Culture & Race, Social & Political Issues

Dear ‘Merica: a Lament

When the Coke commercial began to play on Sunday, our Superbowl party of chatty adults and raucous children instinctively grew quiet.  We watched the striking depiction of America the Beautiful unfold with tears in our eyes, mesmerized.

After halftime, I checked in on Twitter, and learned that not everyone in the country shared our sentiments.  I sighed at comments like “We speak English here” and “Nice to see that coke likes to sing an AMERICAN song in the terrorist’s language” and cringed at hashtags like #wespeakamerican and #boycottcoke.

Inside, I ached on so many levels.  (That seems to be happening a lot lately.)

I ached first because I spend my days teaching English to the very immigrants you suggest don’t belong in the country. They are among the hardest working, most generous and kindest people I have ever met.  Contrary to your belief, they desperately want to learn English.  However, this isn’t always as simple as it may appear.

If English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are offered in an area, there are often long waiting lists, the class times conflict with work schedules, parents don’t have child care, or work 3 jobs to make ends meet and simply don’t have time.  Some, like many of you, have never had access to education and find learning a new language just as challenging as you would.  Many didn’t have the opportunity to learn English before they arrived in the US because they fled their countries with only the clothes on their backs.

All my students speak English to some degree, but it’s also no secret that English is quite a challenging language to learn, and everyone (including yourselves, I might add) falls somewhere on a spectrum regarding a complete and accurate knowledge of the language itself.  The issue is far more complex than a simple command to “Learn English”.

The other elephant-issue in the room is that even if immigrants learn English, they still speak their native language.  Just because they speak English doesn’t mean they don’t still use their own language.  It’s as much a part of who they are as being American.  Multilingualism plays a significant role in our national history.  Spanish predates English in the US, and there were debates in our early years if English or German would be the language of the government.  Pretending that English is the only language spoken is inaccurate at best and dehumanizing at worst.

My students love America.  They love its diversity and opportunity and potential.  Read it in their own words:

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From their optimism, you’d have no idea how much they sacrifice because they believe in and love this country.  Their children don’t know their grandparents or aunties or uncles or cousins or beloved friends. Professionals with advanced degrees and impressive work histories accept menial jobs simply for the privilege of living here.  They work long hours to provide, and then share what they have with a generosity that puts most native-born Americans to shame.

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The ache also struck another, more personal chord because both growing up and living as an adult in the rural Middle, I frequently encountered these types of perspectives. They didn’t come from everyone, mind you, and gratefully not from my own family, but they are certainly a familiar part of my background.

Part of my family had roots in Appalachia that transplanted themselves to the hills of Southern Indiana and the other part were Swedish immigrant famers.  We all grew into ‘good ole simple Midwesterners’. While I am not exactly one of those ‘liberal-coasters’ you like to rant about, I am a rural Indiana girl who frequently rubbed shoulders with you throughout a childhood that includes sweet memories of listening to country music in pickup trucks, riding in a tractor with my grandpa, devouring my grandma’s sweet rolls, rolling down hills, adventuring in cow-pastures and wading in creeks with my cousins. When I left home, I discovered a great big world that reflected so much of the goodness I had seen in my own little square of it; but it wasn’t scary like the tales I had so often heard – it was astoundingly beautiful.

So while I disagree wholeheartedly with your perspective that diversity in our country is not beautiful, I also know you.  I know your names and your faces and your homes.  I have played tag with you at recess and cheered with you at football games.  I have been your neighbor, your customer, your colleague, your student, your teacher.  For so many of these reasons, I know that these tweets don’t exactly give the rest of the country a complete picture of all that you are.

I know that you have families you love.  Like tight-knit immigrant communities, you care for each other, bringing casseroles for new babies and plowing driveways in snowstorms without being asked.  You visit hospitals and sit on porches and wave at neighbors and help out friends in need, even if you don’t really have enough for yourselves. Yes, there are ugly-racists among you, people who hate and spew all sorts of ignorance, but they do not tell your whole story for many of you disagree silently, but restrain from speaking for fear of rocking-the-boat, not knowing what to say or being told to ‘just take a joke’.  Some of you may speak like this because it’s how you were spoken to or because you’ve never known anything different or because you don’t know or love anyone who is different from you.  I know there are reasons for your words that go far deeper than the 140 characters you express them in.

But your words hurt.  They scar and they maim.  I know this, too.

I know firsthand that you don’t easily know what to do with people who are not like you. Our biracial and bicultural and multilingual-but-English-speaking family lived among you in a tiny little cornfield town for 8 long and painful years, enduring glares and scowls, holding hearts and sighing wearily with the very-few-others-like-us.  You love yourselves well, but you did not love us at all. You ignored us in restaurants, ran us off roads, made threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. You kept to yourselves when we reached out. You shrunk back in silence when the ugly-racists raised their loud voice.

There were some among you, however, who countered your iciness. They brought us casseroles, visited us when our young child was in the hospital, helped us build swingsets in our back yard, chatted with us in the schoolyard and invited us to their homes for dinner. Even if they didn’t always understand us, they offered their hands in friendship, listened and loved well.  I will forever cherish their efforts to welcome us ‘strangers’ into their world.

Looking back, however, I so wish it all could have been different, that everyone in the land that gave me such a warm and rich and connected childhood knew how to welcome outsiders like they welcome insiders, that they applied the same fierceness of love they show their families to the newcomers among them.

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These days, I lament how frequently I hear this story of us vs. them – a story that says everyone needs to be just-like-us-or-get-the-hell-out; a story that forgets that most of us were immigrants-learning-English ourselves not too long ago; a story that demonizes the other side without ever actually getting to know them.  While it is not a new story, it is a broken strain of what has torn our country apart, not one that has united it.

This insularity and close-mindedness some of you wear like a badge really looks like an ugly-monster-mask to the rest of us.  It hides your true self, covering up the goodness and beauty that is in you, too.  By standing against the diversity represented in the #americaisbeautiful commercial, you are protesting some of the very ideals of family and virtue and community you value so deeply yourself (unless, of course, you side with the KKK. In that case, we have other issues to discuss.)

It reminds me of this peculiar name our forefathers gave us: the United States of America.  Just as our families hold individuals of every ilk, what makes our nation most beautiful is the diversity within.  Together, we’re attempting to tell a collective story to the world that echoes, ‘We’re better together.’  

The big cities and the tiny towns.
The crazy liberals and the staunch conservatives.
The blacks and the whites and the in-betweens.
The mono-linguals and the multi-linguals.
The fifth-generation descendants and the fresh-off-the-boats.
The cornfields and the coasts.
 

This is why it was so beautiful to hear America the Beautiful sung in so many languages, and why I long so fervently to see the love I first learned in ‘Merica open its arms and embrace everyone in their midst instead of just themselves.  

You are better than this, ‘Merica.

Embracing is something you do way better than the city-folk who won’t even look at each other on the street. The country has much to learn from you if you’d just drop your masks and share the beautiful parts of your lives instead of these ugly ones for you, too, are part of the America-that-is-beautiful. Please, help us keep it that way.

With love and hope for a new tomorrow,

Jody

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14 thoughts on “Dear ‘Merica: a Lament”

  1. i don’t own a tv, and i worked the night of the superbowl, so i had no exposure to its commercials. thanks for sharing this one, and also highlighting the plight of immigrants in this country. although i am very familiar with it from my own experience (coming from an immigrant family, and working predominately with immigrant families) it’s always enlightening to hear another perspective.. especially from someone who is american and can empathize with the struggles.

    thanks for this post.

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  2. Thanks for this sensitive response to the heart-brokenness that many of us feel, I want to remind folks that resistance to multiculturalism is not just found in the Midwest, it is found on the coasts as well. I am generations old Midwesterner (MO-IL-KS) though I presently live on one of the coasts. It breaks my heart to hear what some of my nieces and nephews and their children post… I no longer believe I can change them, but I can continue to speak up and witness to another way of being American, a way that is not frightened or disturbed by people who aren’t like me. Though I suppose I ought to qualify that by saying I am disturbed by angry and violent people, whatever language they speak or whatever color their skin is. In anycase, unlearning racism. letting go of white privilege to share opportunity, learning to be at home among people who are not like me/us, takes a long time, even when we know what the right thing is… blessings!

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    1. This is a great point, one that I wanted to include, but didn’t since the post was already so long. Thanks for brining it up! Sadly, like you point out, these types of attitudes aren’t limited by region, economics or race even though they are more prominent in homogenous rural areas.

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  3. Thankyou Jody-you always express things so well. My family loved that commercial-and decided it was our favorite. We had a discussion about it the next day and talked about all the people who didn’t like it, and my daughter tearfully said “I don’t really like Americans.” One of the things I told her, and I am choosing to believe, is that the ones who talk loudest are not the only ones out there, that the ones who believe differently and who are acting out love everyday are not spending their time complaining on twitter, because they are busy doing good. I really hope that is the case, that we hear the hate because they yell the loudest, but that the love is there quietly moving in the world. Maybe I am too “pie in the sky” because we haven’t seen hardship or pain personally, but my heart hurts knowing that you, my friend, have been hurt, and to see people put down others who look different but who are really just like us….I just want to shake sense into people. So I am choosing love-and trying to teach it to our white midwestern kids, and trying to live it as best as we know how, and trying to believe that there is more good than dark. Thankyou for sharing what you share!!

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    1. Sounds like a great conversation, and as usual, I like your daughter 🙂 I think it’s really important that people actively and intentionally teach their kids these things you’re teaching your kids. This is part of the reason I wrote this because I know how many good people out there. The more everyone joins to speak against such things, the less frequent they will become. I’m actually encouraged by all the backlash against the backlash. It’s nice to know that the negative response upset so many people.

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  4. I so appreciate your call for people to welcome those outside like they do the insiders of their lives, Jody. I see outsiders everyday in my courtroom and they long for a kind word, an invitation to join in. I try to give it to them, because being excluded from the very basic workings of our civil society – the right to be treated fairly and with dignity in a court of law – should not be denied to anyone, no matter how far outside the person may appear.

    Your reference to the fact that we are a “United” set of states reminds me too of our nation’s motto: E Pluribus Unum. The assertion that “From Many, One” is more than a nod to the separate sovereign nature of each original colony that formed this union. It recognizes that in those colonies there already existed a diverse population that had learned to come together. My own ancestors are an example of that, Huguenots who fled France to live in England briefly and then landed on America’s shores in 1680, these French speakers helped populate what would become a new country a century later, a nation of immigrants.

    Those people in the Coca-Cola commercial were singing for me.

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  5. Oh, Jody — I just recently “found” you in the internet world and am so relieved. Your life is like a mirror image of mine though I grew up in rural MO, married a S. American and then tried to “come home”. We have two now teen-aged daughters, one of whom has suffered mightly as she struggled with being “mixed” along with some serious childhood trauma. Despite having lived in several different countries and the Deep South, I was woefully underprepared for what she would go through.

    Your response is beautiful and exactly my lament as I, like you, know “my people” and know that there is so much goodness and loveliness that they could share with the “strangers” in our midst. And of course, like you, I also know just how blessed their own lives would be once they did so. Ironically, I have a flexible job these days and had decided to venture into the blogging world to try to help folks here to get beyond the scarily deep divides that still exist and seem to be growing. However, you are doing a much better job than I could in your eloquence and articulation of the issues and challenges. So for now I’ll just sit back and soak up the goodnes! Mil gracias — Grace Whitlock Vega

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Grace. Sometimes, all we need is to know we’re not alone. This path can feel so incredibly isolating for people in rural areas, and it can be even harder for our children. I had a friend who used to say, “I can be Martin Luther King, but I’m not making my children do it.” It’s a painful reminder of how far we still have to go. I pray that your daughter’s brokenness will turn into strength as she walks through her painful realities. I’d love to read more of your thoughts – what’s your blog address?

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