‘A perpetual state of love and hate’: what it means to be American

Written by Rachel Obordo and readers of The Guardian / 13th September 2017


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With the launch of  Dearborn, Michigan on the Guardian we wanted to know what it means to be American. We asked you whether its meaning has changed over the years and what you think the future of the country looks like. 

‘An American is someone who embraces equanimity and prudence’: Bruce Rerek, 60, security guard, New York, NY

An American is a person who embraces equanimity, prudence, and the right to express one’s opinions and carry out those choices which will fulfill their life careers. It is a mistaken notion that the pursuit of liberty is one that eschews governance. True liberty is the maturity of mind and action within one’s country. To peruse happiness at the risk of hurt and destruction isn’t happiness, but self destruction. Privacy is paramount, not to cover criminality, but to insure that everyone is guaranteed a safe and inviolate home and is now extended to the digital world. 

We have to question daily what being an American means in our thoughts and conduct. To have lived through the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war greatly molded my identity. As a person who identifies as a Jew and a gay man, I have seen the worst and the best from my fellow citizens. What I have taken away from this, now that I am in my sixth decade is that factions will arise who put forward hate and politicians will polish it with the veneer of faith and family.

I think the future of America will be one that I will hardly recognize. The fallout from the Trump era will take many years to sort out both from the GOP and the Democrats. It is my sincere hope that we can at least have the honesty to acknowledge that not only is the political system broken, but our environment, and even the drinking water we take for granted is at peril. Yet children will be born, they have to be fed and educated, and the rest of us still have to carry on. It is a funny thing about people: we are at our worst when things are seemingly good and and better when trouble is at hand. I do hold that this arrogance and anger cannot sustain. By increments America will return to some semblance of a nation that will be welcomed and not laughed at by the world.

‘Believing that our country was made great by opening our arms’: Julie, 23, works at a large tech company, San Francisco, CA

My parents emigrated to America from Malaysia before I was born, and I have their olive skin, their almond-shaped eyes, their straight black hair. I am an Asian-American; an “other” American, in the eyes of many. But being American doesn’t mean being white. You don’t need to speak English; you don’t need to watch baseball; you don’t need to eat hot dogs and burgers. It means that you belong to this country, and this country belongs to you. 

Being American means that you believe that opportunity is the birthright of all those with the strength of will, the creativity, and the talent to seize it. It means believing that our country was made great by opening our arms to people, ideas, and cultures that are different from us - that America is America because it takes in the best the world has to offer and makes them ours. 

But mostly, I think about Thanksgiving. Growing up, my parents would normally cook us dishes from their culture. We would eat rice nearly every night, with Malaysian curries and Chinese stir-fries. But I remember Thanksgivings where I’d wake up to the smell of turkey, stuffing, and yams. Napkins with pilgrims on them; apple pie, and an American flag hanging out front. It was as if my mother, with her carefully-clipped newspaper recipes on the fridge, wanted more than anything for our family - on this most American of holidays - to willfully, undeniably, be stamped as members to this country and this culture which was so different from the one in which she was raised. She wanted us to belong, and to succeed. And what’s more American than that?

A family having a traditional holiday dinner with stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, vegetables, pumpkin and pecan pie. Photograph: GMVozd/Getty Images

A family having a traditional holiday dinner with stuffed turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, vegetables, pumpkin and pecan pie. Photograph: GMVozd/Getty Images

‘It meant being an empowered female’: Bridget, 66, graphic designer, Spokane, WA

In the 80s and 90s I used to comment about how grateful I was to live in the best place and time in all of human history to be a woman. Never before could women choose such autonomy and be safe doing it. We could be married or we could be single. We could largely go where we wanted and pursue education, interests, jobs, and careers that were chosen. In other words we could shape a life, not merely live one that was randomly imposed on us by the geography and circumstance of birth. I felt free and knew the freedom I felt was of a type never before available to women. Being a person who was so enthusiastic and grateful about - and even humbled by - being an empowered female entirely shaped my sense of being American.

Today, everything that made my life’s adventure so wonderful seems under siege. Every part of our system is now locked down to keep every person in their place of origin. If you’re born poor you’re gonna die poor. In fact it sure seems to me - with the very real erosion of meaningful and living-wage-paying employment - if you’re born middle class you’re gonna’ die poor as well. If one values personal autonomy, the future of America is dark. Our system developed, encouraged and protected the good-doers and did its best to deter the bad-doers. Today, we see rot all around us well rewarded. Only a rotten system could so reward a man like the current occupant of the White House.

As I approach the closing chapter of my life, I am racked with anxiety and insecurity. I was once a proud American and a most grateful American woman. The wondrous fertile ground in which personal motivation once thrived is being stripped away with every passing election. My heart breaks for those who will suffer and suffer greatly as our American darkness gains momentum. And my heart breaks equally for those who welcome the darkness they see as light. America was once on a path, imperfect as it was, to greatness. No longer. I am simply too old to believe I will see recovery. History is rich with stories of empires that became past tense. And in the past tense they stayed.

‘Worrying and feeling afraid’: Sarah, 37, web developer, OR

 An inmate is led out of his cell at an American prison. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

 An inmate is led out of his cell at an American prison. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

Being American means I think all the time about whether my husband, who is in prison for a robbery, would have been given help and a chance to show he has changed if we lived in another developed country. We endure constant dehumanization and stress just trying to have a relationship, and the system does everything it can to make it difficult and ensure that prison is a dangerous place full of despair. 

Being American means I worry about how the government will regulate fintech and bitcoin, and how I can’t participate in many innovative projects because they are off limits to US citizens. I think about how many people view the US as repressive and invasive because of our regulations. I think some regulation can be helpful, but the invasion of privacy and suggestion that everyone using bitcoin is criminal is unfair and just puts us behind the rest of the world. Being American also means I feel embarrassed when I talk to people in other countries, not just because of Trump but because of our long history of meddling in other country’s affairs, and now we are freaking out that someone did it to us. It feels childish and entitled.

Being American means I feel afraid that when my husband gets out of prison his darker skin and criminal record will make people, and especially police, afraid of him even though he’s done everything he can to change and become a good citizen and leave his past behind. Being American means I am afraid of my government. I am afraid of how much power is concentrated in the hands of a few rich people. Being American means feeling like your country is run by people who don’t care at all about your well being, because they have so much money they don’t have to care. Being American means being ashamed that our country is not being responsible for our part in climate change and not contributing to the world’s efforts to avert disaster.

‘Disappointment and disillusionment’: Philip Greene, 66, works for an auto parts store, Dayton, OH

To me, being an American has meant disappointment and disillusionment. I grew up in a small Midwestern military town where we were taught and believed that the US truly held a special place in the world; the only country that offered true freedom, where anyone could grow up to be president and where every individual enjoyed the benefits and opportunities of “our way of life”.

 Policemen arrest black suspects in a Detroit street during riots that erupted in Detroit following a police operation in 1967. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 Policemen arrest black suspects in a Detroit street during riots that erupted in Detroit following a police operation in 1967. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In the early 1960s, I watched as some cities erupted in race riots and protests. I remember sitting around the table with my family and their friends, listening to them blaming black people for burning their own homes and saying how they were just lazy and wanted everything handed to them. With no other influences available, I believed it, but still had questions. Then, at age 15, my family moved from Ohio to Vicksburg, Mississippi and the lids were ripped from my eyes. Not far from our house was a group of shacks and hovels - mostly pieced together with whatever scrap materials could be found. The streets were unpaved and little more than a one lane collection of pot holes. There was little evidence of electrical lines or telephone wires. I watched in horror one day as a police car sped through the ghetto nearly killing a young girl who was pulled out of the way just in time. 

There were many, many others; African Americans who were expected to step into the street to allow a white person to pass; entrances and water fountains marked “Whites” and “Colored” and restaurants where people with dark skins could never go. Yes, all these things did, indeed exist; they are not myths. With this indelibly impressed on my mind, I began to look at other things: the war in Vietnam; the way women and gays were treated; the death grip of the rich on the poor. I have never since be able to see the my country as I did when I was a child. And though I work to make it a better place, I look back over the past fifty years and I see so few visions have come true.

‘It means being in a perpetual state of love and hate’: Ada, 63, semi-retired professor, Austin, TX

Being American means being in a perpetual state of love and hate: love for all those who sacrificed and endured so I could have more of the same opportunities I would have had if I had been born white, and hate for all those who continue to fuel and exploit racism and other isms to sow divisions and line their pockets. 

My father was drafted into the segregated army during WW2. After President Truman integrated the military, they needed black officers who had a college degree. My dad had one so rather than return to his native Texas, he became a career army officer retiring at the rank of colonel in 1970. We lived on military bases so I grew up feeling very American and I understood from an early age that one must fight for one’s beliefs. I also understood that despite the stars and bars on my father’s uniform, there were lots of white people who did not think he was as good as them, and that I had to be twice as good as a white person just to be considered just as good.

I would argue things have never been worse in America. It’s been coming since the Reagan era which promoted two myths that in my opinion led directly to Trump. Firstly that the private sector is great and the government sucks, and secondly that racial and ethnic discrimination is a thing of the past. But I believe that the future of America looks a lot more like me than Donald Trump.

Originally published on the Guardian