On Being American: An Author’s Thoughts On The White House’s Attempt to Curb “Un-American” Conversations by Padma Venkatraman
This September, a memo and an executive order were sent by the president, ordering the heads of all executive departments and agencies to “cease and desist” from engaging in “any training” related to critical race theory or white privilege, and commanding federal agencies to stop “divisive un-American propaganda training sessions.” As I and others such as Dr. Steven Bickmore have noted earlier, this is distressing for many reasons. Among them, the idea I’d like to explore here: that it’s “un-American” to suggest our nation may be imperfect.
As a woman of color who immigrated on my own at the age of nineteen, my American-ness has often been challenged, especially when I conduct workshops, write or speak on diversity-related issues. Some of my fellow Americans are angered when I shed light on our societal shortcomings, although I do so only to suggest steps we may take to come together to unite and strengthen our society and our nation.
I’d argue that my love for America is undeniably strong because I love it despite its flaws. I chose to become a citizen, not because I consider America perfect, but because I my faith in it remains unshaken although I recognize its limitations. The idea that “love is blind” not only invokes ableist language, it’s also incorrect. Certainly, teenage crushes often thrive on a lack of knowledge; but deep-rooted and long-lasting loving relationships are built on mutual understanding and reciprocal acceptance of imperfections.
Our commitment to correcting our mistakes is a testament to the depth of our patriotic love. My mother would say, when I was a child, “I don’t criticize strangers because I don’t care about them.” Accepting our current limitations and acknowledging historical injustices is an expression of our dedication to improving our society and proof of our concern for America. Responsible citizens speak up when things go awry.
The freedom to openly declare how my conscience feels is one of the things I treasure most about being a United States citizen (because I wasn’t always one). I left India on my own as a teenager and for years I felt I was a guest in another culture. I refrained from criticizing it because, in my Indian culture, I was taught, like my protagonist, Vidya, in my debut novel, CLIMBING THE STAIRS, that you should never criticize a home in which you have eaten a salted meal. The idea being that you ought to be grateful to the person or place that provides employment.
It doesn’t mean I didn’t agree or disagree when my fellow-students spoke up. Since I was the only female of color in my incoming oceanography class, I certainly spoke up for diversity and mentored other students and did what I could. But I didn’t feel I could put my views down in writing or participate in protest marches. When I was invited to a Gay Pride march by a fellow student, I turned him down – partly because I knew if I was apprehended by policemen, I’d be sent straight back to India (and failure wasn’t an option for me at that time in that sense) and partly because I felt I didn’t have that right as a non-American.
Now, I do. Now I am a proud and responsible American and this is home. Proud and responsible homeowners stay attentive and alert so they can maintain their homes in good condition. Neglecting repairs results in ruin. We Americans have long ignored crucial problems and we now need to engage in honest introspection and discourse if we’re to prevent our home from collapse. Recognizing weakness is key to nurturing strength.
My American-ness is also constantly challenged merely because of how I look and sound. My brown skin prompts many to conclude I’m not “really” American. My accent clearly indicates that I grew up outside the United States, which also results in exclusion, sometimes even by other Americans of color. Some of my most unexpected experiences of exclusion were when young people of color decided I was old and uncool, and either consciously or subconsciously showed how they felt or actually said so. As a person who immigrated on my own, I’m aware that I’ll never be completely embraced.
I’ve been yanked aside from a voting line and asked to prove my citizenship. Pulled over by a policeman in California because he suspected I was an illegal immigrant because of my brown skin. Informed I couldn’t rent a home because my people were dirty. Told my neighbors expected trouble when I moved into their neighborhood. Forced to watch my daughter struggle after she was called stupid and ugly because of her skin. Seen her sweet face fall when a passerby yelled “Take the Virus Home.” Speaking openly about these issues isn’t un-American, it’s painful and hard.
My American-ness spurs me to educate others that while I’ve encountered my fair share of hatred, my Black family and friends experience far worse. I saw a policeman put his hand on his gun, but I live to tell the tale because of my brown privilege. And although I certainly have been in circumstances where I was the only female in a male dominated field, I’m well aware that I also have straight privilege because not LGBTQ2. Admitting my privileges allows me to grow.
Refusal to acknowledge privilege stymies the development of emotional intelligence. Understanding that Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities suffer antagonism and cruelty orders of magnitude above anything South Asian Americans like me undergo makes me more compassionate. Surely, compassion should be upheld as an American virtue?
I’m a proud American, not because I reject my heritage or disregard the disrespect I’ve endured, but because I offer it, with all that I am, to our country. For too long, we’ve used the metaphor of a melting pot to describe our society, when, instead, a moving mosaic (in which each piece retains its individuality and mobility, while contributing to a harmonious whole) might work better. Or, perhaps a less clunky metaphor would be a constellation of stars – after all, stars aren’t fixed in one place in the heavens and they certainly come in many forms, shapes, ages, sizes and colors: blue, white, yellow, orange and red; hot and bright, cool and dim; young and old; red giants, double stars.
If we start to see America as a constellation of stars, how can we study one and neglect all the others? Because the beauty of a constellation is that it shines most brightly when viewed together. Every star in a constellation matters. If we change how we feel about our nation, it’s easy to understand that it is unfair and hateful and cruel to all students if we focus on the Founding Fathers of European heritage, who enslaved people, and neglect to revere the forefathers of BIPOC students, some of whom were enslaved. Our modern nation encompasses indigenous people, whose land was brutally and unfairly stolen from them, descendants of people who were enslaved and violently forced to come here against their will, and immigrants of all colors. If we want to create a land in which every child has equal opportunity, we must begin by admitting that they don’t have it right now. Continuing to ignore teaching the truth of our history and the negatives in our current society is an injustice and does a disservice to the young people of today who will become the future leaders of tomorrow’s America.
Students of all genders and races and ethnicities need to feel more than just heard, they should feel embraced and nurtured. They won’t, unless diverse books become the norm and diversity is part of every subject they study and integrated into extra-curricular activities and the approach to education as a whole. Diversity is a fundamental shift in our way of thinking that we need to strive for and incorporate in every way we can, whether we’re writing for or teaching young people, if we want the best for them. It means helping people understand America isn’t a land of immigrants, it’s the land of the indigenous people of the first nations, from whom it was violently and unfairly stolen. It’s also the land of those descended from people who were enslaved and brutally forcible brought here. And it’s the land of modern immigrants, as well. We need to honor and accept the uniqueness of the multicolored fabric of our modern American society.
We also need to examine fully and deeply what patriotism means to us. We’ll all arrive at different answers, for sure, and sometimes there’s no one way and no correct answer – but that introspection and inclusion of others’ definitions of patriotism will be significant. For sure a fireman or soldier prepared unquestioningly to make the ultimate sacrifice for our society is absolutely patriotic. But a scientist who has the strength to speak up about how climate change is impacting us all, especially BIPOC communities, is also being patriotic. A teacher or parent brave and open-minded enough to make an effort to expose every child to diverse books by diverse authors is helping that child realize and understand that their nation should celebrate every citizen’s heritage – and that isn’t being unpatriotic.
And after all that the Black community has been forced to suffer for centuries, I also consider it incredibly patriotic that the Black community demands merely equality, merely by marching. Because by doing so, they are expressing abiding faith and hope in the dream and promise of an equal America, though this promise has continually eluded them. When members of historically oppressed groups exercise their right to freedom of speech by expressing themselves peacefully, we should applaud them for acting a manner that is a wonderful example of American behavior. And we need to be open with young people about what has evoked their sorrow and anger and do our best to ensure that when they grow up they’ll build a stronger, more united nation. It’s our duty to warn them about the mistakes we made and continue to make, as much as it is our duty to teach them about our highest American achievements and glorious human ideals.
In my mother tongue, Tamil, there’s a proverb that says a frog in a well is doomed, no matter how wonderful that well might be, if the frog never ventures beyond the well’s walls. Diverse books and diverse curricula break walls and as I have said before, breaking walls is infinitely more powerful than building them.
Increasing our sensitivity and empathy by incorporating diversity into education and reform every aspect of our educational system to reflect our diversity is neither divisive nor un-American. Issuing a gag order to prevent diversity training and restrict discussion is both.
Dr. Padma Venkatraman is the author of The Bridge Home, A Time to Dance, Island’s End and Climbing The Stairs, published by Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House. Her next novel, Born Behind Bars, is scheduled for October 2021 release. The Bridge Home is the winner of a Nerdy Book Award, Walter Dean Myers Award, South Asia Book Award, Golden Kite Award, Crystal Kite Award, and secured 8 starred reviews. Her previous novels were also released to multiple starred reviews and have won numerous honors and awards. Before becoming a full-time author, Padma Venkatraman obtained a doctorate in oceanography from the College of William and Mary, conducted research at Johns Hopkins University, and directed diversity efforts at the University of Rhode Island’s graduate school. Visit her on twitter @padmatv; on ig @venkatraman.padma; or via her website: www.padmavenkatraman.com.