Who is American?

At a dinner party with old friends recently, we were speculating about the influence of racism on the election outcome. One of the group, a light skinned naturalized citizen of Indian descent, was asked if he identified as white.

I’ve known this man, a scientist and father of two accomplished sons, for at least 20 years. I’ve vacationed with him, stayed with his kids for weeks at a time when he traveled, and for years joined him and his children for weekly dinners at his home. Let’s call him Harry.

Harry is one of two people I’ve known who I considered Renaissance men. He is one of those people who knows more about everything than anyone else you know. He’s humble, generous, widely read, well versed in literature and poetry, and deeply thoughtful. And, he knows more Americana than I, which is often embarrassing since I’ve lived in this country all my life and he hasn’t.

Harry’s answer to the question shocked me. Not only does he not identify as white, he revealed he has always felt white Americans looked at and thought of him as the “hired help,” and believes the same is true for most Indians he knows here. As if uncorked he went on. He doubted whether anyone who had not left their country of origin would understand what that takes, what has to be left behind. He said he came here giving his whole heart to America, making himself fully American in every way, and raising his children to do the same.

The man who asked him the question had been asking us all, pushing us I’d have to say, since we were a party of men, to say how we “felt” and not just what we thought about the election. Harry shocked us all by saying he feels he isn’t wanted here. This broke my heart. I weep, literally…for him and for all the people of color and foreign birth, adults and children, who feel not just rejected by Donald Trump’s election but threatened by the tidal wave of prejudice his election represents.

Harry, who would never join in my ranging critiques of the excesses of U.S. capitalism and misguided foreign policies, who honored my family as he did his own, who devoted his talents to building quality into a U.S. educational institution, even designing a path for curious but non-affluent high school students to study science and enter medical school…this very same man heard from the country he has adopted and served with his whole heart that he is not wanted, that he doesn’t belong here.

Now that we see it so clearly, how will such cruelty be incorporated into our national identity? How does a nation founded and constantly reinvigorated by immigrants survive the blanket rejection of so many of its citizens and so much of its talent? How will we ameliorate the psychic pain so many around us are experiencing?

Yes, I am taking this personally! I think we all should.

The question isn’t just who is American, it’s also who gets to say who is American? How many endorsers of the virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric actually know personally a Muslim, or Hispanic, or a person of color? If, as I suspect, the answer is very few, then query how much credibility do those opinions deserve in our ongoing discussions about immigration policy?

It would help, I think, if those who wish to vote or opine loudly on immigration policy would first get to know well one family whose race, religion, or national origin will be affected. Harsh words and actions are profoundly personal to them, we should at least have the courage to make it personal for us, too.

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