I spent Inauguration Day surrounded by a sea of bright red “Make America Great Again” hats.
I stood between police and protesters at one of the entrances to the inauguration site, armed only with my recorder. As I went deeper into the small crowd attempting to gain entrance to the grounds, I also went deeper into the conversations with people around me. Why were they there?
“I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, straight from middle America, and I never thought I would want to be here,” said one excited woman.
“I wasn’t as excited at first, but after being here and listening to more of what he said, I feel like I can stand with him,” said another woman in the crowd.
We've heard plenty sentiments like this from Trump supporters in the last year. But the responses that most provoked my confusion came from people of color — specifically immigrants — who were proud of their new president.
I heard, “We don’t like immigrants who come here illegally, because we did it the right way” — a frequent form of rhetoric that casually ignores the privilege of some immigrants who have IT contracts and full scholarships to study in the U.S.
But overwhelmingly, what I heard was that as immigrants, we should understand how privileged we are to live in America — and from that, how it’s our patriotic duty as Americans to support our president without question. And then, how protesters should stay silent because it’s not right to cause this kind of ruckus.
But America is beautiful for a multitude of reasons, one of the most formidable of which is that it is wholly American to protest. This country was founded upon dissent, and we have freedom of speech to fight back and keep our leaders accountable. America is beautiful because we have the power to define what it means to be American.
Too often, we immigrants define what is "American" by what white culture tells us it should be. We internalize colonialism and let it run thickly in our veins: We give our offspring English names because we’re embarrassed of our language, or afraid that our children won’t be accepted with anything too “exotic.” We eagerly give up a culture that so proudly raised us. I’ve watched as we villainize black people and turn our backs on undocumented immigrants.
Some of this is done in fear and shame. Not all of us have the privilege to feel safe in our identities in the physical or emotional places that we might be in.
Yet there’s a clear line between adaptation and total assimilation. It is normal to adapt, or "acculturate," as anthropologists call it. Accepting some of the customs of a new land is natural. But total assimilation gives value only to the majority culture. In the process, it also means forgetting, delibrately ignoring, or shaming the cultures we were born into.
Assimilation is not a badge of honor that somehow makes you more American. In it, we trade too much of ourselves in the name of acceptance.
I went to the inauguration hoping to understand the people who love and support our new commander-in-chief — especially those people who might face threats under his administration yet support him anyway. While I was talking with people, I began to more fully realize the complexities and contradictions of human beings, living in a gray world that tries hard to be black and white. I saw how understanding will never come from three-minute conversations with people at rallies, or from intellectual discourse with people who look exactly like you while forgetting that the you’re talking about lives, not issues.
Real understanding comes from relationship with real people. It happens when we do not shy away from tough conversations about identity, privilege, politics, and fear.
Real understanding can happen in coffeehouses, and at dinner tables, and sometimes, with effort, in churches.
The pressure to assimilate into American culture is daunting. If we don't, this culture can seem as if it's waiting to call out our foreigness, to shame us for the food we eat and the way our lips hold the English language. But this culture shaming, no matter how challenging, should not turn immigrants and children of immigrants into docile citizens who do not speak up for fear of conflict.
We are no longer guests in this country, who must stay silent when issues arise. We have the right to take a stand for ourselves and others who face discrimination — especially if one person leading such discrimination is now our president.