What does it mean to be an American? I suppose if you asked 100 people this question, you could likely receive 100 different answers. I hadn’t really thought about it much until the day after the 2008 election when I was watching The View. (Yes, I watch The View sometimes. Please don’t tell anyone.) But anyway, in a near-poetic moment of pride, Whoopi Goldberg shared a beautiful analogy to express that she felt a bit more… well… “American” that morning:
“The realization that hit me and really messed me up for a lot of the night was that [while] I had always thought of myself as an American with all of the promise that America holds… finally, I felt that I could put my suitcase down…” –Whoopi Goldberg on President Obama’s 2008 Win
I had never heard anyone use that analogy for being a minority in America before, but as a person living in three non-privileged categories (meaning: as person without racial, gender or economic privilege), it occurred to me that she was right about something. Profoundly right. The constant desire in this country among those of us who inhabit oppressed classes is to find a place to rest… A place to stop… A place to put down our suitcases and possibly even unpack our bags. America is a place where the wearied, “huddled” masses come to find refuge– and so, it is indeed a place made of people in search of a destination… a place overrun with people who desperately wish to put down their heavy suitcases.
After thinking about Whoopi’s comments (and those of her co-hosts) over the past few years, I’ve realized that she really did strike an important chord. She was drawing attention to the things we say in America, but struggle to actually mean. She was commenting on the wide chasm that exists between theoretical freedom and actualized freedom; between the language of equality and actualized equality; between lipservice about human dignity and actions that affirm human dignity.
In my lifetime, I have realized that Americans live in two paradigms– two radically different paradigms that many of us are afraid to discuss. In one realm, we claim to hold certain “truths to be self-evident”… and that those truths involve the “equality” of all humankind. In that realm, we seem to speak of freedom as if it were an actualized thing– a real thing that we are all experiencing.
Yet, in our other realm– our actualized (or real) realm– we realize that equality, and that each human being’s claim to dignity, and that the welcome mat which should ideally say “Come here and put down your suitcase” is not self-evident. In fact, for many of us, the welcome mat is often impossible to find.
As I stand back and observe the ongoing fight for marriage equality, and the ongoing demonization of Muslims in America, and the continued religious bias that so pervades our political system, I ask myself: “To what degree are we really a country where people can put down their suitcases? And what does it mean to unpack? Are un-privileged classes ever really at home in a place where inequality is a systemic problem?”
I think about the injustices that happen here and wonder if equality will ever become so pervasive in America that it is truly “self-evident”… I think about Trayvon Martin, and I cry for his family… and I long for the day when we don’t live in two paradigms. I long for a time when our actualized realm will match the beautiful story we tell about ourselves. I long for a time when I, like Whoopi, can put my suitcase down.