Being American

(And this is suddenly more appropriate than it was then!)

Jan. 20th, 2006

My dear friend bigbananaslug recently reprinted a portion of President Roosevelt’s speech on assimilation, in which he claims that a man (sic) who claims to be both an American and something else is not an American. I disagreed strenuously.

Kenji Yoshino, a professor at Yale Law School, has protested the concept both more strenuously and more effectively than myself. In his New York Times article The Pressure to Cover, he makes the following point:

The demand to cover is anything but trivial. It is the symbolic heartland of inequality – what reassures one group of its superiority to another. When dominant groups ask subordinated groups to cover, they are asking them to be small in the world, to forgo prerogatives that the dominant group has and therefore to forgo equality. If courts make critical goods like employment dependent on covering, they are legitimizing second-class citizenship for the subordinated group. In doing so, they are failing to vindicate the promise of civil rights.

So the covering demand presents a conundrum. The courts are right to be leery of intervening in too brusque a manner here, as they cannot risk playing favorites among groups. Yet they also cannot ignore the fact that the covering demand is where many forms of inequality continue to have life. We need a paradigm that gives both these concerns their due, adapting the aspirations of the civil rights movement to an increasingly pluralistic society.

The New Civil Rights

The new civil rights begins with the observation that everyone covers. When I lecture on covering, I often encounter what I think of as the “angry straight white man” reaction. A member of the audience, almost invariably a white man, almost invariably angry, denies that covering is a civil rights issue. Why shouldn’t racial minorities or women or gays have to cover? These groups should receive legal protection against discrimination for things they cannot help. But why should they receive protection for behaviors within their control – wearing cornrows, acting “feminine” or flaunting their sexuality? After all, the questioner says, I have to cover all the time. I have to mute my depression, or my obesity, or my alcoholism, or my shyness, or my working-class background or my nameless anomie. I, too, am one of the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation. Why should legally protected groups have a right to self-expression I do not? Why should my struggle for an authentic self matter less?

I surprise these individuals when I agree. Contemporary civil rights has erred in focusing solely on traditional civil rights groups – racial minorities, women, gays, religious minorities and people with disabilities. This assumes those in the so-called mainstream – those straight white men – do not also cover. They are understood only as obstacles, as people who prevent others from expressing themselves, rather than as individuals who are themselves struggling for self-definition. No wonder they often respond to civil rights advocates with hostility. They experience us as asking for an entitlement they themselves have been refused – an expression of their full humanity.

Civil rights must rise into a new, more inclusive register. That ascent makes use of the recognition that the mainstream is a myth. With respect to any particular identity, the word “mainstream” makes sense, as in the statement that straights are more mainstream than gays. Used generically, however, the word loses meaning. Because human beings hold many identities, the mainstream is a shifting coalition, and none of us are entirely within it. It is not normal to be completely normal.

One of the things I have always personally held to is that it is our very diversity – our differences from each other – that make us strong, that make us flexible. It is our national commitment to the rights of the individual to pursue happiness – to flourish each according to his or her own needs – that differentiates us from all other countries, hedonistic though some may be. We want to be one nation and to share one culture, but that needs to be done, if you will forgive my shifting the field abruptly to Unitarian Universalism, as the consequence of respecting the inherent dignity of each individual rather than by dictating the manner in which that dignity will be expressed.

As I tell my students from time to time: We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, who did not inhabit the world in which we live. They have raised us up into a new place, as we will raise up our children into a new place. My grandfather brought with him from Turkey a love for dolmathes, which my European-descended grandmother learned to cook to give to him, as she learned Greek to communicate, not with him, but with his family and friends back in Greece (to which they had fled following WWI – because the Turks wanted to share a single culture). I am cooking dolmathes with stuffings that range from Greek to Arab to, Hermes help me, Chinese-American fusion. (I blended Worcestershire sauce and Hoisin sauce – please don’t kill me!) and my children are eating them. (So long as I don’t accidentally burn them. Some things transcend culture.)

Let me rephrase that: My black, or African-American, adopted, inner-city children are grabbing the dolmathes and the spanikopita out of my hands and asking for thirds, and fighting over the sauce. If spanikopita didn’t take an hour and a half for me to make it, they would demand it every other night.

The best weavings vary color and texture, and the very prettiest cloth has distinguishable areas of color that create pattern. We do the best when we can distinguish a dolmathe from a Swedish Meatball, and can pile them up in neighboring bowls on the same table.

Aarrrgh. *glares around in a piratical fashion*

Tuppence in the change bowl.

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