Who is Seen as American

REBIRTH – Valarie Kaur, by Shepard Fairey. Art from Amplifier Art

I’ve been following the news stories about the Buffalo, NY shooting. It is beyond heartbreaking and wrong. This post isn’t about the shooting or an analysis of it; others much smarter than I have written about it. In listening to podcasts and reading the news about the motives behind the shooting, specifically the racist “replacement theory,” made me think about, who gets to be an American and who is seen as American. If you are outside of the US, replace American with your home country – Canada, Australia, China, Mexico, South Africa, etc.

“Coming to America”

Several years ago, I was invited to share my family’s migration story to the US at a fundraiser. It was a lighthearted event, as a board member for Neighborhood House. I was happy to share my story and why it connected to their services. My brother saw a picture of the event and quipped “Was that your ‘Coming to America’ presentation?”

The highlights of my migration story, aka Coming to America piece, are I’m third- or fourth-generation Japanese American depending on how you count. The exact details of some of my ancestor’s arrival in the US are lost or buried in archives. A reasonable assumption is it had to do with economics and probably pineapples or sugar cane crops – both were big industries in Hawaii.  

Being third or fourth generation means I am thoroughly American. I was born in the US, educated in US politics and history, my frames of references and thinking are engrained in Americanism. Yet I know depending on whom and where I am people do not automatically or see as American. They first see an Asian person and then judge how much belonging they are willing to afford me.

A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague. He shared his family immigrated to the US during WWII. They were fleeing Europe and persecution there. As he shared his story I had I flash of recognition that even though I am younger than him, generationally my family has been here longer. As an older white cis male, he is seen as more American and never/rarely questioned about his place here.

Who is Seen As American

The targeting of Black people in the Buffalo shooting, attacks on Asians, the fixation on immigration on the Mexico border, and other small daily acts of racism reinforce the notion of who is American. It is rarely white people who are questioned en masse about their place in the country. As an example, Ukrainian refugees are granted permission to enter the country because of the violence in Ukraine. Yet refugees from other countries, primarily Black and Brown people, are rarely afforded the same blanket permissions. Most recently we saw this in Afghanistan during the US withdrawal of forces and the chaos that ensued as people raced and begged to be evacuated. We need to see Black and Brown people as belonging to the fabric of America.

The American Dream

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said in a eulogy on the death of four Black children: “They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”

I want to believe the American dream belongs to all of us – Black, Indigenous, Brown people – included. In order for this to happen individuals must question the system, the ways of life, and philosophies that question who is American, who belongs, and rewrite those narratives. Americanism is not a static notion, it belongs to all of us and we can claim it and rewrite the defintion.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.