do, some folks wonder why I bring it up. They say talking about race distorts or clouds the real problems, like family food budgets superceding monthly paychecks, gas prices over $4 a gallon, rising healthcare costs and even immigration. Or better yet, some folks say I’m pitting
black people against white people or white people against people. They say that by talking about race, I’m dividing Americans rather than bringing us together.

But I’m not trying to weaken and tarnish our American identity; I’m not trying to deepen the divide.

I want to honor my American Identity.

I want to strive for an unimaginable future. I want to live in an age where kids from my rural high school see more out of life than working as a correctional officer at one of the three prisons located just 5 miles outside of my hometown. I want to live in a time where my best friend can deliver her two babies, now six and four, without having to claim bankruptcy, like she did two years ago. I want to breath at ease and find a job so I can back my $65,000 college loan. (Last month I graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago.)

But to solve America’s sunken stain, to build a bridge between America’s divided neighborhoods, we must first open our eyes. We can no longer ignore that African Americans, Asians, Latinos, whites, and the rich and poor, don’t receive the same opportunities. Each group receives a different amount of money for schools, different paychecks, different job and economic opportunities, access to health care, and criminal sentences.

But my grocery list of racial disadvantages is not new. People are aware; they’re just tired of hearing the same ole list.

But when we start to talk about solutions, we prefer to point the finger. Empty piggy banks in each neighborhood pits whites against non-white communities and rich against poor. So we blame affirmative action, we blame undocumented immigrants, we blame same-sex marriage, or we blame it on crime.

In result, we fight for what little money there is, which inevitably deepens our divide. It tears at the heart of what it means to be American.

We argue over what neighborhood deserves more money for schools. We cling to our paid tax dollars for our own neighborhood while forgetting about the guy next door. We don’t share. We don’t’ see the child on the other side of the tracks as our own. Instead, we define them as somebody else’s problem. Yet, when that child doesn't receive the same support and opportunities as our own, when that child starts stealing, doing drugs, or skipping school, we blame it on the child. We say it’s time for “personal responsibility.” Or we say it’s the parent’s fault.

But at the end of the day, what does it matter? Who cares whose fault it is. We can have a discussion over faults, or we can sit down and figure out how to stop the problem.

But when we do, when we finally decide to stop blaming each other, when we finally decide to stop pointing our fingers, we can’t forget how race is used to weaken our American Identity.

We can’t forget what divides our American identity when we build a unified nation.


Anonymous said...

You say that you talk about racial identity as part of your American identity, which I am all for -- I think you can't begin to talk about one without the other, because different Americans have completely different experiences based on their racial identity. We often live in very different Americas.

But in this article, you don't actually say what your race is, what your background, and what that means. Who are you talking to and how are they perceiving you when they say you "divide" Americans from one another?

I don't think we can begin to talk about race and identity in a larger sense, until we start first claiming it on an individual level.

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Nora said...

I like that you bring in a bit of the codified language used to discuss problems of race and class, like 'personal responsibility.' I'm an enormous proponent of personal responsibility in life, but in discussions of poverty and race, I find it is often used as a code-term for 'their poverty is their own damn faults, and thus I should have no role in correcting it.'

I also enjoy discussions of educational inequities that turn to justifications of property values. The Oprah set drops their 'It takes a village' mindset fairly quickly when the folks on the other side of the village want equal resources for their schools....