The United States of America’s pledge of allegiance states liberty and justice for all which have become powerful words in our society. How far, and to who exactly, do those words extend to? These words have become a much-contested issue in our country for many, many years. From Mexican Americans to African Americans to Arab Americans to Chinese Americans to Indian Americans, it is no surprise that minorities in America are becoming the new majority, yet we are continuing to buy into a system that is working against their given liberties. As our minority population increases in America, our attempts to exclude and keep these people out of our society have also increased.
A historical system built on socially constructed ideas of identity and race has been perpetuated for so long which has led the American country to shame. With a deeply rooted whiteness positionality that has allowed discrimination and dehumanization to occur at extreme levels, the United States has become regressive. A critical conversation about America cannot happen without race being at the center of it. Social activist, Grace Lee Boggs, mentioned during her time that people of color are becoming the American majority now, thus as a society, it is time to create a “new vision” of a “new kind of human being” (Graham Lecture video, October 18, 2018). It is time for a system to be put in place that is representative of the “new majority” to be able to truly understand them for who they are.
A foundational theme to the terror that minorities face in America is this theme of whiteness. Scholar, Michael Eric Dyson, in his powerful piece, Tears We Cannot Stop (2017), explains this false concept of whiteness. Dyson identified whiteness as a cultural myth that prided itself on white superiority and white purity. This exaggeration of the white race became known as the “white privilege” which in itself is a manifestation of breaking down ethnic groups of people and converting bits and pieces of that culture into a more American identity (Dyson, 2017, pp. 45). James Baldwin’s argument supported Dyson’s idea of this fantasized “whiteness” community by displaying how European immigrants who first colonized America exaggerated this concept (Sanneh, 2010). Dyson makes the claim that there is no group of white people, let alone a white culture, rather, whiteness is a “forged togetherness among groups in reverse, breaking down or, at least to a degree, breaking up ethnicity, and then building up an identity that was cut off from the old tongue and connected to the new land” (Dyson, 2017, pp. 45).
This just goes to show that whiteness became the justification that White Americans carrying out acts of terror on other races was justifiable because they had the privilege to. This act of terror included stripping the European identity including their languages, histories, and traditions and building an identity and social hierarchy based on European immigrants (Sanneh, 2010). In agreeing to these terms, European immigrants traded their identity and joined the “synthetic racial elite” (Sanneh, 2010). By transforming their cultures into a more American one, it may have given Europeans the power to succeed in America (Dyson, 2017, pp. 45) however, this just goes to show how diverse peoples were never truly welcome for who they were in America. Instead, it helped create a fabricated powerful race who would serve as the dominant and superior population in American history who dealt the cards in granting liberties and not granting liberties to other diverse peoples who landed in America.
Inventing this superior white race allowed for white superiority to dictate the identities of other minority groups in America. As Beverly Daniel Tatum explains in her article “The Complexity of Identity: “Who Am I?”, “The dominant group holds the power and authority in society relative to the subordinates and determines how that power and authority may be acceptably used.” The second theme that stems from the dominance of the white race is identity. The identity of someone shapes who they are and their experiences and allows the world to use these characteristics to define who that individual is and how they are perceived (Tatum, B.D., 2000). These characteristics can be as simple as their name, gender, age, color of their skin, but as complex, as their culture, their history, and their beliefs. Adding on, identity can also be based on how another person perceives them in their mind based on socially constructed ideas which can lead to their acceptance or exclusion in the dominant group.
In a country as diverse as America, our country for many years has thrived on the fact that it is a nation of immigrants and have given many liberties to these diverse populations. In historical context, America was associated with the American Dream. People saw a window of opportunity in this country and wanted to be here. They wanted a better life for their children and families and foresaw economical and personal successes. However, when they arrived, these individuals were criticized because of their identities. Reflecting on today’s version of America, it seems that America never found a way to unite our nation and our differing identities, but instead found successful ways to separate them. America could only function by separating and categorizing people from each other which led to the society we have today.
Foreigners entering America brought different cultures and different backgrounds and America did not know how to react with the “other” population. America targeted their identities and their uniqueness and tore those qualities apart so that the White elite could keep their control over America. It was how America could stay white. Nothing challenged the white man’s power than a colored person, so white America’s defense mechanism was to displace the identities of these diverse peoples. America coined the terms “Hispanics” and “Native Americans” because it did not know what to call this group of people (Graham Lecture, 2018).
America knew these individuals were a threat to their powerful white superiority thus, categorizing them and making them inferior was how it could keep expanding the white race. Leaders tried to fit a whole group of people under one umbrella neglecting everything about who they are and the diversity they bring to America. By clustering groups of people, it allowed for labels and identities that were socially constructed to describe a whole group of people, rather than an individual. What America did not see is that every person is different and trying to fit them into this self-created category led to the discrimination of a whole group of people that we see today. As a result, this also led to internalized oppression of minorities who were not “American” which caused them to struggle to self-identify themselves (Graham Lecture, September 6, 2018). Examples of the effects of internalized oppression is when a Black individual uses a “white” voice to portray themselves as the desired dominant race (Graham Lecture, September 6, 2018).
As James Baldwin carefully explained in his letter to his nephew, My Dungeon Shook, “…the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” Examples of just how threatened white Americans were by foreign people included when Indigenous people were stripped of their identities and forced to assimilate to White American values if they wanted to have a chance to stay in America. Post Mexican-American war, the borders were reconstructed and changed the requirements of what it meant to be an American citizen. A new border was formed, and that new country demanded allegiance to the United States nation if one wanted to stay and have a chance for success (Graham Lecture, September 18, 2018). As a result of this, diverse people were never given the liberty to carry out their identity free of judgement and oppression in the United States because of a constant battle between sticking true to their roots and their culture or assimilating to the white American culture to reach a level of success.
When you start to associate a complex and diverse group of people with a single identity, you are setting up a system that is against them while minimizing their attributes. You base the liberties they receive because of that single identity. Thus, when identities clash, we tend to see bigger disadvantages especially if you are conflicting between two socially marginalized populations (Graham Lecture, September 13, 2018). Kimberly Crenshaw called this phenomenon, intersectionality (TED, 2016). In Crenshaw’s TED talk, she talked about the meaning of this word in our world. It refers to the social dynamics surrounding a person’s identity and how those influence their ability to move forward in America.
Crenshaw originally used this term to describe the discrimination against black women in America. In our society today, it is known that there are gender differences and an unequal distribution of power between the male and female gender. Females are considered inferior to males. However, that is just one identity of a black woman. We have to consider her other identity – being a black woman. Considering our historical context of how we dealt with the Black race in America which included slavery, civil rights movements, protests, black activists fighting for basic freedoms, it is no surprise that they were always the oppressed group in our country.
Therefore, a black woman will never be on the same level as her white superiors and will be disadvantaged when it comes to reaching her goals. This example revealed how a person’s identity is tied into their successes in America. This term now extends to other forms of identity such as gays, lesbians, transgender persons, disabled persons, the economically disadvantaged, and many more. However, what America needs to understand is that all of these identities are connected and that is what it fails to recognize. Crenshaw’s underlying meaning was that instead of looking at people’s identity based on a singular noun, we should look at them collectively to really examine and understand the disadvantages certain identities face to find a way to help support these marginalized groups.
Themes of whiteness, and failure to accurately define the identity of different ethnicities in the United States have all played a part in America’s biggest failure – the failure to understand the concept of race in America. How a child perceives race and identity is a social pattern based on the area they live in (The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, pp. 74). The concept of race in the United States has created a division between foreigners in America and has created a systemic hierarchy where White elites are superior, and the marginalized groups are inferior. Frederick Douglass in his speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth For the Negro” in 1852 said “For black men there is neither law nor justice, humanity nor religion”. This summed up the discriminations that African-Americans faced while being held as slaves against their own will. They were enslaved in a system that was rooted in white superiority and had a law enforcement system that continued to stand against them and dehumanize them as animals.