The evening of Mar. 21, 2010, when President Barack Obama’s watershed health care bill passed, might mark the beginning of a time when I no longer feel ashamed to say that I am American. I may now begin to embrace my citizenship. This in some ways parallels a remark made by Michelle Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign: “For the first time… I am proud to be an American.”
Up until now, what I thought it meant to be an American was not encouraging to who I am or where I come from. For me, to be American is to be oppressive to other “Third World Nations” for the sake of spreading nationalism and combating terrorism. The United States historically hasn’t acknowledged how this country uses its willpower and massive weapons of destruction to agitate less resourceful nations. To me, for so long, to be American has meant spreading values like liberty and justice in undemocratic nations while failing to extend the same values at home. More often than not, to have status as a U.S. citizen has been associated with demanding apologies from other nations and for their savage disciplinarian tactics while dismissing our own government’s acts that have terrorized human beings — for instance, those that took place at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
Many times, I have felt embarrassed by fellow Americans’ patriotism. For me, seeing someone wave the American flag proudly was too bold a symbol of pride. It was a statement of arrogance that assumed that every wave of the flag signified this country’s superiority over the world.
I once heard someone say that there are two types of people: Those who stand with other people and those who stand on top of other people. While I think the United States is often like the person that stands on the heads of other people by asserting its power over the weak — encouraging immigrants to replace their culture with the “American” culture and using power to forcibly assert nationalism in countries where it is not wanted — all of these defects of the institutions and socialization processes in place in the United States don’t take away from the fact that Obama is using his presidential power to reorient the “American” label.
For me, there always stood a blatant paradox about what it meant to be “American.” The whole idea of making it if you try, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, of making a space for oneself in the green pastures under the red, white and blue was confusing when I knew that this image wasn’t one that mirrored the lives of all people in this country. What about my grandmother, who in her prime worked and provided for her family, but whose health insurance isn’t as comprehensive as it needs to be? Or, what about the single parent who must make comprising sacrifices to see that her child who has asthma is able to see a physician, given that she doesn’t health coverage? I once speculated that people of these circumstances must not be “American.”
If what it means to be “American” is defined within these limited parameters, to be American must mean that people who experience inequalities must be unequal to what is defined as the American standard, in which everyone is thought to be equal. This could not be truer than when the media claimed that the victims of Hurricane Katrina were “refugees,” as if they were sub-par to the American status and were undeserving to be labeled as such. How can a country like ours be a melting pot when it penalizes people for having come from differing circumstances? I’m not sure what title of citizenship people of such challenges would fall under — perhaps “disowned.” But it certainly wouldn’t be “American.”
For so long, to be “American” was a label that for some, including myself, disassociated itself from identities that did not fit the often monolithic standard of what is considered “American.” However, with the landmark health care bill that insures 32 million of the uninsured, I have more hope than I did yesterday that perhaps, I too will one day feel a sense of equality — when to be American entails inclusion of the “other.” A more inclusive health care system is an important step toward creating a baseline level of equality for everyone. Hopefully, this landmark health care bill will be considered a patriotic act, and Americans will acknowledge that division is a reality in this country.
Brittany Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.