incomplete education, incomplete america

I am the victim of an incomplete education.  Most of us are.  I attended excellent schools and am grateful for the many ways I was invited into excellence, rigor and curiosity; however, like most Americans, I was exposed primarily to curricula written, sourced and designed by white Americans.  The last two decades have revealed the large gaps in my knowledge and the work I must do to find a complete education.  Having now encountered the incredible diversity of thought that functionally shaped America, I realize the insularity—the poverty even—of our educational norms.  Aware of this, I have spent Black History Month as an apologist for a more robust education, as I remind us that American writing, thinking and creating is the product of many distinct voices.  We have an incredible wealth of cultural, literary, historical and artistic legacies from every race, and we are diminished as a people when these voices are not actively taught in our schools. 

When we are primarily exposed to American history and literature through the work of white folks, we are taught to privilege white perspectives.  We begin to believe important cultural trends and innovations come exclusively from one segment of society.  This narrow exposure lays a foundation for cultural racism, suggesting that people of color are physical in nature, while white people, with their higher order thinking and artistic expressions, meaningfully impact our national narratives, our literary heritage, and the production of culture. 

Can we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed? 

American culture and history have been shaped by the voices, inventions and perspectives of a rich variety of people from all walks of life.  The idea of American democracy suggests that every person has value and is capable of contributing to our whole in necessary ways.  It is disingenuous for us to believe this while also pretending as if every important contribution to the common good came from one race of people.  Although this hypocrisy that affirms equality while codifying systems of inequality is one of our great national habits, America itself has nevertheless been deeply influenced by contributions from all types of people. 

In the South we love to think about our culture as one of genuine hospitality, gorgeous grounds, fine food and excellent music.  Because we have a legacy of erasing or diminishing the contributions of people of color, our educations failed to teach us that so many Southern traditions only exist because people of color worked independently or collaboratively with whites to create norms of hospitality in settings we cherish.  In many famed Southern kitchens, black cooks created the recipes published by white chefs, now beloved as Southern heritage.  There is mounting evidence that whiskey distilling was mastered by enslaved men.  Indeed, Jack Daniel’s Distillery now explains that Jack himself learned to distill from a slave named Nearis Green.  Best practices in agriculture, building, sewing and carpentry were perfected by people of color.  I offer these anecdotes to remind us any American historical narrative that does not include the contributions of black people is incomplete. 

Most of us understand that our musical heritage is not complete without the contributions of jazz and the blues, the vast majority of which was created by African Americans.  Jazz and rock n roll were largely commodified by whites but created by black Americans; indeed, Elvis became famous by publishing songs first performed by black folks.  What do we sacrifice if we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed?  Our educational norms often fail to reflect our entire heritage, but we need not remain in ignorance. 

Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America. 

Some of our best early links between literature, sociology and ethnography were established by black writers like Zora Neale Hurston.  A gifted writer of fiction in her own right, Hurston travelled through Florida recording the stories of African Americans as they experienced the world.  Hurston helped prove that anthropology is incomplete without ethnography and auto-ethnography.  Many of us were taught to celebrate early writers who noticed such cultural differences through travel like Herman Melville or Mark Twain.  Black writers like James Weldon Johnson and Paule Marshall, far less read, continued and advanced this style of writing about the helpful collaborations and differences one discovers as they travel at home and abroad.  Acknowledging the pull of diaspora while claiming our full history speaks powerfully into our current discussions about identity and the ways that we explore national loyalties.  If such voices were celebrated in education then we might be better equipped to now face a world in which citizenship, migration and nationality seem to clash in violent ways. 

In school, many of us were exposed through literature to the tension women face as they struggle to position themselves as whole subjects with needs, wants and the agency to act on those needs and wants.  We read Emily Dickinson or Kate Chopin or Sylvia Plath, celebrating the singularity of their voices.  Many of us were not exposed to writers like Nella Larson or Maya Angelou, though, who wrote compellingly of the intersection of gender and race in a woman’s desire for agency.  Larsen’s work is accessible, exploring the life choices of a disappointed upper class woman in a way that Chopin’s work can’t.  Activists like Sojourner Truth revealed the subtle ways that the voices of black women were diminished, doubted and ignored.  She was a forerunner to feminism, asserting that gender and racial binaries can be used to silence women who do not conform to cultural norms. 

So many voices shaped American identity, and we need not privilege African American contributions at the expense of Anglo Americans.  Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America.  Our educational norm is to celebrate and memorialize the white voices, rather than to openly teach a wide variety of perspectives, recognizing the myriad voices that shaped American culture, literature and history.  We are not products of black labor and white innovation; we are the culmination of many voices expressing their God-given giftedness to help us translate and understand experiences of life in America.  Historical erasure ensures that we are victims of this incomplete education.  The hope of this moment is that diminished voices have always existed, we only need to recognize our deficits and do the work to complete our education.  All month I have tweeted books written by people of color.  Follow @ExpandYourUs if you want to start reading!

the danger of exceptional thinking: immigrants in America

Our country suffers from a crisis, and it is poisoning our communities, invading our border towns, altering our schools, frustrating our communication, and taking our jobs.  No, the root of this calamity is not immigration.  It is amnesia. 

The idea of “America” is defined in conflicting ways, and can represent a beacon of democratic hope or the epitome of neocolonialism to those who live within and outside our borders.  However we see ourselves, we certainly have dominant American values: Normative culture desires the right to worship and the right to improve our station in life with hard work; in short, and above all, we value independence, advancement and freedom.  Such narratives of the “American Way” dominate our thought lives; and yet, I would argue that these ideals are held and acted upon in incredibly thoughtless ways.  Many of us prize the liberties of religion, freedom of movement, and self-possession, and yet, the America that exists for many of our inhabitants is neither accessible nor free.  I do not attempt to write a nuanced approach to immigration policy here; instead, I offer crucial historical context that will hopefully encourage us to think again about the way we think about immigrants and their place among us.

We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. 

Our country has well-documented waves of immigration, each of which were met with violence, accusations of ruining the country, and brandings of outsider status.  Indeed, since before the American Revolution, we have targeted and excluded Chinese, Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Muslims and Mexicans in different decades.  We have a long history of blaming people from other countries for our own discomfort, documented by decades of legislation that prevent specific nationalities from entering the United States.  In American history, periods of stagnation and uncertainty have usually been manipulated to lead to periods of fear, fueling nativist impulses that inevitably exclude and scapegoat anyone who can easily be called an outsider.  Indulging our most basic instincts, we seem to believe blaming others will distract us from the causes of our uncertainty or loss.  Listed on paper, these laws, grouped chronologically by hatred and rejection of one country or another, seem rather silly, and quite bigoted.  The fact that this history is not referenced as appropriate context for our current immigration discussion stems from our collective amnesia.

I posit that amnesia is the root of the identity crisis currently portrayed as an immigration crisis because our country has only existed for 240 years.  This means that even the longest settled of our families have been “American” for less than 10 generations.  Among American power brokers (a group from which native peoples have been systematically excluded), immigration is therefore a part of every single American narrative.  Despite the fact that these migrating narratives are actually shared by every family, most of us whose families have been here for three generations or more instead use these narratives to create distance between “us” and “them.”  In my view, this distance, which leads to elitism, exclusivity, and possessiveness, stems from America’s favorite past time: Celebrating our own exceptionality. 

We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. 

We reconcile our history as outsiders with our current orientation as insiders in one of two ways.  The first is outright, willful, amnesia.  We simply pretend we climbed out of Noah’s ark and onto American dry land.  We have always spoken English, loved white picket fences, baseball and church on Sundays.  We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders.  I think this commitment to telling our stories of hard work and belonging are actually the purest demonstration of American identity: We tell stories to help us articulate who we are and to whom we belong.  Most often, the narratives we tell ourselves about our histories are stories of ascension, proving that we were destined to belong.  American story-telling is crucial to our identity construction because stories help us create community.  Importantly though, the stories of our own belonging—in which we embody the essence of Americaness—purposely exclude others.  A collective amnesia allows us to embrace our legacy of belonging, even as we ignore others, denying them their stories of ascension.

The second avenue we take to reconcile our own migrating history with our now very settled selves is the doctrine of exceptionality.  Yes, my family immigrated here in the last century, but we were already basically Americans in our hearts, we simply had the misfortune of being born Irish, Italian, English, Canadian or German.  We loved church, and felt called by God to come here.  We already knew how to work hard, and we loved freedom.  We were not asking for a handout, just a chance to fulfill our own American Dream.  I guess you could call us immigrants, but we were different, exceptional, and not like those people creating today’s immigration crisis.

Instead of finding compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time.  Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, requires us to recognize the ways in which we are similar. 

This claim of exceptionality prevents relationships in several ways.  It destroys any chance of a shared history that connects people in real community.  It prevents empathy from shaping our connections with others.  Instead of finding points of similarity and compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time.  Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, would require us to recognize the ways in which we are similar.  Our commitment to exceptionality, to framing our journeys with idealistic terms of destiny, prevents us from recognizing the humanity in others. Finally, we support negative stereotypes of new immigrants and Americans in order to widen the space between us and them.  If we allow our collective amnesia to fuel our false narratives of exceptionality, then we can only think of immigrants as “them”, never “us.”

Our commitments to our amnesia and exceptionality are as strong as our commitment to preserving the American Dream and the American Way.  The great irony is that, because of American exceptionality, we are actively destroying the fabric of society made of the values we say we uphold.  As we look to pass lasting legislation regarding Dreamers and for immigrants living and working here below the radar, perhaps we should remember that many of our families came to America as outsiders who also dreamed. 

the danger of exceptional thinking: american arrogance

Exceptionality is central to the American identity, both past and present.  It is foundational to the concept of the American Dream, and it fits nicely, although not without cramming and shoving, alongside the Protestant work ethic (boot straps and all that) we like to prize.  It is, and always has been, important to our domestic and foreign policies, and it is crucial to our idea that we are the most powerful nation on earth.  However, left unchecked, our commitment to our exceptionality not only allows us to succeed where all others surely fail, it demands that we boldly defend our actions and absolve our motives as separate from and better than the rest of the world’s intentions.  In my view, the ideas behind American Exceptionalism are the ideas that prevent us from participating in our global and local societies in constructive ways.  From raising our children to condescend to others, to a stubborn unilateral approach to global conflict, the notion of our exceptionality is ruining America.

Exceptionalism allows us to whitewash our history. 

We come by our commitment to exceptionality honestly.  Christopher Columbus’ journey was meant to expand not only the Empire he represented, but also Christendom.  The church endorsed the colonial endeavor with a blasphemous mix of greed and zeal for evangelism.  The church codified the ideas that the spread of Empire honored God, that the rape, pillaging and killing of native lands and people was perhaps deserved, and that the abused savages were rehabilitated, gratefully, into Christ through the process.  In other words, the myth of the discovery of America was achieved through exceptional (and, importantly, Christian) motives.

Our love affair with exceptionality continued as America survived the Revolutionary War, quickly rising to become a stable economic powerhouse.  We were exceptional as the only formerly colonized space that moved from protest, to military revolt, to stable world power.  These claims of exceptionality of course downplay the help of the French, and completely ignore the fact that our new country would have been crushed by its revolutionary war debt if it weren’t for the money-producing institution of slavery. 

In the last 170 years, evolving notions of American identity are best understood through our exceptionality.  In the mid-19th century, patriots were consumed with ideas of Manifest Destiny; indeed our nation soon spread from coast to coast.  Americans were specifically destined to steal land from Native people, Mexicans and even Cubans in order to fulfill God’s plan for His New Israel.  Add to that growing wealth, brilliant production innovations, and interventions in both World Wars, and you begin to see that America’s identity was founded on the idea that we are exceptional. 

There are many problems with this self-conception, and for the next few weeks I will explore how the notion of exceptionalism dominates habits and policies in parenting, gentrification and the way we think about immigration.  For now, I will close with a few of the dangers in grounding American identity in our exceptionality.

One, it reflects bad historiography.  One can only claim we are exceptional, with all the righteous moral goodness assumed therein, if we ignore historical accounts of our many failures.  Exceptionalism allows us to whitewash our history. 

  •  We endorse a narrative of the genocide and violent displacement of native peoples by saying native leaders and pioneering pilgrims worked together (“While we did steal everything from them, they taught us to plant corn because we were friends.  While Andrew Jackson did force the Trail of Tears, he was fun and spunky and exceptionally nice—he even adopted a little savage into his own home!”).  
  • We endorse a paternalistic view of slavery (“While we did have slaves, we were the good kind of owners and our slaves loved and appreciated us”).
  • We endorse a narrative of wise and heroic military intervention (“We always stepped in to save the world and make it a better place; no need to really explore the fallout of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan”).  

Two, this bad historiography means we struggle to talk about our mistakes, and instead paint everything in a positive light.  This leads to us celebrate Columbus Day and Thanksgiving but bestow no national honor on the millions of Native Americans whose lives and legacies were destroyed by our arrogance.  This leads us to honor Confederate leaders in town squares.  This leads us to attribute the racialized wealth gap to work ethic or laziness instead of to Jim Crow laws, and racist systems, like redlining and the GI Bill.  This leads us both to think we are beacons of freedom and hope in the world while we drastically reduce our number of refugees and build walls.  Our commitment to being exceptional keeps us from learning from our mistakes.

Third, our primary understanding of ourselves as exceptional leads to a weak knowledge of self, and can make us selfish bullies.  If our only understanding of how we function in the world is based on our living out the righteous choices destined for us as exceptionally good Americans, we are beholden only to our own opinions.  We are exceptional, and therefore correct, so we do not need teammates, advisors or multilateral cooperation.  We should look out not for the interests of others, but only of ourselves, because we are exceptional. 

I’m afraid we traded our kindness and nuanced bravery for the stubborn claim that we are exceptional and therefore beyond reproach. 

America loves our origin story.  We love knowing that we succeeded where so many others failed.  That said, America still signifies hope and compassion in some parts of the world (and in our own country).  We are remarkably kind, and brave and willing to work on the idea that a government can exist by and for and of the people.  Even Bono, a great critic of ours, believes that the “idea” of America has the power to lift and unite others for a common good.  However, I’m afraid we have traded our kindness and nuanced bravery for the stubborn claim that we are exceptional and therefore beyond reproach.  This kind of thinking can lead us to think patriotism means never acknowledging our mistakes, and this will destroy our ability to become the country of people we hope we have been and still are. 

Would we lose our essence as Americans if we humbly believed we were a diverse group of people committed to the idea that our wealth and standing in the world have given us a profound opportunity to lead with smart, diplomatic compassion?

The idea of America was born out of two conflicting myths, and understanding them provides context for the fraught times in which we live.  Are we God’s chosen nation, the exceptional country on a hill, shining the light of democracy for all to follow as we lead with compassion, or are we God’s chosen nation, the exceptional country on a hill, better than everyone else and committed to hoarding our wealth and excluding others?  Would we lose our essence as Americans if we instead believed we were a diverse group of people committed to the idea that our wealth and standing in the world have given us a profound opportunity to lead with smart, diplomatic compassion? That each of us is worthy of a vote, and each of us can learn from each other as we correct our missteps in an effort to form a more perfect union?  I invite you to observe the evidence of our idolatrous arrogance, of our obsession with being exceptional.  Think with me about the place exceptionality plays in our collective thinking and acting, and next week I will tackle social concerns from this perspective.