Monday, April 19, 2010

What do Real Americans Look Like?

I wrote last week about how the labels we attach to people change when we “switch chairs.” (See Who is a Terrorist? 4/13/10.) Yesterday I read a column by Roland Martin, a commentator for CNN, in which he drew parallels between the Confederate soldiers and Al Qaeda fighters. I am not going to address the merits of his comparison, but it got me thinking again about how hard it is sometimes to sit in another person’s chair.

My friend in L.A. who does stand up comedy (and who is Catholic) wonders about the ubiquitous presence of the crucifix. “Is this the first thing Jesus wants to see when He comes back? Is this a happy memory?” It’s all in the perspective.

Martin’s column was in response to the controversy around the Virginia governor’s designation of April as Confederate History Month. In his proclamation, the governor omitted any reference to slavery, which sparked debate about what Confederate history really means and whether it is something to be proud of or ashamed of.

As a child of the South, a white child, this is my history, too. I remember having a discussion with my nephew years ago when he was a young man attending college in Mississippi. He wanted to put a Confederate flag sticker on his car to show school spirit. He had no political intent at all and didn’t associate the symbol with its history. He did not appreciate how this symbol could offend people. Even when I explained what the symbol might represent to African-Americans, he thought I was making a big deal out of something that was, in his mind, innocent and fun.

Interestingly, I read another column by Roland Martin today defending Tea Party protests. In it, he separated the cherished right of people to protest government actions from the indefensible rhetoric voiced by some. Shouting racist slurs and death threats at members of Congress does nothing to foster vigorous and healthy political debate. Sadly, our political dialogue has begun to sound like flashbacks to earlier times during the Civil Rights Movement and perhaps even back to the Civil War, now coincidentally (or not) back in the news.

During the last presidential campaign, one candidate giving a speech referred to the crowd as “real Americans.” Who do you think was in the audience? More significantly, who wasn’t? What is your image of a real American?

My daughter, who grew up in China, sometimes uses the term American to mean white. When she does, I remind her that she is an American. She rolls her eyes and says, “You know what I mean.” And I reply, “Yes, and you know what I mean!” My children are all of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Some were born in the United States; others weren’t. Their cultures of origin are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim. They are all United States citizens. They are real Americans.

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